An Earful of Africa: Insights from Tanzania on Music and Music Learning

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2016.56.fr.11155
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574449

A continuing Eurocentric agenda seems to encircle the educational content and method of music programs in higher education, despite occasional calls, as in the CMS Manifesto (Sarath, Myers, and Campbell, 2017), for diversifying content (and more rarely, a review of pedagogical approaches that borrow from musical cultures outside the realms of Western art music (Campbell, 2004; Schippers, 2010). These diversity calls are either too infrequent, rising and quickly receding, or are coming from specialists in studies outside the mainstream curricular core (in jazz, popular music, and ethnomusicology) who are outnumbered by performers, composers and scholars of Western art music, so that such diversity calls are not fully heard nor heeded. Instead, many university faculty in the U.S. (but also in other places in the world where the Western conservatory tradition has been historically established) work from the premise of offering a decidedly Western perspective on music, with just a sprinkling of non-required options offered to music majors but only after completion of their foundational work in the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Studies of music from the African continent are off-limits to most university music majors, unless they fit it in sideways or atop their required program of study. Thus, the journey of three American musician-educators (Roberts, Mena, and Campbell) into the music of the Wagogo people of East Africa, guided by one Tanzanian musician-educator (Mapana), has resulted in impressions of a reckoning with musical sensibilities that interface the musically known with the unknown, the eye with the ear, the fixed with the flexible (and spontaneous), the elite-specialist musician with the musical community, the disembodied sound from the melding of music with dance. Our intent was to move beyond the Eurocentric perspectives we have grown through our education and training, and to join as outsiders-to-Africa in a discovery, facilitated by our Wagogo colleague, of a musical culture that could help us to gain traction in our work in diversifying musical content and method in American university and school settings.

We could not have predicted the profound changes that have come to our own sense of musicality through the journeys to Wagogo territory. Despite our awareness of post-colonial theories on “the exotic other” (Said, 1978), and thus the precautions we thought we would take in going forward to understanding Africa and its music, we were quite literally disoriented, dislodged, and even re-routed in our thinking about music, education, and culture. These few scenarios of introductory experiences to the land (Ugogo), people (Wagogo), language (Cigogo), and music (uvina in Cigogo, ngoma in many other pro-Bantu languages) below suggest concepts of Africa and its music (experienced within the context of a Wagogo village in Central Tanzania, as facilitated by our Wagogo colleague) that lead to several recommendations for the pedagogy of music in higher education.


A Many-Splendored Musical Experience (Campbell)

There they were at the Wagogo Festival, in Chamwino village, Central Tanzania. One-by-one, each group of adult men and women, often about 20 or 25 in columns and lines facing front, made their music for an audience that included the visiting few, the mzungu (“foreigners”) who sat in chairs under a raised pavilion before them. The Wagogo musicians were clothed in black cotton toga-like outfits (kaniki), and with beaded (sanga) necklaces, head-bands, bracelets and earrings. They played malimbas (thumb-pianos), mazezes (two-stringed fiddles), single-headed muheme drums, and kayama (shakers) made of large flattened cans in which were contained hard seeds and small hard stones. They also sang the most glorious choral sound in a polyphonic and polychoral manner. They danced incessantly, and while singing and playing, with every intent to bring their best musical energy in full blend with their fellow performer-participants. There was sung and spoken poetry, heartfelt expressions of peace, freedom, the education of the young, the preservation through performance of Wagogo culture. There was pageantry, too, with men and women positioning and re-positioning themselves, gesturing to one another, singing with eye-to-eye contact to individuals to whom a message was addressed. All-in-all, it was a full-fledged display of uvina musical genres such as nindo, msuhyunho, kwaya, mazeze, malimba, ng’omayamuheme,mphongwa, cipande, and saigwathat blended nature of music with dance, theatre, and a theatrical oral poetry called caya. I sat with other visitors on an elevated platform above the performers, watching, as if a member of a jury to judge them, in awe of the fact that every group of villagers were performing as “10s” on a 10-point scale. I was entirely consumed by the complete envelopment of themselves in the multiple artistic expressions in which they were engaged.

I was awestruck by the notion of “music.” The Wagogo are musicians—and more: They are strong solo singers and choristers with the capacity to sing in multiple polyphonic layers in the most perfectly blended manner imaginable. Children harmonize early on, and every child, adult, and elder singer projects well by riding on their healthy intake of air between phrases. They are instrumentalists—virtuosic players of percussion and stringed instruments, mostly, alongside the occasional end-blown flute and borrowed trumpet. They are dancers, keeping in time with one another, recognizing that as sure as a single tone is sounded so, too, do bodies come together in a kind of “muscular bonding” that brings on a euphoric “fellow-feeling” (McNeill, 1997). This Wagogo music is embodied, and is exemplar of the concept of embodied music cognition (Godoy and Leman, 2010), in which the body reflects the mind’s musical thought processing as surely as the mind is also dependent upon the properties of the body’s kinesthetic activity. The music is meaningful to the Wagogo musicians because it is aural and corporeal, rather than aural-cerebral. The old Cartesian dualism that mental activity is of a separate order from body movement is put to rest by the Wagogo, with an understanding that music is all-encompassing—mind and body (and to wax poetically again, heart and soul). Music is its own multi-tasking encounter, so that musicians are multiply engaged to fully embrace the multi-sensory experience that it is; Mapana (2013) refers to this phenomenon among the Wagogo as a “multi-arts performance complex.”

On invitation by a young woman, her radiant self shining through her smile and her welcoming gestures, I was drawn from my chair into the crowd to join with her. The sung melodies were all around, and I added my voice to repeating phrases. I found the footwork and relaxed into the muscular bonding, and found myself in coordinated rhythmic movement with the villagers. I was an invited collaborator into this Wagogo music-dance experience, a temporary member of a human community that was like no other in my experience. This was the gift that I could not have imagined, the reason for the summer’s journey, as I became briefly connected through music to a kind of human solidarity.

Were there references to my work at home at the university, applications awaiting my infusion into lectures and methods courses? If I could not “do it” (Wagogo music) myself, out of context, were there other ways of applying the mind-and-body experience to my teaching? Were there lessons as well to apply to life beyond the classroom? In retrospect, following five separate journeys to this very same Tanzanian village, I can say that the many-splendored experience of Wagogo music has become me, such that I cannot teach music without giving consistent attention to aural and kinesthetic pathways of knowing a song, or a full-on listening experience, or a rhythmic-percussive piece of any place in the world. The Wagogo musical way fits well with my Dalcroze eurhythmics training, too, in which music is approached through listening and bodily response to rhythm, melody, phrase and form, and the quest for expressive movement runs parallel to accomplishing melodic and rhythm precision, vocal resonance and choral blend. In truth, my understanding of music learned and taught is both validated and deepened through these journeys to Tanzania.

Africa and African Music, Re-Conceived (Mena)

Prior to the trip I was planning to Tanzania, I had decided to dedicate the year to embedding a sense of “Africanness” into my advanced high school band curriculum. My efforts led me to showing movies on African music and its connection to American musical styles, partnering with a local organization that placed teaching artists of Zimbabwean mbira (thumb piano) into classrooms across the school district, and programming arrangements of Africanesque pieces into our final band concert of the year. Meanwhile, I was reading an endless array of guidebooks to provide a proper lens through which to view my upcoming Tanzania experience. Just as no amount of pre-service training can completely prepare a music education major for a first year of public school teaching, nothing could have really prepared me for the journey to Africa, Tanzania, and the Wagogo community. There is so much that exists in an experiential journey to the people and place that are reach far beyond the compartmentalized hand-me-down understandings of African music that comes in print or online efforts to know the music and musicians.

The climate and topography of the Tanzanian village, Chamwino, resembles rural areas I have known in the southwestern United States, but with baobab trees replacing the cacti. Even the silica in the sand seemed to crunch similarly beneath my steps. I remember the anticipation I felt as we loaded a battered van to travel some days before the festival to even smaller outlying villages beyond Chamwino, and the circuitous snaking way we traveled over unpaved sandy pathways. Twenty minutes out, I heard a faint rhythmic thumping, and wondered for an instant whether this could be my heart beating heavily in anticipation of what was to come. Rather, it was the distant beating of muheme drums, the heartbeat of the community we were entering. We came to a stop facing a line of single-file musicians dancing out to welcome us. The sun was starting its descent into night and I thought of how fitting a frame it was for this experience, recognizing that the sun was also figuratively setting on what I had ever known about African music. For me, new understandings were rapidly emerging on Africa and African music.

Music was everywhere, and always sounding, in Chamwino and the outlying villages. After a few days, the vibrating sounds were pulsing inside me and my fellow travellers. My walking gait changed to imitate the upward rhythmic pulse of the ndalagunyi (castanet-like iron pieces). I found that I could not distinguish between ambient natural sounds and the instrument’s melodies, and even pauses and responses in conversation around me seemed to take on the call-and-response qualities of the music we were hearing. The concept of community came to light for me, too, in this experience with Wagogo music. While I’ve been building community at home through music, and working as a secondary school music teacher with school-community connections very much in mind, the experience in the villages fully ensured me of the all-encompassing nature of music as enculturative and capable of building community. Furthermore, the high-quality performances from the intergenerational groups in the villages illustrated the pedagogical power of musical enculturation in non-formal settings outside campuses and classrooms.

I view these interactions through a pedagogical lens: How can I translate this experience into a lesson that will provide students with some semblance of the experience? How can I incorporate an African “way of knowing” music into band rehearsals of pieces that are filtered through Western European perspectives? How do I retain the “Africanness” in performing African music? I am left with several questions and two major considerations when learning and teaching music from Africa: The power of enculturation and non-formal learning, and the importance of embodying the music. We who wish to teach African music will do well to keep these concepts in mind, so that the experience of our students can be more than just preparing material for another show but an opportunity to come into an African way of nuanced music—and musical learning.

Musicking Under the Stars (Roberts)

The Wagogo festival complete, the mzungu community of visitors to Chamwinowas welcomed to a final evening event at Kedmon Mapana’s home. This event was intended to celebrate the end of the festival, and to allow the conference organizers and group leaders to relax with each other, toasting the success of a festival’s massive undertaking. I spoke with various leaders in the guidebook-Swahili I had crammed into my head at nighttime – a minimally successful endeavor, at best. As the night wore on, and after the soda and beer had been downed and the goat eaten, people began to drift outside, and the musicking began. I bee-lined for the music, initially standing just outside the group. The darkened sky allowed me to observe at a minimal distance, and I wanted to be a fly on the wall, to allow the participants to celebrate their success with each other, not affected by my Western presence. "I marveled at the fact that such musicking was a means to be in community with each other, a common function of music throughout much of East Africa" (Barz, 2004). After a week’s worth of experiencing the music as an observer, the music had completely filled me. I could not help but joining in, singing along under my breath, trying to work out the dance moves that accompanied the singing. Eventually, my actions were noticed, and I was welcomed in as a peripheral participant, as those nearby tried to help me with my halting movements, with gentle laughter and plenty of goodwill. Over time, I was able to ascertain the melodic patterns, and enter into the musicking with singing intact. But for me, a singer educated in the Western Classical tradition, the vocal timbre was different than anything I had experienced previously, with a forward sound and bright timbre that cut like a knife. Over the years, my training has asked me to alter my vocal tone to fit the particular musical environment – but this aesthetic was different enough from my previous experiences that fiddling with my technique only approximated the unified sound they were able to create. Similarly, although I had participated in modern dance as a college student many years ago, the ability to coordinate my movements with the music proved more challenging than I thought. I spent a great deal of time flailing about, ultimately able to recreate most of the basic movements but not all of its subtleties. Referring to Small’s musicking concept (1998), Wade (2012) observed that in many of the world’s cultures,“music is not only a thing...but also a process” (p. 3). For me, both “the thing” of the music in Chamwino and “the process” of the musicking took me down musical avenues that pressed my musicianship in new directions.

This experience of failing to fully inhabit the music of an unfamiliar culture is one that can be enriching for experienced musicians. Often, music outside the Western Classical tradition are perceived as “lesser-than,” lacking in the sophistication and beauty of the well-developed musical tradition so ensconced in higher education music programs. Listening and trying to imitate the nuances of unfamiliar musics – and, yes, failing at it – is an experience that allows us to grow our own musicianship. Depending on the musical culture, we bend our ears to accommodate a tonality that does not rely solely on half steps and whole steps, or work to comprehend rhythmic patterns that do not fall into our limited notions of time. This challenge can serve to allow us to return to our own familiar home musics with a more critical ear, opening up to a fresh perspective on our own musical culture.

Such experiences with novel musical cultures can be particularly important for students in Schools of Music, whose musical sensitivities are just coming into focus. Even if “field trips” to hear unfamiliar musics prove to be logistically challenging, field recordings can allow students the opportunity to listen repeatedly to a given piece of music, ultimately moving towards attempts to replicate the sound with as much accuracy as possible. After imitating the music, students can work to transcribe it into traditional notation. Transcribing world music is typically a surprisingly challenging endeavor, and can allow students to more fully understand the ways that notation only represents a portion of the sounds that surround.

Considerations of a Wagogo Musical Way (Mapana)

As a Wagogo citizen of the village of Chamwino, born and raised there (now working as a lecturer of music at the University of Dar es Salaam), I was curious to receive these thoughtful reactions from musician-colleagues to the music of my family and village friends. We do indeed value dance as integral to singing and playing music, and there is rarely if ever a standstill performance in our communities; “wooden” music performed by stiff-standing singers and players is not valued. There is no need for notation, although it does exist in church hymnals that were brought in several centuries ago by European missionaries; we learn music by doing it. We consider it part of the Wagogo way to welcome visitors to our village, with singers moving toward them, singing. Sometimes, we prepare food and perform music as components of the hospitality we provide for the participants, villagers and guests. We work as a community of singers, dancers, and players, and all are invited to join in, although they must commit themselves to group practice in readying songs for public performances such as our annual festival. We adhere to an enculturation process that is intent upon passing to children the songs and stories of Wagogo culture, and this we do in families and through an active effort by Chamwino Arts Centre to develop a festival that is seriously motivating young and old to embrace their musical traditions. The repertoire of Wagogo music is re-creative and continuing of songs from before, as it is changing through the addition of newly composed pieces that are taught to the group directly by the composer and shaped further by singers, dancers, and players as it is learned. As for the song topics, especially within the context of a Wagogo festival, musicians sing of love, conflict resolution, HIV/AIDS prevention, praising God, gender relations, and environmental conservation. Finally, music is frequently heard in the villages, although the soundscape may include snippets of mediated sounds from radio, TV, and even cell phones. Most certainly, the extent of live music picks up at the time of the festival, when outlying villagers come into Chamwino with their instruments and voices, and may be making the music long into the wee hours of the night long after the festival closes at sunset each day.

The remark made on the phenomenon of uvina, including ngoma as a particular sub-genre that features drums, could open to a complicated discourse as to why, when, and how this happens, and who is involved. The Wagogo have their way with ngoma, and so do many other groups within Tanzania and across sub-Saharan Africa such as the Wasukuma people of Western Tanzania. Ngoma is central to the lives of Wagogo people, but so is nindo, kwaya, and other expressions. Ruth Stone, commenting on music in West Africa, including her home territory of Liberia but also elsewhere on the continent, remarked that “African performance [or music] is a highly wrapped bundle of instruments, dancing, masquerading [singing] and dramatizing are [all] part of a conceptual package that …many Africans [including me] think of as one and the same” (1998:7). The Wagogo of Tanzania identify, on immediate hearing, exactly which musical genre (uvina) of many possibilities is sounding, even as all are delightfully comprised of multisensory mix of music and dance—and more.

It’s important for me to know that my academic colleagues—visitors to my Wagogo village of Chamwino—understand that in oral cultures of which little has been written, there are complexities nonetheless. Not only is “African music” a misnomer, but so are there complications in generalizing the elements of “Music of East Africa” and “Music of Tanzania”. The Wagogo, a population of just 1.3 million, express themselves in an array of musical forms that are chorally oriented (but not always), featuring drumming (but not always), featuring fiddles (but not always), and so on through the various characteristic elements of these genres. It seems important, then, that university-level teachers share images of the music they may have experienced, or for which there are online resources, and that they clarify the place of origin of the music (country-city-village), the likelihood that one musical example is just that—rather than representative of all the music of the village, the country, region, or continent. Further, attention to the sociocultural context, function, and use of the music can be as important as the sound itself for understanding music and musicians of a particular place and time. For my colleagues who have visited Chamwino with me, they clearly understand that knowing the place where the music resides, and connecting to the people whose music it is, is as important as the sound of the music itself.

Resonances with Music and Music Teaching

We bring our own experiences to bear on journeys to new musical territories, and the insights we gain help to shape our understandings of music and music learning. We did not come as empty vessels, but as individuals whose Tanzanian encounters were deeply influenced by who we were on arrival. Mena reflected on an African performative essence and on the nature of community music-making, Campbell referred to the aural and corporeal realities of participation in the music-dance forms, Roberts considered the music in light of previous vocal training, and Mapana brought his experience as denizen of the Wagogo community into his role as mediator of his local music. We were joined together by the sheer joy that enveloped us in the course of listening and doing the music.

In our university work, students enter undergraduate studies in music with varied backgrounds and experiences, and we do well to know their perspectives, and to value them. They may initially be unable to discern (or reproduce) the characteristics of an unfamiliar musical culture, even as they may need to be convinced that different musical systems hold as much value and nuance as the music that they hold dear. We can provide students with rich experiences in unfamiliar musical expressions and styles in our theory, history, performance, education-methods, composition and improvisation courses, facilitating cameo appearances by musicians from local communities, long-term residencies with musicians of many traditions, and travel to places where musical practices are alive and well. We can surely feature music learning processes in our classrooms that resonate with the musical practices we are featuring in our lectures, seminars, rehearsals, and studios, including more aural and embodied experiences that either emanate from the music itself or that give further accent to musical structures and sonorities. For us who have gathered “an earful of Africa”, the experiences with Wagogo music-and-culture in Tanzania has enriched our teaching and our musicking, cracking the door open to new ideas in music, pedagogy, and life itself. It is these transformative experiences that we wish our students to experience in music and through music.


References

Barz, Gregory, 2004. Music in East Africa. New York: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Patricia Shehan, 2004. Teaching Music Globally. New York: Oxford University Press.

Godoy, Rolf, and Marc Leman, 2010. Music Gestures: Sound, Movement and Meaning. New York: Routledge.

Mapana, Kedmon. 2013. Enculturational discontinuities in the musical experience of the Wagogo children of Central Tanzania. In Campbell, P.S. & Wiggins, T. (Eds.). (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Musical Cultures. Oxford: University Press, (510-526).

McNeill, William H., 1997. Keeping Together in Time. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Said, Edward, 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Sarath, Edward W, David E. Myers, and Patricia Shehan Campbell, 2017. Redefining Music Studies in an Age of Change. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Schippers, Huib, 2010. Facing the Music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Small, Christopher, 1998. Musicking. Hanover: Wesleyan.

Stone, Ruth, 1998. Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Africa, Volume 1. New York: Garland Publishing.

Wade, Bonnie, 2012. Thinking Musically (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

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Last modified on Friday, 08/03/2019

Kedmon Mapana, Patricia Shehan Campbell, Christopher Roberts and Christopher Mena

Kedmon Mapana, Patricia Shehan Campbell, Christopher Roberts and Christopher Mena

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