Interweaving Worlds: Jola Music and Relational Identity in Senegambia and Beyond

This dissertation concerns the musical production of relational identity narratives among people of the Jola ethnic group in the West African countries of Senegal and The Gambia. I argue that Jola music-makers deliberately create “audiotopic” spaces in which seemingly contradictory referents can be brought together and negotiated: the past and the present, the local and the global, the Self and the Other. In this way, Jola music is a social practice and self-reflexive discourse through which Jolas position themselves in relation to neighboring ethnic groups and an ongoing war of national secession, as well as broader narratives of the Black Atlantic and global citizenship. Despite their location in ostensibly isolated rural villages, Jolas experience themselves through the ethos of Afropolitanism, in which rootedness in a particular identity is also the means of transcending it. Whereas existing research too often characterizes African identities either as ancient and immutable or as politically contingent articulations of difference, my research instead emphasizes that Jolas make musical gestures of both difference and association, and that their ethnic identity is maintained through both strategic political positioning and a substantive system of longstanding cultural meanings and practices. Jola music is deeply participatory, inherently social, and associated with positive valences of tradition and heritage, qualities that allow the potentially contradictory array of local and global influences at play in Jola music culture to be molded into coherent self-conceptions. I explore these ideas through chapters focusing on a Jola stringed instrument called ekonting, a women’s festival called alamaan, and the presence of Jola sounds in syncretic popular music in Senegal and beyond. This project is based on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted over a span of six years in Senegal, The Gambia, and the United States, comprising participant observation, audio and video recordings, and interviews conducted in English, French, Wolof, and Jola.