Foreword (Audiovisual Crossroads Issue #1 – July 2022)

By Akin Adeṣọkan

Three or more generations of consumers of the cinematic arts have been socialized into taking the synchrony of image and sound in film for granted. The silent film as a historical and artistic form is certain proof that the synchrony was not always there, and even if that era of film now appears precious or old-fashioned, in retrospect, such sentiments are beside the point of the unique relationship between music and the moving image. It was technology that needed to catch up with the moves of image on screen, but once that encounter occurred, the very character of the image changed. The artificial separation of both became little more than an academic exercise. Technically, every sound in film is music, from the speech of an actor to the quiet noise of a door opening.

The essays in this collection, Audio-Visual Crossroads, proceed from a self-conscious attention to the status of the relationship between motion picture and music. The contributions are varied in interest and focus, they reveal different stylistic temperaments and orientations toward music and film, and their co-appearance in the volume is a bold and honest testimony to the importance of the topic. Whether conceived as interdependent or symbiotic, that relationship between music and the moving image is definitive of the total experience of screening a film, and a consumer can relate an informed, affective opinion about that experience to the extent that she self-consciously views the rapport as a given. What is also taken for granted, on the evidence of the discussions in the essays, is the understanding that motion picture and music are separate art forms. The editors of this project start from a similar premise, highlighting the “incredibly immersive and mutually-edifying symphonic and cinematic experiences” that the relationship has generated throughout film history. 

This premise is historically sound. Recorded music, or at least the invention of the phonograph, preceded the cinematograph by nearly two decades, both in the last quarter of the 19th century, and both in related contexts. (In 1894, Antoine Lumière, father of Auguste and Louis, attended the Paris exhibition of the Kinotope, developed by Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph.) Companies and technologies devoted to sound recording and reproduction developed apace in the first decades of the 20th century. It took the industrial processes of improving on the technical efficiency of movie cameras and the equally industrial deepening of the narrative elements in film to ensure the paradoxical autonomy of music in relation to the moving image.

Quickly pivoting to Nigeria, home of Nollywood, the editors acknowledge that music and film “play a vital role in the country’s creative industry, and occasionally collaborate on a variety of projects.” This is where context matters. The bright, complex, dizzyingly ambitious culture of Nollywood finds its match in Nigerian music, especially hip-hop and Afrobeats. Both are equally fascinating and quick to stake their place in the imaginaries of the world, while simultaneously redefining the relationship that has historically characterized music and motion picture as art forms. Readers of this volume will encounter this simultaneity in many ways, because the essays cover a range of topics in which the role of music is decisive.

The musical origins of what we regard as Nollywood is the context that this foreword adds. Akintayọ Abọdunrin’s essay, “Morality in Yoruba Movie Soundtracks,” focuses on the thematic role that soundtrack plays in Yoruba-language films. To understand this powerful use of music in film is to keep a steady view of the development of the various performance idioms that have shaped Nollywood. As “folk operas,” the earliest of these idioms drew mainly on music—singing and percussion—to dramatize a variety of stories, from African tales, legends, or fables to Biblical episodes. Technological and social changes were soon to result in the sung sequences of these dramatic stories being expanded into spoken dialogues, in the traveling theater repertoires of mid-century exponents such as Hubert Ogunde, Kọla Ogunmọla and Duro Ladipọ. In short, in contrast to the standard practice in cinema where music emerges as the sound track is laid during editing, the originality of cinema in Nigeria comes from this integral role of music. It is of such significance that the author, in quite simple but suggestive ways, would approach soundtrack as essentially thematic. The real promise of Abọdunrin’s essay is in signaling interest in this understudied aspect of soundtrack in Nollywood films. 

Franklin Ugobude, in “The Evolution of Original Music in Nollywood” thus complements Abọdunrin’s ideas, and its focus on a singular context adds the elements that are largely suggested in the first essay. The irony, however, is that the inspiration for the creative deployment of original music in recent films, what the author approvingly describes as “considerable progress in [Nollywood films] using sounds to heighten emotions and in connecting to diverse audiences” is not so much the organic style that folk opera gifted to Nigerian performance cultures as the conventional use of music in industrial filmmaking.  That organic style has evolved, Yinka Ọlatunbọsun argues in a clever analysis of Nigerian music and musicians that have made surreptitious but unforced entry into global consciousness, sometimes through film.

Conceivably, the current experiments with sound in ethnographic film, brilliantly discussed in Santasil Mallik’s “Audio-Visual Experiments in New-Form Ethnographic Documentaries,” are arriving where traveling theater took off, with all the limitations of context, of course, or returning to the preindustrial phase of the arts. The imaginings of the surrealists. Distilling several references in the history of ethnographic documentary form, Mallik zeroes in on recent outputs from different parts of the world. Incredible as it sounds, nearly all these show signs of connection to the earliest experiments in cinema as sheer plays with light and sound, even as they break new technical grounds in that much-used documentary tradition.

A comparable familiarity with diverse use of music in film is on display in Michaela Moye’s endearingly quirky reflections. “Music, Movies and Memories” offers a unique perspective on style, and the wide-ranging references are refreshing, eliciting joyous recognition from readers already familiar with the movies mentioned and piquing the curiosity of those who may not be. Between that essay and Mallik’s, there are many suggestive ideas about the paths open to Nollywood producers in making sophisticated calls in the general realm of sound. That is not as ordinary as it appears in print. One must begin to perceive in Moye’s cinematic appreciation as a matter of personal taste intimations of the kind of aesthetic education that informs the technical choices in Mallik’s chosen films. Mallik’s thoughts on sound, best captured in the statement that “the expanding semantic potential of sound-image interactions in ethnographic documentaries has prompted a rethinking of the principles of representation,” presents us with ideas of deepening the intertwined fates of music and film, beyond using the former as an add-on in a work of motion picture.

Once reflecting on editing, Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène puts as much weight on sound as on image, and credits the former with often justifying the necessity of the narrative contained in an image. The editors of Audio-Visual Crossroads sent out a call whose ambitious scope can be seen in the diversity of these very few selections, and the significance of this visionary initiative rests in what more can be said. 


Akin Adeṣọkan is associate professor and interim head of the Black Film Center & Archive at Indiana University. A faculty member in the Media School’s Cinema and Media Studies unit and the Department of Comparative Literature, his research interests include African cinema, Nollywood, globalization and film, and the intersection of print and digital media.