Tag Archives: African music

A Wedding of Spiritualists

This weekend, I had the privilege of witnessing a wedding of two spirit mediums, embaga y’abasamize. I have spent over a year now working with spirit mediums, observing their rituals, and trying to learn about how and why they perform those rituals. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to see this particular function.

With about two dozen other spirit mediums in two vans, I headed down to Rakai District in the southwest part of Uganda. We didn’t arrive until very late in the night, but we were greeted with warmest hospitality upon arrival. Matooke and binyeebwa, the traditional food of the Baganda, greeted us with a nutty scent over warm banana mash. I can’t say I’ve ever been anywhere else in the world where people show up that late in the day and receive the same amazing hospitality that they would had they arrived at lunch time.

The next day, everyone put on their fanciest barkcloth garments, along with some of the accoutrement that they would normally use in the ssabo or shrine where they work as basawo baganda, local healers. Jjajja Jjumba presided over the whole function:

If cowrie shells used to be used as money and as a symbol of wealth, then that symbol is still very much alive in Uganda today. Jjumba is an extraordinarily successful healer who normally sees upwards of forty clients in a day.

The procession of Bakabona, those chosen by their ancestors to be healers in their communities, was led by this muserikale, a soldier/guardian who also works to move the logistical elements of the function along during the day:

Once inside the huge circle of tents where this function would be held, I was shocked to find something I’ve never seen in Uganda before: a cross-dressing clown with a partner who rode a unicycle!

What a fascinating irony in light of Uganda’s recent discomfort with diversity in sexuality!

Once all of the Bakabona were seated, it really was a beautiful site to see. All that barkcloth, all those cowries, all the time people have spent making these things look so sharp…what a spectacle!

Some of the music was in the vein of a relatively recent trend at all kinds of Ugandan weddings that resembles karaoke. This gentleman, one of five or six performers of this type throughout the evening, is singing live over a recording…though some sing more than others, he was actually singing the whole time.

Many up-and-coming singers do this as they are working to become popular musicians. This guy, on the other hand, just happened to be a friend to some of the people who helped make this function happen, and he’s a good singer.

Other music was more like what I’d expect to see at a pair of traditionalists’ wedding: mbaga dance. It was provided by none other than Nakayima and her group, Tebifaanana Abifuna.

And, of course, the lovely couple was looking very smart in their barkcloth gear.

If they don’t look pleased here, trust me, they did after those baskets were filled with monetary contributions to their newlywed life!

I’ve never seen a wedding this large, even in Uganda, where weddings routinely involve 400 guests. This was more like a thousand people before the whole day was said and done. The cast of artists who performed was itself very large: about a dozen musicians in Nakayima’s group, and another five or six doing other things throughout the day. What can I say? What’s good for ritual is good for working musicians!


Filed under travel, uganda

A Giant in African Music Falls

Sometimes a scholar of African music has such a profound effect on the field that when we hear people mention his name, there’s a certain reverence to it.  Sometimes I see a presentation that shows such humble respect for the musicians and such dedication to understanding their artistry that it makes things seem as if they should always be that way.  Every so often, I encounter a scholar of such generosity as to show deep care for a student whom he has only just met.  This past year, that was Dr. Willie O. Anku.

I had the distinct pleasure of presenting a paper on the same panel with Dr. Anku at the 3rd Annual Festival and Symposium, Dialogue in Music Project: Africa Meets North America.  He gave the most inspiring 30-minute breakdown of West-African rhythm that I have ever seen.  Although he’s been studying and writing about this material–what he called “circles and time”–for years, he presented it with almost child-like fascination in an analysis completely devoid of ego.  Following the panel, there was no question he didn’t have time for, and he went out of his way to complement and question my work. As the conference went on, our interactions only became warmer. I had found a fast friend in this brilliant man.  It was truly a privilege to enjoy his company and learn from him.

Dr. Anku earned an M.M.E. from the University of Montana at Missoula in 1976.  In 1983, he founded the African Music & Dance Ensemble at the University of Pittsburgh.  He went on to earn an M.A. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1986 and and Ph.D. from the same institution in 1988.  He returned to his native Ghana to teach in and then head the Music Department at the University of Ghana, where he eventually headed the entire School of Performing Arts.  He was also a visiting professor at the Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada (2004), Portland State University (2003), and at California State University-San Marcos between 1994 and 1996.

On January 31, 2010, Dr. Anku was in a serious car accident. No doubt he would have contributed many more years of brilliant scholarship to the study of African music.  Willie Anku died on Monday, February 1, 2010.  I mourn his loss, even as I know the lasting legacy he left for the next generation of African music analysts.  Willie, you will be missed.


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Staging African Music

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.


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