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“Brainstorming” with Lawrence Diggs

SD Humanities Council invited me back on their webcast, “Brainstorming,” with SD Humanities Scholar Lawrence Diggs this week to discuss the recent project with the USD Sanford School of Medicine and the DeGroot Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and the Healing Arts at Sanford Health, “Shaping Medical Humanities in South Dakota.” Great stories and opportunities for deeper community engagement abounded there – warm thanks to all who showed up and participated.


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Kusamira: the Book is Available NOW!

At long last, the project at the center of my ethnographic research focus since 2006 is finally published. Get your copy now, stay tuned for multimedia components to come (beyond the film), and get in touch if you’re interested in discussing this work with colleagues and students!

Need a little teaser? Head over to the University of Illinois Press Blog for an interview about the project.

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Birth of an Ancestor (film)

I’ve been on hiatus here a while, but there truly wasn’t much interesting content to post, and I wasn’t just sure who was still reading. Alas, several folks have landed here and found my other work, so I’m back to share some updates. This is the first; more to come soon…

A few years ago, I got some great support at Claflin University to turn materials from my fieldwork into a documentary film called Birth of an Ancestor. Apart from an excellent digital video course I took from a tremendous teacher at Florida State a few years prior, the only experience I had was hours of participant observation during field research. It turns out half the battle is having great material to shoot. The other half, as every reluctant post-production editor learns, is having decent gear and good conceptual habits. Evidently I was able to cobble together some combination of these to produce this film.

I showed part of it at the conclusion of the grant period at a collaborative exhibition we did at Claflin’s Arthur Rose Museum, and later that same year, Claflin funded an opportunity to do follow-up work in the village where I shot the initial footage. Well, I finally finished the project, and 2020 pandemic lockdown gave me time to find a few festivals and a distributor for it. Word to the wise first-time filmmaker: FilmFreeway is your friend. If you make content for academic audiences, you should also know that conferences, distributors, and festivals abound, so no excuses: get your stuff out there. Check out the Birth of an Ancestor trailer here.

Over the summer, this thing made its way through a few independent film festivals, and this morning I was delighted to learn that the film earned Silver honors at an indie festival in Atlanta!

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A bit of stagelore


An ethnomusicologist has many teachers

Yesterday I had the privilege of working with Grinnell music alumnus Erik Jarvis to hang a temporary exhibition of photographs from my field research in Uganda. Erik works with the Grinnell Area Arts Council, preparing their lovely historic building on Broad Street–a recently renovated adaptive re-use that is a work of art in its own right–for a wide variety of exhibitions and events. This time we were putting up a mini-exhibition of twelve photographs that I took at a pair of events in the Busoga region of eastern Uganda. In a wild synchronicity of contrasting sacred musical worlds, they will remain on view through the Grinnell College production of Godspell April 13-16 until my Ugandan Ensemble plays on April 19th.

Nearly a decade ago, when I was playing in three different world music ensembles in a given year, Dale Olsen was thinking a lot about what it meant to perform folkloric musical traditions on stage and encouraging us, his students, to engage in that discourse as well. He referred to the practice of “stagelore,” noting that these performances are discrete from the culturally situated iterations of the teachers we encounter in our fieldwork. They generate their own significations. Tom Turino asserts the difference as a distinction between the cultural formations of those who create the traditions (like the woman pictured below and those who surround me above) and the cultural cohorts who come to appreciate, adopt, and perform them (like my students, colleagues, and me).


Lukoghe plays a kagwala

Now I have the self-conscious and perhaps precarious privilege of directing my own ensemble, a self-selected cultural cohort of Grinnell students who have worked hard all semester to prepare this performance. They have learned Luganda and Lusoga phrases and songs, they have become devoted novices on East African instruments, and they have learned in these and other ways something about how the Baganda and Basoga of southern Uganda live, eat, think, and pray. I hope, through their efforts and mine, that our performance will represent something of the creative ways of being-in-the-world that I have come to so deeply appreciate about those who teach me their songs.


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We only have today…

I’ve had so little time for blogging this summer, or much any reflection for that matter. In May, my family completed our move from South Carolina to South Dakota. I got a job offer right in the middle of that move, so now we’re looking down the barrel of one academic year involving a lengthy commute from our new home to that job. I don’t remember when or under what circumstances, but a few years back my wife passed along a fantastic piece of life advice/commentary from her father: “You only have today to be good to them.”

He was talking about our two sons, of course.

In May, the specter of spending every day with them until August seemed like so much time. It was almost daunting to think through how to occupy their busy little hands and their spongy little minds. We played, we painted and drew, we read countless books, and then I realized this morning that now that time is gone. They didn’t understand why Daddy’s face was leaking during music time this morning, but they hugged and kissed me sweetly anyway. Then one boy bellowed something incomprehensible and the other farted, so the moment passed as quickly as we started laughing.

On Monday we pack them off to daycare so we can both resume work and be–to use another well-worn phrase from my in-laws–just as happy as if we were normal. I started the summer thinking about things that I could try to teach these two lovely little rascals. Now it’s crystal clear that I’m the lucky schlub who got to learn how to be their father over and over again each day.

This next part will be hard, but then again when has getting up and packing the kids off to go anywhere been easy? I pray we might all learn from the example of our second-born: he’s pictured here having just yelled one of his current favorite words, “GO!”


Yes indeed: into life and love we go once again, ever deeper.

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CUJE feat. James Carter @Claflin1869 #CALABASH2016

Note: our local newspaper, the Times and Democrat, picked up this review online with an offering by Claflin student photographer Jordan Geddis. It’ll hit the print version Friday.

What a tour de force! Tonight Orangeburg experienced the Claflin University Jazz Ensemble featuring James Carter under the direction of one Mr. Vincent A. Chandler. Well, a fortunate cadre of Orangeburg cognoscenti did, anyway. For Claflinites, Orangeburgers, and others who did not get that privilege, let me highlight some of what y’all missed.

Chandler arranged and curated a program tightly focused on the development of his students and of a meaningful jazz scene at Claflin. The Music Department’s burgeoning jazz concentration within the music major bolsters a small but scrappy instrumental program, which means that the Jazz Ensemble often consists of dedicated students who work within irregular instrumental arrangements. Not to be discouraged, Chandler takes what most would consider to be a formidable challenge as his opportunity to create beautiful arrangements for this group.

Kicking off this group’s portion of the program with “African Flower” came through as Chandler channeling his inner Ellington: he writes arrangements with specific players and their strengths in mind. Carter exploded onto the stage, laying his gigantic tone over the gorgeous, reedy textures already crying poignant trans-Atlantic trade winds early in this powerful performance. With only a day’s interaction behind them, Carter and the ensemble coaxed a beautiful bloom from the frame of Chandler’s thoughtful arrangement. The Duke proved to be a unifying theme later in the show as the audience panted and screamed its way through thoroughly sensuous collaborations on “In a Sentimental Mood” and Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” What a way to hear the history of this musical idiom through the voices of its heirs!

Chandler and friends did not stop there, however. His trademark scat on Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” made perfect sense opposite Carter’s hat tips to Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, the Prez, Hawkins, ‘Trane, and so many others. We have grown accustomed to Chandler’s standout trombonifications here at Claflin, but they took on even more power in context with one of his mentors. Seeing that interaction on what Carter calls the “sacred space” of the stage was pure fun, but it also had an organic creative authenticity that characterizes truly profound performances.

 These were not the only interactions that mattered in that space tonight, either. The show opened with a trio out of Columbia that nurtures a South Carolina Midlands jazz scene. For students to trade choruses and tunes with the Jay Ware and friends offers them and the audience an important reminder that we need to support local artists. These cats fully deserve that support for their classy warm-up of a crowd whose numbers betrayed the enthusiasm in the concert hall, for their devotion to the art form, and for the fine example they set for younger players and listeners. One of those young listeners sat rapt on my lap for the entire two-hour show.

Mr. Chandler, Mr. Carter, Dr. McGee and Friends, if musicians can get a five-year-old to do that on top of everything else this concert offered, they can do just about anything. “Music in its most profound state,” as James Carter observed in an earlier masterclass yesterday, “produces life.” It definitely produced a bouncing, happy spark of life for my son and me, as for the crowd that hung around for a half hour after the show.

The only questions left now have to do with how Claflin and Orangeburg can get more listeners of all ages into those seats. There’s good news here: #CALABASH2016 has only just begun. Orangeburg, check out the other FREE festivities and join this vibrant campus in celebrating Arts and Letters!


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#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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Great Scholarship at #SEMSEC2016

Want to follow along in shorter form? Head over to Instagram or Twitter.

We have already seen some tremendous scholarship this weekend, and there’s more to come. I was fascinated by archival and manuscript research by three students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Samantha Horn, Amanda Black, and Jamie Blake. Sadly, administrative duties and other distractions have kept me from seeing too many Florida State Colleagues’ presentations, but the buzz about them is always encouraging despite those frustrations. Fellow #HBCU folks will be glad to know that J. Wissler Elias from Florida A&M gave a fine presentation on reception of Mark Applebaum’s music on that campus. Tyler Sonnichsen, Victor Hernández-Sang, and Chris Ballengee guided us through the robustly diverse soundscapes of Washington D.C. and its connections to Paris, Trinidad, and a broad, inclusive Latino musical community. This morning, Les Gay endowed us with new ears for listening through a comparison of Sonny Rollins’ various recordings of “St. Thomas,” particularly his 1965 live video at Tivoli Gardens (though I’m still looking for a link to that video).

I was so pleased with the intersections and parallels in yesterday’s tightly focused session on Sound, Space, and Substance in Music and Ritual, a panel I put together. We always hope to generate those kinds of rich conversations, but this one was particularly productive. It will be exciting to continue that discourse.

Meanwhile, there’s so much more here than any one person can see or hear. It’s a great metaphor for a first trip to Trinidad & Tobago. The place is deep, complex, and masqued in many intriguing ways.

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#SEMSEC16 in Trini!

It’s finally here! We’ve been planning and scheming to come to Trinidad and Tobago for several years. The time has come: the Society for Ethnomusicology Southeast and Caribbean Chapter annual meeting takes place this week (Friday-Sunday) at the Royal Hotel in San Fernando Trinidad! More pix and stories to come, but here’s an early one from our cute little guest house, the Heritage Inn in Port of Spain.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 8.09.02 PM

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Johannesburg Metro Police Department Choristers

One of the great privileges of traveling and working in South Africa has been to experience the robust diversity of the choral tradition here. Vestiges of apartheid have created a social world in which people speak of “black choirs” and “white choirs,” but the University of Pretoria Tuks Camerata clearly bucks that trend. In a bit different way, the Johannesburg Metro Police Department Choristers resist classification based on repertory as well.

The first signal of this was what we heard as we piled into the JMPD van to go and meet some of the Choristers at a police barracks in Jozi: it was a Meyerbeer opera! I came into this with as few expectations as possible, but this really did surprise me. It wasn’t a fluke, either. The director of the choir, Mofukeng, had a stack of classical CDs in the van and others in a personal vehicle that he used to take us back to our hotel later that night. Clearly there’s a fascination here with European classics.

Being rather unfamiliar with the particulars of contemporary South African choral music, I couldn’t have known that this fascination has not only been around for some time, but also heavily influenced new compositions by African composers. Much of the music we heard at the JMPD rehearsal was 21st century music composed by Africans in a European tonal style with a pretty consistently Romantic flavor. It was so interesting to see a choir of mature voices dive into this material with such gusto. The individual voices in the choir are stunning. Together, the group at its best sounds much like an opera chorus. They have similar stamina, too: when we returned from a dinner with the director, some of the choir officers, and a police administrative official, we learned that they had already been rehearsing for two hours and would continue for two more!

The end of the rehearsal revealed a different kind of repertoire diversity than that which the UP Tuks Camerata had shown us. Nearly all of the JMPD’s material is of African origin, but the end of their rehearsal consisted of traditional spirituals. The repetitive style of these tunes lends itself to dancing, so we got to see some spontaneous group choreography as well. The whole thing struck me as a tremendous opportunity to explore the notion of authenticity. The indigenization of European harmony in Romantic style creates one kind of South African choral authenticity. The longstanding tradition of African spirituals that involve no less European harmony–though in a decidedly different style–creates another. To invoke an old Lucille Clifton formulation, the combination of the two with other works expresses the soul of African variety.

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