Category Archives: Reflection

#SEMSEC 2016: from Engine Rooms to Landscapes


From the initial CFP, #SEMSEC2016 has offered productive formulations for thinking about music and musicians both in cultural context and across time and space. SEMSEC Vice President Michael O’Brien‘s work on our meeting theme, “the Engine Room” reflected careful thinking with Elizabeth Clendinning and the other officers, and presenters responded by generating a range of fascinating thought. Sunday’s presentations continued that trend with a session from Caribbean scholars Maarten Manmohan, Ngozi Liverpool, and Meagan Sylvester (hear more from the latter two here); and concurrent sessions featured topics ranging from Christian rock concerts of epic scale and cost to physical geographies of steel pans. So many good papers, so little time!

Meanwhile, the conference afforded opportunities to consider how these sounds and thoughts map onto the fascinating social textures and physical topographies of Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela’s Orinoco River Delta, and beyond. One highlight was to hike San Fernando Hill with Dale Olsen and his wife Diane. Dr. Olsen’s work with the Warao people of Venezuela earned him the 1997 Alan P. Merriam Prize for the most outstanding book in ethnomusicology (a brief introduction to that work for a general readership appears here). The Warao call San Fernando Hill “Naparima,” and it represents the northernmost extremity of their cosmology. Making this trek with Dale and Diane reminded me that understanding people’s belief systems often means not only listening carefully to their music and examining their folklore in detail, but also experiencing their foodways and their pathways in the world. To that end, just as eating bake and shark, Thai cuisine, roti, and dubbles helped me understand the demographics and overlapping histories of this place, walking Naparima Hill with a distinguished senior scholar contributed to a deeper understanding of Trinidad’s distinctive topography. Its compelling links to the indigenous Warao of Venezuela generated a powerful view of the valley below and the sea beyond it.


San Fernando’s coastal valley moves from a distant Venezuela on the horizon to the left–just 11km away from the southernmost tip of Trinidad–to an industrial coastline, to a well-populated western littoral, to oil refineries, all of which contribute to the physical and cultural atmosphere of the city. To stay in San Fernando is to live and breathe this atmosphere. American and Trinidadian laborers file into restaurants and hotels for their meals and some short-term lodging.

The pace of the city adheres to the distinctive working rhythms of daily life. Visitors can palpably feel Trinidad’s overthrow of the plantation economy, British class society, and the Indian caste systems here. Yes, histories of slavery and indentured servitude shaped land tenure and continued to inform post-colonial economics, but this city has erected monuments to progress. One example is the University of Trinidad and Tobago‘s Southern Academy for Performing Arts (SAPA), where we held the #SEMSEC2016 annual meeting.



Yes, the sweeping interiors of this building and its breezeway are as gorgeous as the treble clef-inspired architecture we see from this view. So thanks also to local arrangements co-chairs Mia Gormandy and Kayleen Justus, this meeting took us from the Engine Room to the gorgeous landscapes of Trinidadian culture and physical topography and back.



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Jocks and Their Jams

[This post has been re-blogged from a private course blog for one of my music history and literature courses at Claflin University.]

On the heels of public commentary investigating and completely refuting the notion that classical music is dead, the Renée Fleming‘s rendition of the National Anthem at SuperBowl forty-eight tonight certainly made a strong statement. Her comments earlier in the week made the statement that much stronger. Moreover, Denyce Graves reminding her audience at Claflin’s own W.V. Middleton Auditorium this afternoon about the use of opera in advertising for pasta sauce–along with Lawrence Fishburne’s new sync on a Kia ad–remind us that cultural relevance is always relative.

It’s refreshing then that one of these very same commentators had some very sensible things to say last year about music and sports in what he called the “Glee generation.” Some people find the middle ground to be milquetoast. At times it can be, but in these cases, I find the balance to be pretty strong.

Still not convinced? Check out Bruno Mars opening the SuperBowl halftime show with a drum solo before getting up to sing with a full horn line and dance like the Godfather of Soul!

So ask yourself: what does the term “classical” mean? What does it mean for a young musician to get up and tip his hat like that to iconic American style and some of America’s classic R&B artists?

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Boston, Baby!

I’m not a Daddy Blogger, if there is such a thing. Maybe that’s why I don’t write too much these days: it’s challenging enough to balance Daddy time, research time and other work time, so reflecting and writing about all three often seems overwhelming. These experiences so rarely coalesce or even overlap in smooth ways; like many people, I find it easier to compartmentalize. Less messy in so many ways, but we pay a price for that. The last weekend of September, I had the pleasure of traveling with my family to a quasi-working environment in a potential new field site where we celebrated life with extended members of my adoptive Kiganda family. And yes, it sort of felt like that much of a mouthful, but in a good way. My spouse was here in the U.S. during my extended field research in Uganda, so this was a new combination for all of us.

Several things amazed me:

1) I have the world’s coolest family. Yes, I’m biased. Deal with it.

2) The terms Daddy, husband, and researcher do not represent mutually exclusive categories of people. Hopefully my family will confirm this observation. Compartmentalization might be convenient at times, but it’s not near as much fun as coalescence.

3) Ugandans in the Diaspora are as warm, polite and welcoming as their counterparts Over Home. This didn’t surprise me in the least, but the kindness of relative strangers (or is it strange relatives?) never ceases to humble and amaze me.

So, let me start at the beginning: several months ago, I got a call from my Ssenga (literally, paternal aunt), the sister of my Muganda host father. She invited my family for a betrothal ceremony called okwanjula, meaning “introduction,” which would take place in the city where she works, Waltham, Massachussets. My initial response was wholly and irresponsibly American: I was too busy, had too little money for travel and did not know either of the bagole (bride and groom). Ssenga Babirye persisted, calling a month later and adding calls from her sisters two weeks after that. It is rude to refuse someone’s hospitality. Even just dropping by a proper Kiganda home requires the consumption of tea, or at the very least a glass of water. An old proverb that my dear brother Ssetimba taught me states this unequivocally:

mu nju, temuli kkubo

in the house, there is no road

The bassenga demanded satisfaction in their own way, and we acquiesced, making plans to attend this family event as a family. Moreover, they insisted that we stay with one of them, just as we would if we went to visit our own biological families.

So to my first point: coolest. family. ever.

Our son got through the TLH-ATL-BOS leg of the trip like a seasoned traveler. This was his first air travel, and we couldn’t have been happier with that. Meanwhile, my spouse demonstrated the same patient resourcefulness that has become her hallmark in our home. The trip back was no different. Okay, realistically, we all get tired/hungry/annoyed/irritated and just plain want a minute to ourselves – we’re real people. This family of mine is great for their efforts to keep cool heads despite all of that. Moreover, the folks who invited us to Boston have given us the privilege of calling them family as well.

When I first started studying Luganda, I had two teachers. One was a fantastic young linguist named Deo Kawalya, the other a tutor for practical application. The latter, named Waalabyeki Magoba, became my dear friend and host father. He used to take me around to markets, taxi parks, and other public places to practice what I had learned in the classes. After a few weeks, he took me to his family home, where his aged parents gave me a Kiganda name.

Over the next two trips in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, Mwami Magoba took me to several kwanjula celebrations. These were family affairs: Kiganda kinship makes no distinction between daughters and nieces, so anyone who shares our kika or “type” also shares our totem animal, Ffumbe (a civet cat). Those in my age group are therefore my sisters (bannyinaze) and daughters of Magoba and his generation. One of the things I learned from a host brother very early on in this process was the clan slogan (omubala):

Galinnya, galinnya e Bakka,

They are climbing, they are climbing [the hill] at Bakka,

Basengejja, banywa omwenge!

They are brewing, they are drinking [banana] beer!

Kasolo ki? FFUMBE!

Which small animal? FFUMBE!

Kakozaakoza – Tolikoza mu lw’Effumbe!

Let food be dipped [in sauce] – you shall not dip in the sauce of the Ffumbe!

This slogan outlines both the geographic history of ekika ky’Effumbe, those who share the Ffumbe as their totem animal, and the principle of kin avoidance in marriage as it applies to this kika. In other words, anyone who shares the Ffumbe totem animal, whose ancestors were born and lived at Bakka, shall not marry another person from that group. Reinforcing this notion of avoidance at kwanjula – the first public, official event recognizing a couple’s intent to marry – perpetuates strongly held beliefs about eligible partners for any given Muganda.

Americans define family in terms of various shared substances: blood/biology, residence, extended time in armed combat together or even pet ownership. Baganda use some of these same markers for kinship, but sharing blood or other biological symbols proves secondary to other elements of and symbols for shared substance. Avoidance of a totem animal provides the basis for an enormous number of extended kin relationships and for adoption of outsiders into the cultural fold. Sacrificing time and resources in the name of sharing food and other resources builds community fellowship in both contexts.

When I consider what my family has sacrificed in order to facilitate my research, and in turn what my host Ugandan host family has given in order to create lasting bonds with us, I am truly humbled and amazed. I left Boston feeling like I would miss it even though we had never been there before. We left Waltham, which my wife dubbed “Little Buganda,” knowing it was only a matter of time before we would return. We carried our son back through airports and trams to our home with gratitude for the enormous privilege we enjoy in knowing and loving our African family and our new relatives in the Diaspora. Overwhelmed? Maybe, but joyfully so.

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Federal Research Dollars: Bailed Out By Philanthropy?!

In the wake of highly controversial bailouts aimed at bolstering our struggling economy over the past few years, I found it bitterly ironic that news of this year’s cancelled Fulbright-Hays DDRA funding precipitated this move by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Now some of the world’s most heavyweight philanthropists are bailing out the federal government? Strange days indeed. It’s been a week since I heard this, and still I’m not sure what to think. Is it yet another move toward the privatization of virtually everything? Can it be as temporary as Mellon and IIE claim it is?

One thing’s for sure: I couldn’t agree more with the Mellon Foundation that international language and area studies funding constitutes “an important investment in the nation’s intellectual infrastructure.” With that in mind, let me put forth some unabashedly partisan encouragement on this matter. I hope with these benevolent grant makers for wiser decisions in coming years, I urge readers to contact their relevant representatives urging them toward the restoration of Fulbright-Hays programs, and I applaud the Mellon Foundation’s efforts to mitigate the devastation that these cuts foist upon doctoral candidates whose research promises a brighter future for the nation and the world. Given the federal government’s recent heavy investment in “critical languages,” this about-face for grant funding comes as a shock. Here’s hoping the cuts can be perceived as a senseless deviation from smart policy and swiftly corrected for the 2012-2013 funding and subsequent cycles.


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The Cost of a Good Education

NPR’s Morning Edition ran a story yesterday that has generated lively debates on their website, on Facebook, and on professional listservs. Much of this debate centers around comments made by Steve Inskeep’s guest on an ongoing NPR series concerning young people and financial literacy. The guest was Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the websites FinAid and Fastweb. For musicologists, one of his more contentious statements was the assertion that ethnomusicologists’ only career options involve joining the professoriate or becoming music librarians. Plenty of people took issue with that part, and rightly so, but plenty more are beginning to delve into the deeper issues that this piece failed to examine.

The comments on the NPR site have centered primarily around economic issues and the financial viability of ethnomusicology and other fields in the humanities and social sciences. That’s a perfectly smart conversation to be having, particularly given that those of us who choose to pursue careers in these fields need to seriously consider how to be financially solvent. But where and when is that not the case? In what field do people not need to consider these issues? As long as lotto winners remain a small sector of the population, these are rather quotidian considerations for everyone.

One stream of argument in particular is important to highlight in this debate: the notion that arts, humanities, and social sciences place people in financially unstable positions or miserable careers of destitute poverty and starvation perpetuates the already rampant undervaluing of these fields. The idea that one cannot have a career or a fulfilling life unless pursuing a corporate life or a field of study in the so-called “hard sciences” remains not only completely untrue but also thoroughly detrimental to the continued development of a diverse and robust economy. As one Facebook commenter put it, “Innovative thinkers and a creative class will be an important part of American economic recovery and building a better future for all of us.” As many others expressed on the NPR site, the very journalists bringing us these stories often come directly out of the fields of study that Kantrowitz’s commentary degrades by encouraging “fall-back” double majors or minors. In fact, one savvy comment on their site quoted the first part of the NPR mission statement, which stands in direct contradiction to the thrust of this piece: “The mission of NPR is to work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public – one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.” I find it extremely hard to believe that such and understanding would not be enriched by more enlightened reporting on this issue.

Want to defend Steve Inskeep? Think Mark Kantrowitz is right? Hit me in the comments. This lively discourse lies at the intersection of academics and culture in this American moment. AND, lest anyone buy into the bunk notion that careers in arts, humanities, and social sciences are dead ends, this just in from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Be sure to note Philip Bohlman, Sarah Fuller, and Thomas Forrest Kelly on this list–all are musicologists, and Dr. Bohlman is the former president of the Society for Ethnomusicology.


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Dr. Hiatus

Frequent readers of this blog (all two of you) would have noticed the long hiatus I took while writing up my dissertation. Well, that’s done. Last weekend, my folks and my brother were in town, I had a bunch of people over for a beer, and we all celebrated the completion of my Ph.D. Now all I need is a job. In the mean time, I have these pretty pictures to look at. Bully for me!

My brother took some great pictures at the graduation ceremony. Here’s one from just after that in front of the building where my wife works.

We also took a few that morning before the festivities. It was good to see my folks again–it had been several years!

The boys…

Jenn planned a fantastic party to which this cake was a popular addition.

Many friends joined us. Among them, here’s Dale Olsen. The Distinguished Professor Emeritus was one of the reasons I came to FSU, and I spent my first three years here working very closely with him. We shared many wonderful moments onstage and in conversation, and I’m glad to call Dale a friend.

We had so many friends there that day. Deep thanks to all for the warm congratulations. These are merely highlights from an unforgettable weekend.

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Fear Itself

Sunday evening I saw the season premiere of 60 Minutes, the television news magazine that has provided some of the most even-handed reporting in American mainstream media for over forty years. Scott Pelley’s feature piece covered the controversial Islamic community center two and a half blocks from “9/11 ground zero.” Pelley began by interviewing Sharif El-Gamal, the developer who has plans to tear down a dilapidated Burlington Coat Factory to build the center. It was important to see that this man is an American citizen, born of a Roman Catholic mother and an Egyptian Muslim father. He’s a quintessential New Yorker who modeled this project on the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.

Then they moved on to Pamela Geller. To date, Ms. Geller has been the most outspoken opponent of what she calls the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Her blog frequently mentions the project, and she organized an enormous rally in opposition to it. Geller was unequivocal, and made it clear that her supporters are as adamant as she is that there be no Islamic cultural center anywhere near the 9/11 Memorial in New York.

Here’s the thing: that’s not the only “ground zero” site from that day. The other one is in the Pentagon, where high ranking military commanders defend the rights of employees to use interfaith prayer room no matter what their faith. Muslim faithful already use the prayer space of the Islamic Community Center in New York, too. Given that many people first came to this continent seeking religious freedom, do those who oppose this community center risk the label “UnAmerican?”

Pelley’s interview with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the spiritual leader of the center, was perhaps the most telling of all. Rauf sees himself standing as a buffer between radical Islam and American non-Muslims. He says is dedicated to the kind of mutual understanding that will prevent another 9/11. Still, he seems to be the most controversial figure in this whole debate, particularly after his reactions to political pressure that asked him and others to move or give up the project.

These are not problems that go away simply by moving them around. Americans are not children who push their vegetables around instead of eating them. No, Pastor Jones, burning the Qur’an won’t help, either. Pelley didn’t bother interviewing the Gainesville pastor, and other Gainesvillians are probably just fine with that. However, refusing to deal with their most difficult aspects won’t rid us of these problems either.

Jones’s failed campaign in to stage a veritable hatefest in Gainesville echoes an emotion common among many Americans: xenophobia. We talk about it far too little, but we feel it all too often. In polite circles, we deny ever having felt it. Irrational fear never appears very sophisticated. If Terry Jones’s displacement of xenophobic energies on a holy book reflects his deep-seated fears of Arabic text and Islamic education education (among other things), what other, subtler fears might other Americans harbor daily without really acknowledging them?

Take a step toward understanding how you really feel toward your fellow Americans and how they sometimes sound. If you’ve read this far, take the poll. Maybe you’ll learn something about your own fears. Maybe, as FDR famously said, the only thing you’ll have to fear is fear itself.

When I hear Qur’anic recitation or a Muslim call to prayer, I feel


Not familiar with the Cordoba Initiative, the project behind this project? Check it out.


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Wanna Ride Bikes?

I must have worn out all the hand-me-down bicycles and several new ones riding back and forth to swimming lessons and later swim team practice, parks and ice cream parlors, and of course more mischievous pursuits. I grew up on summer nights where baseball wrapped up days of swimming, or grilling steaks accompanied by as much Iowa corn, homegrown tomatoes, and juicy watermelon my hungry brothers and I could handle. As an undergraduate student I bought another bike, the one I still own, to get from place to small town place using the most fun brand of transport I could imagine.

On the heels of RAGBRAI, August always seems to be the time to get as much riding in as I can before the academic calendar comes trudging back with commitments less tolerable of a sweaty, helmet-toting arrival. It’s also the time when Tallahassee, like so many college towns, is at its quietest. Understandably, people escape the sweltering heat and humidity for summer’s last hurrahs before autumn’s classes and schedules and practices and rehearsals and recitals and games and plays and competitions and that most important of fall Saturday rituals, the college football experience. While the traffic is a bit more friendly, I ride my bike. I get to campus and back. I get on some trails when I can. I go to the library and enjoy something all too rare in a university library: silence. Sweet, glorious silence nourishes productivity like so much mother’s milk. Oh, the quietude. Who says there’s no enjoying the calm before a storm?

Back then we grew accustomed to the routine of getting into basements quickly when sirens became harbingers of darker possibilities. A tornado could arrive, render several neighbors homeless, and leave us wondering why other houses appeared untouched, sometimes all within an hour or two. In that final, electric moment after the sirens fell silent but before funnel clouds appeared on the horizon, eerie green skies never threatened brighter realities we knew to be on the other side of something so unpredictable. Was it naïve to be fascinated by the quiet excitement of some erratic force?

This present stillness also intrigues,

It is space to think and time to breathe,

It is temporary absence of banal cacophonies

That lull us into routine and steal our ease.

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