This afternoon, I’ll embark on a new endeavor that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time: leading an African music and dance ensemble. This is a near-inevitable feature of academic life for many ethnomusicologists, particularly in North America. I just had no idea it would happen for me at FSU. The ethnomusicology program here places heavy emphasis on integrating performance and scholarship and using performance in scholarship. That’s a major reason why I came here for a master’s degree and stayed here for the Ph.D. However, a good friend and colleague from Uganda usually directs the ensemble, and when he doesn’t do it, my major professor does. Needless to say I’m thrilled to have this opportunity.
Ever since I read Kofi Agawu’s book on Representing African Music, I’ve been trying to get my head around what it means for a white guy from Iowa to engage in scholarship on Africa and African music. This isn’t the first opportunity I’ve had to do that through performance, but I certainly have more creative control over performative representations now. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.
One thing that playing in “academic” ensembles has made me think about is the notion that we’re putting folklore on stage. That can be a problematic experience in many ways, but it’s not a phenomenon entirely unique to academic culture. In his dissertation, Welson Tremura proposes the term “stage lore” to describe the peculiar effect that commodifying folkloric music has on festival and other staged performances. Philip Bohlman and others have also commented on this effect, especially as it relates to festivals. If creating a public spectacle for nation building or staging folkloric performance as a form of respect to indigenous peoples have potential to artificially standardize or “freeze” music (Ted Levin’s term), academic ensembles ought to give us more controlled opportunities to avoid getting locked into myopic caricatures of the cultures we study. Unfortunately, these “frozen” images of Africa are all too common to the college world music ensemble.
Florida State has broken the mold when it comes to African music and dance. To my knowledge, it’s the only ensemble in the country that has focused primarily on East African music over the last five years. (Please, correct me in the comments if I’m wrong about that; I’d love to know about others.) Fortunately, we’re not tied into that permanently because we have an instrument collection and teaching resources to perform music from all over the continent. We have had good luck focusing on music from a single country or ethnic group for a semester or a year, and in that way the ensemble has been a good laboratory for students and professors to teach performance skills related to their research interests.
I plan to begin this semester with this kind of lab tactic, but then expand our repertoire to develop a kind of Pan-African performance consciousness among the students. I’ll begin by bringing in music from my field research: songs of the Baganda and Basoga. While FSU has plenty of Ganda instruments, I’m excited to diversify our ensemble’s Ugandan offerings with my new Soga skins:
You might remember seeing some of these here. I had the pleasure of learning to play them as I learned songs from several different teachers in Eastern Uganda.
A colleague here at FSU recently went to Morocco, picked up some new instruments and took some lessons, so we’re excited to have a North African component. However, since we’re both still relatively new to our recently acquired instruments and skills, we want to incorporate some people, sounds, and skills that have a bit more longevity in this ensemble. One guy has been playing with the FSU group as long as I have and with other groups even longer. He and I will work with another colleague who has experience teaching Ewe music. We also hope to collaborate with other local groups on some Guinean music. Finally, I’m hopeful for a reprise of a performance at last year’s SEM annual meeting: who’s ready for some Bolingo?
I hope to convey to students and audiences that Africa is a big, diverse place. I hope to give them some idea of what that means with regard to the boundless variety of musical and dramatic expressions found across the continent. I’ll continue to update here as we schedule more performances, but for now plan on getting your seat early at our biannual College of Music show: this fall it’ll be on November 16 at 8 PM in Dohnányi Recital Hall.