Appropriation, Rhythm, & Resistance in Mujila’s Tram 83

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“Jazz is no longer the story of the Negroes” writes Mwanza Mujila in his novel Tram 83. In his novel, Mujila takes colonialism and whiteness to task. One example of this is the first glimpse into the popular club which the novel is named for: Tram 83. In this scene, Mujila paints a picture of appropriation through Jazz:

In the labyrinths of the City-State, you don’t listen to jazz to get a whiff of sugar cane or reconnect with Negro consciousness or savor the beauty of the notes: you listen to jazz because you have to listen to jazz when you make your bed on banknotes, when you deliver your merchandise daily, when you manage an extraction plant, when you’re cousin to the dissident General, when you keep a little mistress who pins you to bed in a dizzy haze. Jazz is a sign of nobility… (Mujila 11).

Jazz originated from African American Blues in the USA, which developed from slave songs. Jazz in itself carries a long history of oppression and resistance. Here, Mujila demonstrates the way in which colonists appropriate that history for themselves, and also highlights the way in which the citizens at Tram 83 play into this: “…the jazzmen continuing to prostitute music” and “the yelling of the tourists and other upstarts who identified with the atmosphere, waxing ecstatic, grooving” all “fueled the fervor of the bank, and consequently the lynching of that beautiful melody” (10).

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This warping of jazz for commercial use and commodification, the appropriation of a cultural component by the colonizers, is criticized by Mujila in this excerpt. The jazzmen “prostitute” the music out to those who don’t connect to it’s history but just want to use it for trivial fun. This use of the music devalues it, and it is instead taken by those who colonized the Congo and benefit from extracting its minerals and other aspects of the corrupted system put into place by the colonial project.

It is also a critique of those who are a part of this problem, as “the diggers and the students adopt the manner of the tourists… Smiles like the Queen of England, they mime imaginary empresses. Jazz is the only lever used by all the riffraff of Tram 83 to switch social class as one would subway cars” (11).

The Congolese peoples here are shown to try to mimic those who created the system which they are in many ways stuck in, rather than resisting the narrative that has been created and resisting the power structure which has been created due to the politics of extraction. However, Mujila’s novel is in itself a resistance of that, because the novel mimics the rhythm of jazz and through this novel, Mujila tries to create a narrative depicting the Congo by someone who is from the Congo – not an outside white gaze, and he also reclaims Jazz in doing so and makes it a narrative of resistance once again.

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