Tag Archives: music

Featured Artist-in-Residence: Denyce Graves

This week we have had the privilege of a brief residency with internationally renowned vocalist Denyce Graves. Let me begin by saying that her performance yesterday was among the finest live vocal performances I have ever experienced. Ms. Graves is the real deal. To repeat a phrase she used today, she is a “singing actress” of the finest quality. During the masterclass she offered for Claflin students this morning,  she demonstrated that she is an equally good pedagogue.

As a matter of priority, Graves shows how deeply she cares for young artists. Her approach to positive reinforcement is textbook: she puts praise first and emphasizes the positive so that musicians can build from strength to strength. All the same, she does not spare the rod. Graves hears through singers like most people see through glass, and then she polishes them. She refuses to stop until the particular aspect she is working on with the student reaches sufficient levels of both sound and understanding. That also means that every session ends as strongly as it begins. Any good musician will tell you that this pattern resembles a successful practice session. In the form of what she does–as much as in its content–she shows students this consistent approach to excellence.

She speaks to students in beautifully illustrative metaphors. To get the sound she wants, she speaks of the “core sound” of a singer’s voice. She compares it to perfume, noting that audiences don’t want eau de parfum or eau de toilette when they can have the real parfum. The comparison works perfectly for getting students to think about space and overtones or vocal formants. She instructs students to “stitch vowels together” by allowing [i] to “inform” [ε], [a], [o] and [u]. If that makes little sense to readers with different musical or linguistic backgrounds, think of it this way: she’s telling a singer to keep the long horizontal space in her vocal cavity equally long even as she opens up the vertical space for other vowel sounds. She compares this “spatial crescendo” to the feeling of taking a quick breath right after a peppermint.

Part of what works so well about all of this is that the students come prepared. Dr. Lori Hicks has worked overtime with many of these students for the love of singing and teaching. The students, for their part, know the technical language and the repertoire well. That eases Ms. Graves’ task, allowing her to use these pithy metaphors as illustrations that students can use to remember the sensation of good singing when they get back to the practice room. As she puts it, that sensation is so much important than sound; for as singers know, sound changes with the room, the time of day, what foods we eat, the season of the year, and even our seasons of life.

This is a promising time in the life of the music department at Claflin University. It was a tremendous pleasure to hear our students sing today, and it was an even greater pleasure to watch this master at work. I hope all of our students, whatever their instrument, can find something useful to take from the experience.

 

 

[A note to long-time readers (all dozen of you): the time has come for this forum to adopt a fresh angle. In the past, I have done many artist features. Now those features will serve–along with other aspects of this blog–as means of tying what has been primarily a research and reviews blog to my teaching at Claflin University. I hope this new breadth will continue to engage current readers and begin to connect them with a new readership among this university community.]

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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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Back Together in Nakifuma

Seasoned ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl famously titled a chapter in his concept/method book, “Come Back Tomorrow.” Days like the one I had yesterday in Nakifuma remind me why, despite distractions, frustrations, and roadblocks, I keep doing exactly that.

Having already reunited with my dear friend Ssematimba, yesterday was to be a work day for us wherein we could talk through some of the issues and opportunities presented by the possibility of archiving some of his recordings. Given his generous nature and our good relationship in the past, I fully anticipated that he would be cooperative. The response I got yesterday went well beyond cooperation, though. Not only did he gather most of the people involved in those recordings at his office in Nakifuma, he also set up my explanation of this work in ideal fashion. Once I explained to people how much I wanted them to have access–here in Uganda–to their own recordings, they practically threw a party! Not only did they respond favorably to archiving old materials, they also insisted that I record new songs. We began yesterday, but they want me to come for an event this coming weekend and videotape it.

This rather business-like matter out of the way, it was very important to this group that I hang around and socialize with them. I spent a good deal of time with many of these folks in 2010, and we were all happy to be back together for a relaxing afternoon. From Ssema’s place, we went to Jjajja Bbali’s compound, a place that has many shrines for different Kiganda spirits. Between these two locations, some in the group introduced me to new spouses, others to new children, and all to new friends.

I have spent more time than I care to admit trying to capture the essence of convivial interactions that make ritual events so inviting for spirits in my writing. What struck me about yesterday was that this jovial atmosphere is not part of some rarefied break from everyday banalities. It is a cornerstone of daily living, something people actively pursue and often achieve in the company of family and close friends.

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One can never capture these moments, of course: they are as fleeting as this blurry image. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll be glad when my nicer camera is fixed. That’s John Kyobinga on the left, Mwalimu Ssenogga in the middle, and his wife Nakayima on the right.

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Eastman and Mount Holyoke

I was honored to speak last week on the Eastman School of Music Symposium Series, where my colleague and friend Jennifer Kyker invited me to give a talk on my kusamira research. I did an overview of this Ugandan ritual repertory, a talk that I called “Sound Medicine: the Performance of Healing in Post-Colonial Uganda.” Earlier last Thursday, I also spoke to Jennifer’s “Music, Ethnography, and HIV/AIDS” class. At both the Eastman School and the University of Rochester’s River Campus, I received a very warm welcome and encountered sharp, energetic students.

Jennifer and I attended a conference on “Development in Crisis” at Mount Holyoke College. It was interesting, but I found it wanting for a more radical economic perspective from folks working in development.

This morning I spoke in Professor Holly Hanson’s History 101 class at Mount Holyoke: “How Wars End.” In a little over an hour, I’ll give a talk in her History 206 course, “African Cities: Development Dreams and Nightmares,” on the destruction of Kasubi Tombs last year. The students here are truly impressive, and I look forward to more time with them this evening.

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Not What It Sounds Like: A (Ffumbe) Clan Meeting

When I first came to Uganda in 2006, I came to study Luganda intensively. I spent my days going to language lessons in the mornings and embarking on a wide range of adventures in the afternoons that provided me with abundant opportunities for practical application of the language. The teacher who so graciously allowed me to tag along on these outings soon adopted me into his clan and his family, and he has since been a most fantastic host father, trusted mentor, and loyal friend.*

The first time I met the broader Ffumbe clan, they named me Kigozi and welcomed me with some of the warmest hospitality I have ever experienced. Subsequently, I lived with Magoba and his family in Ntinda. During this time and since then, whenever I’m in the country it’s a matter of joyful social obligation to attend family and clan-related events. Parents here use the same terms for their nieces and nephew that they use for their daughters and sons, so there’s no such thing as extended family in the sense that we think of it. People are just brothers and sisters, sons, and daughters. That means every time one of those people introduces her soon-to-be spouse to her parents, gets married, graduates from something, has a child, or dies, I have the privilege of joining the Ffumbe clan for commemorative events and life-cycle rituals.

This past weekend, it was okwanjula, literally meaning “to introduce.” One of our sisters, Zawedde, was introducing her fiancee to her parents. This is a normal ritual for youth preparing for marriage here. The biologically related clanmates and friends of the bride gather at her parents’ home, where they await the arrival of the groom and his family. When they come, they begin an extensive set of complex greeting customs that eventually involve the exchange of dowry and the agreement between families that their children will marry.

Above: the happy couple greeting ssenga, an auntie of influence in the family.

At an earlier kwanjula, I had been asked on the spot to beat the mubala, a kind of slogan that every clan has. These are normally proverbial or riddle-like in nature, and they often identify the totem animal of the clan and/or outline taboos pertinent to that clan. Evidently I performed well, because Magoba asked me to come to Zawedde’s kwanjula to beat an extended version of the mubala for Ffumbe clan.

At the designated time in the proceedings, the muwogezi (lit. clever speaker, a kind of emcee/negotiator that both families must have for this event) called me to beat the following mubala:

Galinnya, galinnya e Bakka

Basengejja, banywa omwenge

Kasolo ki? Ffumbe!

Kakozakoza: tolikoza mu lw’effumbe.

Translation:

They climb, they are climbing at Bakka [hill]

They are straining [local brew], they are drinking beer

Which animal? The civet cat!

The one who dips his food in every kind of sauce: you shall not dip into that of the civet cat!

The last two lines of this mubala identify the ffumbe, or civet cat, as the muziro (totem animal) for this clan. The last line makes explicit the food taboo associated with this animal. Even one who eats all kinds of animals should not eat the bush meat or even taste the sauce of the ffumbe. There’s another connotation here, too: the food taboo parallels a sexual and marriage taboo whereby one member of a clan must not marry a member of the same clan.

Well, the whole thing was an even bigger success than the previous time. It’s all because of Magoba’s careful mentorship. It was he who taught me a deeper version of this mubala, he who invited me to perform it again. His habit has always been to thrust me into public situations to test my skills and encourage me to rise to those occasions.

Wattu musajja mulungi ow’effumbe, kitange kiganda: weebale kunsomesa ssebo!

My dear good man of the Ffumbe clan, my Ganda father: thank you for teaching me!

*Edward Waalabyeki Magoba is a novelist, folklorist, magazine publisher and radio personality whose vernacular writing has had a huge impact on southern Uganda. His radio program, Ekyoto, offered 90 minutes of folklore-fueled fun for all ages on Saturday nights before CBS radio was shut down here late last year.

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Back on BlackGrooves

This week over at the Indiana University Archive of African and African American Music review blog, check out my review of Erykah Badu’s latest offering, the hotly anticipated New Amerykah, Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh. Then go out and pick up this record. It’s vintage Badu at her best.

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Obama’s Chapatti

I have recently had great opportunities to learn from a really good drummer in Nakifuma. His group, the Nakifuma Super Dancers (love that name), won a local competition to get on the stage of a larger program run by a Kampala vernacular radio station, Bukedde FM. I was thrilled when group asked me to join them for the big show! The event is called Embuutu y’Embuutikizi, and this time it was held here:

This is Mandela National Stadium, locally glossed as Namboole, as that’s the area where it’s located. I had never been inside before this event, so it was kind of a cool opportunity to see Kampala’s largest stadium.

This isn’t a one-time thing–Bukedde puts them on from time to time. But it is one of the biggest I’ve ever noticed. It starts with a traditional music competition in the morning, and that’s the part we played for. By the time we took the stage, there were about 300-400 people down on the field in front of the stage. Other fun and festivities throughout the day include performances by kadongo kamu players and big pop musicians. I think Bobi Wine was the headliner, but I didn’t stay around for 14 hours after we played to check it out.

As with any big event, the people-watching and the food options are really interesting. I especially enjoyed the Obama Mobile Takeaway.

Brilliant.

In the end, the competition was cut short because it got started late and took too long. So the judges arbitrarily chose some finalists and wrapped it up. I think I was the least disappointed in the group, though. The competition wasn’t the main event of the day, and I got to play with some of my favorite musicians in front of a whole bunch of people. Plus, Obama’s chapatti is delicious.

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