Samori Touré and the Portable God: Imagining the Phonographic Conquest of West Africa

During the “Scramble for Africa,” proponents of imperialism imagined the new phonograph as a potential tool of colonization that could use disembodied, recorded voices to enchant indigenous listeners and manipulate them into submission, what I call “phonographic imperialism.” This article studies the iconography of a major turning point in French colonial history—the capture and sentencing of Samori Touré in French Sudan in 1898—and the implications of these sources for the notion of phonographic imperialism within the French empire. By comparing fictitious portrayals of the phonograph in Africa, from French advertisements to a Mande legend from Samori’s native region, we may begin to lay bare the assumptions about listening and fidelity that underpin the concept of the “phonograph-fetish,” a trope that would remain popular for nearly the entire span of the Second French Colonial Empire.

Renée Altergott
Princeton University