What needs to be preserved?

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On a walkabout in one of the world’s leading museums recently, a friend of mine told me of a relation of his, who arrived from Nigeria and was blown away by the way that historic monuments and artefacts are preserved in cities like London. This relative spoke to my friend about the impression that these preserved objects had made on him and he mused aloud about the fact that Nigerians don’t take such matters seriously.

How can we account for this state of affairs? Perhaps there is an issue that needs to be addressed about the self images that people of African descent have with regard to documentation and preservation. Art Tatum was a musical genius by any stretch of the imagination. If he had lived in an era before the advent of recorded sound, would we be aware of his talent? Rachmaninoff’s talents and skills on the other hand, would probably have been documented effectively, even if he had lived three hundred years ago, because composers from his heritage were probably already writing and publishing scores of their works.

When cultural symbols are effectively documented, it doesn’t mean that a culture cannot make space for innovative thinking and new discoveries. The preserved works provide points of reference for folks living in the present moment, so they can know what has already been explored and use those achievements as springboards for dreaming up new creations.

Perhaps this is one of the areas of tension at the heart of the relationship dynamics between artists and entrepreneurs in the “World Music” genre, for example. The musicians living in cities want to create things in the present moment, whilst the gate keepers are interested in the “roots” of music from African communities. Shouldn’t there be spaces for both sides of this divide to thrive?

At the end of the day, some African individuals will need to take on the responsibility for assessing the things that need to be modified. You can take a horse to the water, but you can’t force it to drink..