Tag Archives: FSU

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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Today I became Florida State University’s newest candidate for the Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology!  This has been a long time coming, and the culminating meeting with my committee was nothing short of inspiring.  These fine folks have clearly put a lot of thought and time into this project already, and their continued devotion came through in two hours of the most empowering, challenging, and fascinating conversation I think I’ve ever had.  I’m off to celebrate now, but stay tuned for a new featured artist very soon . . .

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Here’s to good musicology

I’ve got three great reasons to celebrate musicology today:

#1: My Colleagues

This weekend my university’s College of Music hosted a joint regional conference between the Society for Ethnomusicology and the American Musicological Society.  Many members of our local professional organization, the FSU Society for Musicology, cooperated to tackle all of the logistics of hosting about 150 musicologists from the American Southeast.  Although I’m the president of this little organization, I feel as though my job leading up to this was incredibly easy.  Yes I had to do some work, send some e-mails, put some press together, and carry a few heavy things.  Yes it involved a 15-hour Friday in the middle of a week in which I was moving into my new house, but these folks are fantastic.  I have the greatest colleagues in the world.  We work too much, we get paid too little, and we have unreasonably high standards, but we always take care of our own.

#2: Professors

We kicked the conference off this weekend with a guest lecture by Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University, Dr. Aaron Fox.  His lecture on “Country Music’s Late Modern Period” also gave us an interesting perspective on Ethnomusicology’s Late Modern Period.  Fox’s delivery was confidently casual, and the next morning I enjoyed an equally casual breakfast with him as we talked over some more personal career things.  During the morning African music workshop that I ran with my esteemed colleague and dear friend Kafumbe, I re-connected with some other professors whom I really respect.  The workshop only enhanced my respect for these folks, as it gave me an opportunity to observe that these folks can back up their good scholarship with solid musicianship.  But it was that evening that really reminded me how truly fortunate I am to be surrounded by great mentors.  The keynote lecturer centered his talk around making our research really mean something in the lives of our field colleagues.  It was preceded by the warmest introduction from one of his colleagues, an example that left no doubt about why I enjoy such great professional relationships.  Olsen’s remarks left the crowd feeling inspired, and we thanked him for that and his thirty-five years of service with a lengthy standing ovation.  I’ve never seen that happen after a lecture . . . ever.  It was clearly well deserved, and we then had the privilege of moving on to a reception celebrating the careers of two of our retiring faculty members.  One was the keynote lecturer, the other our area coordinator.  The whole thing left me feeling like taking care of our own moves far beyond making sure students’ needs are met.  Olsen and KP, you will be dearly missed.

#3: Newfound support

Well, after numerous grant applications, I was not surprised at the beginning of this week to receive a rejection letter on one of the larger fieldwork grants I’ve applied for.  It happens, and it’s why you don’t count on any grant funding as a sure thing.  But when I heard I’d been denied another local grant through the FSU College of Music after being selected as the finalist from the Musicology area, I was a bit more disappointed.  One panelist reviewing that grant had straight out told me that he ranked my proposal at the top, and another strongly hinted at it.  A few days later, I let go of my disappointment and embraced a new source of support.  I had all but forgotten that I applied for a new grant through the FSU Office of Graduate Studies.  This week, I was awarded a generous stipend and a tuition waiver for the next academic year to embark on a one-year field research endeavor.  With this community of scholars and mentors behind me, I move forward confident that I’ll have all the professional support I need to make the most of this fantastic opportunity.

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