Tag Archives: 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!

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Haitian Trauma, Haitians in Song

My wife sent me this footage of Haitians in song.  I don’t have words.

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New Directions in Research

Okay, so I’ve been teasing along with this for months now, dropping hints about a return trip to Uganda.  At first it was simply hopeful (as in someday), but it’s been more than that for weeks now.  The truth is, two weeks after I got back from the last trip, I received a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) Fellowship.  I haven’t exactly kept this a secret or anything.  It’s just that this is a windfall that I had written off as so unlikely it would never happen.  It’s humbling to know how many more deserving applicants could be out there.

One of those applicants comes from FSU’s beleaguered Anthropology Department.  I claim Anthropology as a kind of disciplinary home away from home on campus, and I have great respect for their students and faculty.  So it is with bittersweet admiration that I congratulate  Bryan Rill.  Bryan works on issues that are very close to home for me, and I can think of no more deserving candidate for this fellowship.  Congratulations, Bryan.  While we’re at it, congrats to your colleagues on three NSF Dissertation Improvement Grants.  Maybe FSU will see fit to reconsider some if the more unfortunate budgetary decisions of the past few years in light of your achievements and those of the distinguished anthropology faculty.  Maybe.

FSU has done well in the past few years with national and international fellowships at the undergraduate level, thanks in no small part to the Office of National Fellowships (ONF).  There are, however, strong graduate students at FSU winning other awards.  Jason Hobratschk in the College of Music and Victoria Penziner in the History Department both snagged Fulbright IIE grants this year.  Kimberly Leahy is among 22 others to do the same since 1985, but it’s interesting to note that a disproportionately large number of those have come since the ONF opened.  BTW, I’ve had the privilege of knowing both Jason and Vicky for a few years, and I know both of their projects will yield fascinating results.

These accomplishments and others across campus in the past few years have started to make FSU look more like a Carnegie Doctoral Research Institution, and it seems the university is starting to take that role seriously.  After a tremendous success rate with the pilot of the ONF,  The Graduate School announced the opening of a new Office for Graduate Fellowships and Awards (OGFA)  this semester.  It’s about time.  ONF was really gracious about helping graduate students with fellowship applications (my own included), but even their staff recognized a major gap between their own undergraduate focus and the faculty-only nature of the Office of Research.  I applaud FSU’s efforts to help more graduate students secure outside funding through the new OGFA.  In fact, its sole staff member has already been very supportive as she administrates these new Fulbright-Hays and NSF awards.  Having watched similar programs help generate thousands of research dollars for students at other institutions, I am confident that the OGFA will be a successful project for FSU.

I offer a few critiques here even as I champion FSU’s recent efforts to make graduate research a priority, and I do so at the risk of soiling the extraordinary sense of gratitude I feel for having been selected as a Fulbright-Hays Fellow.  This is the most honest brand of school spirit: ONF is great, but OGFA is proof that we can do better at the graduate level.  The next step must be to support the academic programs and professors that foster bright students and award-winning ideas! (Ahem: ‘Noles Need Anthropology)

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An Iowa Story

postdated: Aug. 1, 2009

speaknoevil

Above and header: a classic image at Iowa’s Historic Arnold’s Park.

If I have been too quiet, I hope my few faithful readers will think that the reasons are as good as I do.  I’m back from what I now know was a much-needed trip to my birthplace: Iowa.  Jenn and I had planned to go up for a long weekend.  This was for her family, recently bereft of a beloved grandmother and only very recently able to gather for a proper memorial service.  However, it turned into a much more varied and exciting journey than we had originally expected.

The time everyone was able to come turned out to be the weekend after a ten-year reunion that my high school classmates had planned.  Neither of us had been to Harlan for at least the six years we’ve lived in Florida, so we decided to go up early for this shindig and enjoy some of the pleasures of late summer in Iowa.  Ten days later, I am convinced that the lifelong Iowan we came to mourn would have heartily approved.

The entire trip resonated with overtones of formative musical experiences that, for both Jenn and me, made Iowa a great place to grow up.  The town square is home to a relatively new restaurant, paradoxically called the Sandwich Bowl, where we had lunch and a long, soulful conversation with two of my former music teachers, Steve and Dianne Lawson.  Although they are now both retired from public school jobs, Dianne had to leave for an afternoon wedding gig.  We relaxed with Steve in a multi-purpose facility that provides his daily musical playground: he watches DVDs, plays music, teaches lessons, rehearses high school groups and engineers recording sessions.  I enjoyed the privilege of thanking the Lawsons in person for laying the foundation for many and varied other musical studies and experiences.

Later that evening, we met up with my high school classmates for the reunion.  Standard fare here: beers and steaks at a local country club.  It was a good time, but we cut out a bit early to stop by another reception for a friend and former bandmate who had been living in China.  His wife finally got her visa, and it was time to celebrate that victory and their marriage with his family.  It was surreal to see people I hadn’t seen in ten years and think about how I hadn’t been the only one who was half a world away, only to see them again here in our quiet Iowa hometown.  This called for more beverages.  The reunion had migrated to the downtown square, where we found my classmates and proceeded to close the oldest local bar in town.  They probably haven’t had a night like that since RAGBRAI came through town last year.

peteNfriends

Above: cathing up with classmates and friends.  Thanks for taking the pictures, Jenn!

The next day we traveled to Jenn’s parents’ place, where I did what I always do when I show up there: set up the drum set in the basement.  My in-laws played a lot of dance jobs when they were first married.  Jenn grew up playing clarinet and saxophone, accompanied by her father on keys and either her mother or her brother on drums.  It’s a really rare vibe, a place where I always feel privileged to sit in on drums.  Moreover, with two other drummers in the family, there’s always some nice gear sitting around the house.  Knowing that I have been in Uganda and haven’t played any drumset for most of the last year, Steve came home for lunch ready to play a couple of tunes with me.

In the afternoon, we got back in the car to go to Okoboji, where Jenn’s father plays piano during the summer in the Dick Bauman Monday Night Big Band.  Bauman was the founder of a jazz program at a nearby community college and a good friend of the man who first taught me to play drumset, Steve Lawson.  Now this isn’t exactly the Village Vanguard or anything, but the sections are stacked with some of the best band directors in the state, and they are solid players.  There’s a tradition of good jazz in Iowa, and these people have sent some fantastic players on to the best college jazz programs in the country.  It was a privilege to sit in with the band,

The weekend brought other activities.  Jenn’s brother and his wife showed up on Friday, along with their aunt.  We wasted very little time after they arrived before jumping back in the car and heading to the world’s finest steakhouse.  Archie’s Waeside in LeMars, Iowa rivals many of the finest steakhouses in the country according to some, but we in Iowa know that you cannot buy a finer cut of meat, a tastier corn fritter, or a more delicious grasshopper sundae anywhere (a creme de menthe ice cream treat–not to be confused with these).  Wash that down with a selection of regional micro-brews, and you’ve got one tasty Friday night!

Saturday brought more chill time.  Jenn golfed with her folks and her brother.  She amazes me.  She hasn’t golfed but twice in the last eighteen months, and she was still able to par hole six and log several impressive drives.  Meanwhile, I shucked corn and prepared the grill to burn some bratwurst.  Guy Clark sings that there are “only two things money can’t buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes.”  Owing to the generosity of neighbors, I add Iowa sweet corn to that list, and we enjoyed all three with lunch on Saturday.

Jenn’s grandfather joined us for the occasion, and as is their custom, the Smith Family Variety Show followed.  Grandpa Jimmy worked as a saxophonist and singer during World War II and with his own dance band after that.  His repertoire has remained largely unchanged since: Peg o’ My Heart, Left My Heart in San Francisco, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Bill Baily…basically standards.  Seeing his son and grandson accompany him at family events has always been an indescribable joy.

SteveChris

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What a privilege it is when they ask me to sit in on drums or sing a tune! That’s the story of our family gatherings in Iowa.  I think it’s an important story to tell, because it’s also the story of music education working in really interesting ways.  The democratic character of jazz filters organically into every musical event in Jenn’s family.

I’d experienced this atmosphere many times before, but somehow this time “When the Saints Go Marching In” seemed particularly poignant.  The next day, as we all drove to Des Moines to hold a memorial service for Jenn’s maternal grandmother, I looked through the Methodist hymn they had asked me to sing and my sister-in-law looked through the Debussy piece she was to play on flute.  It seemed somehow significant that this family of musicians had chosen to focus on mourning and ask the in-laws to provide appropriate music.  In death, as in life, this family welcomes such a beautiful range of expression, incorporating each unique voice into an ongoing performance that, if our generation and our children have anything to do with it, will never end.

chrisRhodes

Chris picks up an old Rhodes from his pop to outfit his new digs in CO.

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