Soundtracks of Imperial Power in Europe and Africa

Sounding History

Dec 1 2021 • 39 mins

Comparing cultural expressions is a risky enterprise:  especially, in our case, because too many  still perceive Western “classical” art music to be somehow superior to other  musics because of its alleged and “universal” values. But we think the challenge can be worthwhile, especially at a deeper level, because it can help us  tease out complementary ways rulers use sound to literally underscore their political power. In today’s episode we investigate music and power in the Black Atlantic, where European and African musics collided in history.

Our first example is that of the Italo-French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), who often features as the father of French opera. We focus on his role as composer of lavish multimedia productions known more formally as tragédies en musique, tragedies set to music and celebrating his patron Louis XIV. These fusions of music, drama, and dance were pure political spectacle, and in Louis’s younger years even involved the king himself as a dancer.

The king was dancing because the purpose of a tragédie en musique was to place the king’s body (which itself represented France, to contemporary ways of thinking) at the center of a complex piece of theatre. The point was not so much to entertain the audience, which often consisted of France’s political elite, but to remind them of the king’s absolute power.

Lully made a career of creating works like these. Tom unpacks Lully’s work, his dismissal by Louis after a sexual scandal (with a digression to the composer’s subsequent death of gangrene as the result of a self-inflicted wound sustained while directing music) and turns, finally, to Louis’s global political ambitions. Had those ambitions  been fully realized, the cultural world of the Black Atlantic (and thus our music history) would have been much more French.

Chris’s postcard takes us to the soundworlds of the great empires of sub-Saharan West Africa in the pre-colonial era. He starts with the Empire of Mali, whose first emperor, Sundiata Keita (ruling  in the thirteenth century CE) is memorialized in magnificent musical-epic poetry that has been passed down by oral and aural tradition. The bearers of this memory are called jeliat in the languages of West Africa (in French: griot). Chris explains how rulers of empires such as Mali depended on the jeliat, whose memorized epics were key sources of historical, genealogical, and legal knowledge,to tell their stories and legitimize their power.

We then attempt one of those challenging cross-cultural comparisons. Did Lully serve as a kind of praise-singerto Louis XIV? On the face of it certainly.

Yet  historical comparisons are never simple or neutral. Just look at where we would be likely to encounter Lully’s music today: in “classical” opera houses or in other formats popular with elites in the “global north,” who are often culturally conditioned to value “timeless classics,” not political messages. In contrast the musical aesthetics and outputs  of the oral-aural epics of West Africa, which are still performed by musicians who claim direct lineage to their predecessors at the court of Sundiata, are more likely to pop up on playlists of “traditional” or “world” music. Both are “old” music, so why is one “classical” and the other “traditional”?

The answer is the Western colonization of Africa, the flows of labor, energy, and data that made it possible, and--in turn--the influence of the jelat tradition on the vernacular musics of the Black Atlantic, which underpin nearly so many pop music genres today, from the Delta Blues to hip-hop. Music, it seems to us, is never unmoored from political and economic realities.

Key Points

  • In different ways around the world, political power and music mix.
  • The prestigious genre of French “tragedy in music” formed in the late seventeenth century in lavish spectacles that told stories about the political power of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”
  • The great poetic epics of the West African Empires, such as the Sundiata Epic from the court of the Empire of Mali, functioned similarly.
  • Lully’s operas live on, often stripped of their political meaning, in Western “classical” music. The West African epics live on too, as African “traditional music.” Some of their ethos informs the popular genres today that stem from the collision of European and African cultures in the era of the Black Atlantic, with its trade in goods and enslaved people.


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