Tag Archives: drumming

Solid Drummer, Fine Teacher in Nakifuma

Three and a half years ago, when I first came to Uganda, I had the honor and pleasure of being the best man to a couple of the sweetest Baganda I have ever met. They have been so generous to me over the years, as colleagues, teachers, and friends. One of the greatest gifts they have given me is to introduce me to other friends and teachers who have so much to offer.

One of the drummers at their wedding was the most amazing Muganda drummer I had ever seen. Three years on, he’s still the best I’ve ever seen. I now have the privilege of calling this man my teacher. Meet Frank Ssematimba.

“Uncle Ssema,” as his friends call him, has been playing with different music & dance troupes for a long time. I first saw him with Badongo dancers, a group that a famous musician named Ssalongo Deziderio Kiwanuka Matovu started years ago. Ssalongo didn’t perform with them that night, which is probably good because I would have been completely distracted by Ssema’s drumming and its connection to the wedding dances.

Now he plays with a troupe called “Nakifuma Super Dancers,” led by one Albert Bisaso Ssempeke. Albert is the heir of one of the best known Muganda musicians, another of Ssalongo Deziderio’s generation. This group he’s put together has the best percussion battery I’ve ever seen, led by none other than Uncle Ssema. I had occasion to play with them at a couple of events over the last six weeks or so, and at the second one Uncle Ssema announced to me that he was going to teach me mbaga variations on embuutu drum. How could I argue?

A week later, I start going out to Nakifuma, a dusty 90-minute ride east of Kampala, for drumming lessons. I find Uncle Ssema there, comfortable in the shade of a mango tree that graces his front yard near the road. He sets up a bench with a tarp in front of it on which we set the mbuutu. We begin with the only familiar thing that I’ll play in the lesson: the first of many variations for mbaga dance. He takes me through as many variations as my hands can handle that day, and then he plays a whole bunch more as if to say “you have a long way to go, kid.” But he’s courteous about it–not ruthless like some teachers.

Uncle Ssema seems to understand my process, and why it is I want to learn, and he likes it. When the little kids get in the way of my recording device, he gently nudges them away and we continue. They clearly love him, and they’re fascinated by this whole process. He’s only slightly more reserved about his own fascination, but when it comes to hearing the playback of our recordings, he doesn’t hide it. That makes for a very open process. Often when we’re finished with the drumming part, he’ll play a few tunes on his ndingidi, a single-stringed fiddle. There are a few really discernible styles on this thing, and his is much like his teacher, Deziderio’s. Even the way he sings is similar. It’s cool to see the next generation of Baganda musicians so eager to share their music. It’s a pleasure to listen and a privilege to learn with this guy.

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On the Laughter of Children and the Value of Play

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.

Introduction

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

Reference cited

Levine, Robert A.  2007.  “Ethnographic Studies of childhood: A Historical Overview.”  American Anthropologist

109(2):  247-260.

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[1] 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.


[1]The sections in italics are excerpts from my fieldnotes.

Follow-up

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.”

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