Review of Music, Health, and Power: Singing the Unsayable in the Gambia. Bonnie B. McConnell, New York: Routledge, 2020, 176 pp.

Reviewed Book

Music, Health, and Power: Singing the Unsayable in the Gambia. Bonnie B. McConnell, New York: Routledge, 2020, 176 pp.

Women in The Gambia use music to redefine their social power, create networks of care, disseminate information, and promote health initiatives. In Music, Health, and Power: Singing the Unsayable in The Gambia, Bonnie B. McConnellexamines how, through song and performance, Gambian women perform their understandings of health as they negotiate, challenge, and adhere to global public health projects. McConnell enters this intersection of music and public health through multiple musical genres, focusing on the popular songs of Fatou and the Allatentu Support Band (whose repertoire draws on the Senegambian dance styles of mbalax, Afro-Manding, and reggae) and kanyeleng women singing groups. These performers address a range of health issues, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, malaria, fertility, breastfeeding, and open defecation and handwashing.

Music, Health, and Power is based on 13 years of McConnell’s engagement in musical performance, public health work, and ethnographic research conducted in The Gambia. In addition to learning local instruments, performing with kanyelenggroups, and collaborating with the Allatentu Support Band, McConnell also participated in activities with Gambian governmental public health departments. McConnell analyzes Mandinka concepts and songs to interrogate local understandings of health, social networks, matrilineal relatedness, gendered performances, and Islamic discourse of Muslim womanhood. McConnell’s strengths-based approach is a useful mode of analysis, which counters deficit narratives of Africa and Africans by providing a “close examination of musical performance together with analysis of the political economy of global health in order to illuminate both the strength and creativity of Gambian musicians, as well as the broader global contexts that enable and constrain their work” (p. 4). As this ethnography is grounded in women’s capabilities and resourcefulness, demonstrated through women’s performances, it is a valuable resource for scholars as well as for those working in the global public health or development sectors. This monograph makes a significant contribution to ethnomusicological scholarship on medical ethnomusicology, the music of West Africa, and women’s performance, as well as to the substantial body of emerging literature on musical aid and humanitarianism. McConnell’s interdisciplinary framework underpins this valuable contribution, which will be of interest to scholars of medical anthropology and African studies.

In the 1990s, Gambian government departments and NGOs implemented various development initiatives funded by international institutions such as the World Bank, The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the African Development Bank. These initiatives moved toward methods of “traditional communication” to effectively carry out their charges, and women musicians in particular have since been recruited to sing about topics that health workers cannot talk about without risk. As McConnell effectively illustrates, these musicians challenge the notion that tradition is unchanging, harmful, or regressive; rather, adaptability as a cornerstone of local performance practices allows for translations of biomedical information to be integrated and made accessible to the public. Kanyelengwomen singing groups confront social stigma surrounding infertility and HIV/AIDS by drawing on their sociocultural roles as entertainers, ritual performers of prayer who outwit evil spirits, “joking cousins,” and critics of those in power. In doing so, singers disseminate information and promote open dialogue, which McConnell argues is most effective when participatory norms are in place to facilitate community engagement and social mobilization. McConnell carefully translates and analyzes kanyelengsong lyrics and performances while also providing thorough background and histories of these health issues in The Gambia.

Throughout the monograph, McConnell reminds the reader of her strengths-based approach to show that Gambian communities are not passive recipients of top-down public health knowledge, and how they integrate health knowledge within existing world views. In Chapter 5, McConnell analyzes musical performance and participation in terms of Mandinka conceptions of baadinyaa (matrilineal relatedness), moral economies, and capitalist commodity exchange versus reciprocity. In one song, a Mandinka proverb (“if a person surpasses you in people, you are not equal”) promotes an underlying message, that an “individual with a strong social network is better able to access the resources and information necessary to overcome challenges” (p. 93). This indigenous framing contrasts with global public health or development discourse in which poor health is blamed on poor choices of individuals.

There is one individual performer whose story works as a site of ethnographic and historical analysis: Fatou, the lead singer of the Allatentu Support Band. Fatou famously came out as HIV positive through song, and she sought to destigmatize this health status for herself and others with her music and music videos. Fatou tragically serves as an example of how women singers can be empowered by their music, but their power can also be taken and used by others, in her case by President Yahya Jammeh, who, in 2007, notoriously claimed he had found a cure for AIDS (among other illnesses) and pressured Fatou to participate in his televised trials. While another chapter on embodiment and participation draws on theories of social˗musical participation (Turino 2008), McConnell makes an interesting intervention in exploring how Fatou’s album Teriyaa is circulated and used by support groups (as listeners) to open dialogs, thus demonstrating the spectrum between presentational and participatory performance. McConnell’s connections between the body, the voice, and health are particularly provocative when she questions how a musician’s death shapes the way their life and music are interpreted, and how Fatou’s death has overshadowed the positive message of her music.

The musical analysis of this monograph extends beyond lyrical translations to explanations of sound, aesthetics, and participation, and the book comes with eight recordings available for download through the accompanying website via Routledge. These selections, including studio recordings of the Allatentu Support Band and live performance tracks of kanyeleng singing recorded by McConnell, provide sonic evidence of how women singers engage listeners through lyrics, specific genres, instrumental choice, and audience participation. The textual descriptions of musical performances and instruments are clear enough for non-music scholars and music students to understand and learn about the materials, variety, and musical traditions and innovations, but McConnell’s discussion is also engaging for ethnomusicologists already familiar with musical repertoires and practices of the region. Musical notation would have been helpful for readers to follow along with McConnell’s discussion of specific rhythms and melodies, particularly in Chapter 4 when she analyzes four songs that use the lenjengo dance rhythm and melody, or in Chapter 6 in her discussion on the Mandinka verb duu, as it relates to the “thickness” of sound, rhythm, and participation.

The conclusion makes clear that McConnell does not romanticize the use of music as a tool for disseminating information about public health, nor does she equate power within the musical sphere with the power to act. Indeed, throughout the book she articulates moments of disempowerment and patriarchy, and she reminds the reader that global health scholars and development workers often frame Africans in terms of what they lack, focusing on the symptoms rather than the root causes of health and social problems (including exploitative economic relationships, failed structural adjustment programs, and autocratic misuse of funds). She does, though, offer some thoughts on how NGOs can be more effective: by integrating musicians and singers within public health programming, providing long-term support, and engaging in musical participation that “can build a sense of collective responsibility and togetherness” (p. 142), empowered Gambians may determine their own healthy futures.

Reference Cited

Turino, T. 2008. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.