Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 1999 Volume XXI Number 3

Music and Performance in
Funerals & Love Songs

by Eric Pfeffinger

Juxtaposed on paper, Ruth Stone and Kelly Askew are a study in contrasts. A professor of folklore, African studies, and music, Stone has been teaching at Indiana University Bloomington since 1977; Askew has been an assistant professor of anthropology at IUB only since 1997. Both are faculty members in the African Studies Program and Ethno-musicology Program. But Stone's scholarly focus is on music in West Africa, while Askew attends to the eastern part of the continent. Stone's methods emphasize observation of performances and interviews with the participants, while Askew is often a participant, contributing as a musician to the very performances she's studying.

Despite these apparent divergences, the two scholars' perspectives have enough in common that comments they each make separately can sound like part of the same conversation.

Ruth Stone (left), professor of folklore, and Kelly Askew, assistant professor of anthropology, Indiana University Bloomington, are at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures in front of part of the "World Music Themes and Variations" exhibit. Both are faculty members in the African Studies Program and Ethnomusicology Program. Stone's book, Africa: The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 1, recently was given an honorable mention for the 1998 Dartmouth Award. Askew shares her knowledge of East African music with audiences outside academia through her work in film. For The Ghost and the Darkness, a 1996 Paramount Pictures release starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer, Askew served as ethnic music researcher. She supplied songs drawn from her field research and recorded them with professional South African musicians in Johannesburg, among them Ray Phiri (who arranged Paul Simon's Graceland album). More recently, Askew was an associate producer and production manager for Maangamizi: The Ancient One, a 35mm Swahili feature film that won the first prize Golden Dhow award at the 1998 Zanzibar International Film Festival. --credit

"The arts are not an extra or separate expression to be enjoyed apart from the social and political ebb and flow," Stone asserts. "They emerge centrally in the course of life, vital to normal conduct."

"That's my big theoretical ax to grind," Askew says, as if continuing Stone's thought. "Performance is not something extraordinary, but something everyday. It plays a very potent role in day-to-day life. The discipline of anthropology has awakened to this fact, and performance has acquired increasing salience as an object of study."

This wasn't always the case. "It was a battle when I was first trying to do this kind of work," Askew recalls. "I had one professor from my graduate institution say to me: 'If you're going to insist on studying something so marginal, maybe you should do it somewhere else.'"

But Askew and Stone each persisted in pursuing her own interests, and the pertinence of musical performance to broad political, social, and cultural issues has been borne out: the performances they study are by no means discreet aesthetic events, auxiliary to the substance of daily life the way we might regard operas or rock concerts as valued but luxurious diversions. Stone, whose interest in Liberian music and culture dates back to her childhood there, writes in particular about her attendance at many funerals among the Kpelle people--events that are crucial to the community and to which music is crucial. "Funerals are the most important lifecycle events in Africa," she says. "Communities come together; extended families clarify relationships. Funerals become constant occasions, which was something I wasn't used to when I started my fieldwork there."

Something else Stone wasn't used to was the Kpelle conception of time. "I went into the field conducting my affairs according to clock time, and I had a hard time gauging when an event would begin." Kpelle acquaintances would advise Stone that a performance was going to occur for a funeral in a nearby location, but they would be vague in response to her requests for a starting time. She recalls being perpetually confused, arriving at a designated site only to find no sign of an impending performance; hours later, the musicians would arrive and enter into negotiations with the hosts--and the rest of the community--over the specifics of the performance.

Sometimes these negotiations would occupy another few hours, and sometimes they would fall apart and no music would be played at all. The reputation of the musicians in question often played a part in the outcome; the community would be particularly eager to hear well-regarded musicians play and so would be more likely to urge the hosts to arrive at an agreement. "I eventually learned," Stone writes in the Africa volume of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, "not to ask 'What time will the performance begin?' but 'How are the negotiations proceeding?'"

An expert musician plays the transverse ivory horn at a political parade in Monrovia, capital of Liberia. Ivory horns and their music are associated with political leaders in the rural and urban areas. --credit

Such discoveries are crucial to Stone's research methods. Returning to Liberia in 1970 as a doctoral student for the first of many extended field visits, Stone established an approach to what she calls an "intensive, on-the-ground" involvement with the Kpelle that enables and informs her research. "It's living in the community, participating in the daily routine," she explains. "After a while, you find out about a performance that's taking place, and you go spend three or four hours or stay all night. Later, you'll make recordings. But first you have to be an audience member. You have to know what's important to them, observe all sorts of things about people's lives."

Once Stone has established that relationship within the community, she begins to amass sound and video recordings and still photographs of the performances and ceremonies. Among the most useful approaches she uses is one called a "feedback interview." "You play a tape back for the participants and ask them to offer you feedback, rather than pre-channeling what they say by asking questions. Initially we were recording with black-and-white reel-to-reel video and most of the people we were talking to had never seen a video before. Today, of course, most of the towns we go to have their own video clubs."

The responses garnered in feedback interviews are sometimes unpredictable, Stone says: "They might watch a video and start talking about the market rather than about the music or the performance. But they also often mention things that might have never come up otherwise. When I'd ask participants to tell me about dance steps, they'd say, 'No, we don't have special dance steps.' Then I start the video, and after ten or twenty seconds I had three dance steps clearly identified. 'Oh, that's sokokpa,' or 'They're doing kenema.'"

Feedback interviews clarify other kinds of details as well. "Watching one video, someone said, 'Ohhh, they're not cutting off the edge of that performance,' which was a comment I'd not heard before." Following up on that observation, Stone learned that the Kpelle expect performances that are enacted for the sake of entertainment to be segmented, while ritual performances are supposed to be continuous and unending. "It was a comment I never could have elicited via direct questioning."

While being an audience member is integral to Stone's research methods, Askew incorporates performing into hers--though that was never her plan. "It wasn't part of my research agenda," she admits. But when she was in Kenya traveling with a band called Babloom Modern taarab in 1993, she crossed the already blurry line between audience and performer. "I'd been observing and interviewing when it came up that I was a musician too." Band members talked Askew into joining them on keyboards, and that sparked an avocation--continuing today, as her new band Toto Tundu performs frequently in Bloomington--as a musician in the very performance tradition she was studying.

The tradition is called taarab, a genre of songs associated with the Swahili coastal region that incorporates specific Indian and Arabic melodies and instruments along with African rhythms, language, and poetic meter. Though taarab lyrics first appear to make up straightforward love songs, Askew says, they employ metaphor and innuendo to offer "layer upon layer of social critique, political positioning, gender debate, identity contestation, and dispute negotiation." Part of the way in which these underlying meanings are elaborated upon is through the overt participation of the audience, especially through a highly developed and codified process of tipping.

As Askew describes in her monograph Performing the Nation: Swahili Musical Performance and the Production of Tanzanian National Culture, a great deal of political and social significance attends how and when an audience member chooses to stand up, approach the stage, and tip the band during a taarab performance. For example, Askew tells of one woman, Naima, who during a performance requested a particular song and then ventured up to the stage several times to tip the singer and cast pointed looks at another table. "Clearly, Naima was sending some kind of message," Askew observes. "Local gossip confirmed that Naima was considerably older than Salim, her boyfriend with whom she shared her table. The significant looks she cast in the other direction were targeted for Fatima, his former girlfriend who also happened to be in attendance that particular evening." Because the taraab song being performed included lyrics like "People, it shouldn't cause trouble that I am in love with him" and "For how long will he be too young? Leave it to me to bring him to maturity," the message was fairly explicit.

For her part, Fatima responded by requesting a song herself--"The One Who Thinks She Can Beat Me"--and attempting to outdo Naima in the amounts and frequency of her tips and the elaborateness of her gestures and bodily movements in her trips to and from the stage. There's more afoot in a taraab performance, then, than music appreciation; it's a forum for what Askew calls "dispute management."

But it's also an opportunity for audience members who aren't engaged in a dispute to assert and project a certain kind of identity. Other women--and women are usually the ones who avail themselves of tipping and its expressive capacities--also tipped during Naima and Fatima's songs, but they did so in a way that intentionally differed from the competing women. "They're enacting themselves as not in the feuding category," Askew explains. "In their demeanor of going up and tipping very plainly, they're sending a message of 'I'm a demure Muslim woman.'"

Toto Tundu (meaning "Clever Children" in Swahili) performs music from the coast of Tanzania and Kenya, a genre of sung poetry known as taarab. taarab performances range in style from the forty-piece classical orchestras of Zanzibar to smaller bands that perform "modern taarab" on mostly electronic instruments. Established in 1997 by the husband-and-wife team of Tanzanian taarab star Seif Kisauji and Kelly Askew with graduate students from IU's ethnomusicology program, Toto Tundu is introducing modern taarab to American audiences. Most recently, Toto Tundu performed for the forty-third Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology hosted by Indiana University, October 2125, 1998. Its members are pictured here (left to right). Row 1: Brad Shope, Christopher Askew-Merwin, Matthew Lavoie. Row 2: Kelly Askew, Seif Kisauji, Peter Alyea. Row 3: Kassim Kisauji, Joan Zaretti, Alex Perullo. Row 4: Daniel Reed, Ilze Akerbergs, and Robert Port, professor of linguistics and computer sciences at IUB. --credit

Askew's participation in these events lends her a singular perspective; when she details how audience members attempt to distinguish themselves by tipping in unusual ways such as plastering the money on the singer's sweaty forehead or even placing it in the singer's mouth, she does so with the experience of having been the singer so tipped. "It makes singing rather difficult," she confirms.

The Tanzanian musical tradition yields political and social significance on the macro level as well. "In a thirty-year-old country with 120 ethnic groups, the importance of music to constructing an official national identity is significant," Askew says. That's why, in 1962, President Julius Nyerere created a Ministry of National Culture and Youth and declared that "its culture is the essence and spirit of any nation."

The problem is, Askew has discovered, that the Tanzanian government's investment in this ministry--ostensibly the most important of all its ministries--was wholly rhetorical rather than financial. "Their phone was disconnected while I was there," Askew reports. "They had no transportation. I did a lot of work with the government's cultural officers to see what it is they do. Usually, it's nothing." She remembers sitting in one office watching the cultural officer knit. She looked up at Askew and said, defensively--one imagines--"Well, this is a cultural activity."

Another problem facing the ministry from the beginning was the inherent difficulty of imposing a cultural policy on a community with its own organic and fluid aesthetic preferences. Taarab, for instance, was never endorsed in early Tanzanian cultural policy documents. "It was seen as too Arab, too coastal," Askew says. "It doesn't fit the stereotype of what African music is supposed to sound like." But by 1992 taarab had taken the country by storm, with countless troupes performing everywhere, not just in Swahili communities. That same year, Askew observes, "the government decided to create a brand-new taarab troupe and utilize the taarab potency to its own ends."

In other words, the political and emotional impact of the taarab tradition proved to be too effective for the government to ignore. And it is on the subject of music's compelling emotional component that Askew and Stone's comments again coincide. How can the intellectual disciplines of the academy hope to adequately explore this medium? "That's always been an awkward relationship," Askew admits. "Music departments face that dilemma more commonly, though not necessarily more successfully. Maybe that's why we anthropologists find value in anecdotes. Other social scientists don't always agree; they think that's frivolous."

Stone expands on the subject from the perspective of folklore: "Music somehow moves people. It changes people. It really has this affective quality. In much of our academic writing we've had difficulty expressing that emotional tone."


It no doubt helps, though, that both scholars spend their most valuable research time studying the music not on videos or analog sound recordings but in the very communities where the music flourishes and evolves, embedded in emotionally charged communal contexts like taarab performances and funerals. Whether you're an audience member or one of the musicians, the experience of the performance establishes itself as something much more than the sum of its academic parts. "If we, as researchers, don't get caught up in it," Stone muses, "we're not human. Something's wrong with that."

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