Recently the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) quarterly newsletter published a short piece that I submitted based on an interesting experience I had during field research earlier this year. Only SEM members could see that version, so I thought some folks might like to see it here: the text appears below, followed by some follow-up commentary. I also dig the colorful Nc20909 as it originally appeared.
Childhood and children, as topics of ethnographic research and representation, do not appear at all on graduate reading lists today. This want of attention to our own passage, this willful looking-away from ethnography’s mirror, must say something about us. Interbelline anthropologists, such as Malinowski, Fortes, Firth, Richards, and Evans-Pritchard, observed children in the contexts of kinship, ritual, education and socialization (Levine 251). Mead believed in the potential instructiveness of childhood studies, characterizing “world cultural variation in child rearing as a laboratory in which ‘thousand year’ experiments were being conducted by different peoples.” Ethnographic fieldwork in distant places could be “brought back to the Western world for the resolution of issues like whether ‘permissive’ rearing was advisable for US middle-class children” (ibid. 250).
The contributor of this edition of nC2 puts children at the center of the ethnographic record, as felicitous music teachers and as agents in his own enculturation process. His is a willing looting-to that invites reflection on our filed practices. Is the way we deal with children in the field a meme of “table etiquette,” whereby they “don’t speak unless spoken to”? Taken at face value, without a reader’s compensation, their invisibility in published studies presents much of the world as eerily barren of children. -Jesse Samba Wheeler, Co-editor, Nc2
Levine, Robert A. 2007. “Ethnographic Studies of childhood: A Historical Overview.” American Anthropologist
On the Laughter of Children and the Value of Play
by Peter Hoesing, Munamaizi Village, Namutumba District, Eastern Uganda, January 20, 2009
It is possible, if not inevitable, to be so focused on a particular person or event of interest in our fieldwork that we overlook other potentially instructive opportunities. Children can all too easily be relegated to ethnographic peripheries. I offer this reflection as an urge (as much to myself as to others) to embrace the playfulness of fieldwork by approaching children as partners and peers in enculturation.
Much of the day has been spent watching the clan elders build small mud brick huts for ancestral spirits. I haven’t heard much music. Mwesige knows how interested I am in ritual drumming and song. He asks me late in the day if I would like to play drums with him. We play for about an hour, and people respond favorably. Children watch closely. They never play until their teenage years, but I can tell that they soak up a lot by watching and listening long before that. They know the rhythmic idioms well. When I play something that’s out of character with nswezi idioms, they respond with laughter. As long as I stay within idiomatic boundaries, they watch me like they watch other drummers: with wide-eyed fascination.
Drumming lessons in Eastern Uganda provide me with learning experiences in the ethnomusicologist’s ideal classroom: the same place where my field consultants and teachers learn. As people gather to watch possession ceremonies, drummers offer children their first opportunities to get close to the action. Adults are so spatially focused on gathering around the spirit mediums to sing, shake rattles and promote possession that young people cannot see what happens inside that circle. Newer to these performances than many of the children, I join them and use drumming to gain access to musical dramaturgy. The laughter of children as they observe my lessons acts like an idiomatic boundary between what I can and cannot do in terms of rhythmic variations.
There’s one particular rhythm that I’ve been trying to get right for several days now. Even when I play all of the variations progressively, this one rhythm continues to give me trouble. “You’ll get it,” says Mwesige as he keeps playing. After several unsuccessful attempts, he walks away for a bit. The kids laugh. With each unsuccessful try, they laugh again, especially after I realize this and playfully digress into something completely out of character with the music. One of the children picks up his sticks and plays his rhythm on the smallest drum (is this kid mocking me?) His enormous grin reminds me not to take myself so seriously. I play along with him for a bit. Something seems to click, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what. I take a look at my transcription before asking Mwesige to come back one more time. I’ve corrected something and found a rhythmic hook to hang my hat on in terms of left hand playing. I’ve been focusing too much on the right hand and not really thinking about this in the left-handed way that Mwesige works with in all of his playing. When he comes back, I get it right immediately and then stay on it for a bit just to solidify it. The kids love it, but they don’t laugh—they clap. So do the ladies. Those who have rattles shake them vigorously and many women ululate. I decide to relish my success and quit for the day while I’m ahead.
By paying attention to this mode of reaction among the children, I continue to develop my ability to play idiomatic variations for nswezi possession rituals. When my teacher leaves me to figure something out on my own, the laughter of children guides my trials and errors until I can get it right. Their playfulness encourages exploration. When I forget myself in this kind of play, my hands find new idiomatic possibilities even in places where my conscious mind least expects them.
Ethnomusicologists have spilled a lot of ink about the nature of enculturation, but what can the people in the midst of that complex process teach us practically? This village classroom reveals many more teachers than the individual who actually demonstrates on the instruments. The model of neophytes learning from and being initiated by adepts certainly works, and it operates here as well, but it does account for opportunities in which a novice can learn from other novices. During a day of building and other important non-musical work, musical play offers a welcome diversion for all. Learning opportunities abound in this ritually sanctioned space for play, but only if I am willing to learn from other learners as I participate in their process of enculturation.
The sections in italics are excerpts from my fieldnotes.
Although Jesse’s introduction provides apt context for this piece, I think there are some notable exceptions to what he’s saying about the absence of children in published studies. First, what about Ryan Thomas Skinner’s children’s book? It’s not ethnography, but Skinner is an ethnomusicologist and this book project makes a sophisticated ethnographic commentary on children and enculturation. What about Kyra Gaunt’s award-winning book? Moreover, ongoing research on youth cultures might be considered ethnography specifically about children. The point of this piece, however, is that children ought not be artificially separated from social spaces where we do ethnography. Their presence and their actions, as the above narrative suggests, are not merely instructive; for the non-native language speaker, they can often be the most accessible point of entry.
I recognize the negative ways this might be read:
Option 1: non-native ethnographer can’t get competence and resorts to hanging out with children and playing off their laughter for lack of something better to do.
Option 2: non-native ethnographer, even if the linguistic competence is there, runs the risk of non-verbal (but nevertheless clear) responses, potentially misunderstanding cues and jumping to hasty conclusions.
These readings miss the whole point of what it means to learn something from a fellow participant in any process. If the laughter of children and the value of play do not do enough to keep the interest of fun haters shrewd observers, let me appeal to a humanistic cost/benefit analysis: we were playing at the time anyway, learning the parts, and the presence of children and other laughing observers brought immeasurable joy to that self-conscious experience. I suspect it was that willingness to forget myself for a moment that enabled me to turn my rhythmic thinking around and, in the end, “get it.”