Category Archives: Ethnomusicology

Kumi wudui vocal culture

 

Ryūkyūan kumi wudui (組踊, Japanese kumi odori) uses a variety of codified vocal techniques to identify the gender and social class of each character. Degrees of musicality, variation in timbre, and pitch inflection are all understood as emblematic of particular character types.

These vocal techniques are constructed within Ryūkyūan society with reference to the Ryūkyūan language, class system, and gender relationships. Many parallels can be drawn between the ways vocal identities are constructed in kumi wudui vocal culture and in other world theater traditions.

This according to “Listening to the voice in kumiudui: Representations of social class and gender through speech, song, and prosody” by Matt Gillan (Asian music XLIX/1 [winter–spring 2018] pp. 4–33).

Below, some examples of kumi wudui vocal types.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Dramatic arts

Tanzanian rap and neosocialist moralities

 

Rap songs from Tanzania’s urban youth are especially popular due to two factors: (1) unlike the majority of countries in Africa, Tanzania has a well-established national language, Swahili, which is spoken from one end of the country to the other, and has enabled the emergence of a well-subscribed sentiment of national belonging; and (2) as of 2013, 64% of Tanzania’s population was 25 years old or younger.

Like much youth music, a constant theme for Tanzanian rap is romance and relationships, but social and political critique has also proven emblematic of the genre. With penetrating lyrics, Swahili rappers target those who engage in predatory capitalism and political corruption—elites who hoard resources to accrue ever more wealth, spending it in an ever more conspicuous style, while the majority find their lives made ever more difficult.

This according to “Neosocialist moralities versus neoliberal religiousities: Constructing musical publics in 21st century Tanzania” by Kelly M. Askew, an essay included in Mambo moto moto: Music in Tanzania today (Berlin: VWB: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2016, pp. 61–74).

Above and below, Soggy Doggy’s Nyerere uses clips of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, who believed that socialism was the antidote to colonial-era capitalism.

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Filed under Africa, Politics, Popular music

Asante gold-dust weights

Until the second half of the mid-19th century, the Asante and related peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast used small brass castings made by the lost-wax process as weights for measuring their gold-dust currency.

These weights, made in large numbers by professional metal workers, came in all shapes and sizes. There were two sorts of weights: those which represent miniature objects, creatures, and activities from local life, and those in non-representational, geometrical forms.

Many of the representational weights depicted musical instruments, either on their own or being played, and activities which traditionally took place to the accompaniment of music. The great majority of these weights show only two types of instruments: ivory trumpets, and various types of drums.

This according to “Music and gold-weights in Asante” by Malcolm Donald McLeod (British museum yearbook 1980, pp. 225–42).

Above, a weight depicting a pair of atumpan drums of the Akan people; below, the atumpan in action.

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments

Cuba’s corneta china

 

As one of the four main ethnic groups in Cuba, the Chinese people have made notable cultural contributions. Among the most significant of these is the corneta china, a shawm derived from the Chinese suona.

The instrument is no longer played by Chinese Cubans; rather, the corneta china has been appropriated by other ethnic groups—particularly in the eastern region of the island, where it is played almost exclusively by performers of African descent. Despite a short-lived attempt to reintroduce the instrument in Cuban performances of the Chinese Lion Dance in the 1980s and early 1990s, the corneta china and its originators have followed separate paths.

This according to “The Chinese community and the corneta china: Two divergent paths in Cuba” by Rolando Antonio Pérez Fernández (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI [2014] pp. 62–88).

Above and below, the corneta china in action.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, West Indies

African pianism and musicology

 

The African pianism developed by the Nigerian composer Akin Euba (above) is not well-suited to the research style of traditional musicology, and the limitations of conventional musicological perspectives and analytical models for research on this cultural phenomenon are obvious.

Ethnomusicology and other disciplines such as cultural anthropology may provide approaches and viewpoints that can be adopted in musicological research on African pianism.

This according to “My understanding of African pianism/我对非洲钢琴艺术研究的一些认识” by Li Xin, an essay included in Dialogues in music: Africa meets Asia/亚非相遇: 中非音乐对话 (Richmond: MRI, 2011, pp. 59–68, 345–353).

Below, Kingsley Otoijamun performs an excerpt from Euba’s Scenes from traditional life.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Africa, Curiosities

T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai, film star

 

The legendary nāgasvaram player T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai performed in two films—once just in a cameo as himself, but once as the star!

In 1940 Rajarathnam Pillai appeared in Kalamegam, portraying the 15th-century Tamil poet Kavi Kalamegam. The film’s director, Ellis R. Dungan, recalled working with him:

“When Rajarathnam was sober, he was fine and took direction well with interest. But when he was lit, he could not be controlled and proved a nuisance and a pest on the set. Of course, when he became sober, he would apologize for his unruly conduct. People treated him like some kind of god because he was a big gun…I also found that he was very fond of women! But then who is not?”

The role required Rajarathnam Pillai to sing, which he did beautifully—but unfortunately his many fans only wanted to hear him play the nāgasvaram, and the film failed at the box office. No prints remain; only a handful of stills and recordings attest to Rajarathnam’s single appearance as a film star.

This according to “Foray into films” by Randor Guy (Sruti CLXXI [December 1998] pp. 39–42).

Today is Rajarathnam Pillai’s 120th birthday! Above and below, rare artefacts of the film.

BONUS: Rajarathnam Pillai plays the nāgasvaram!

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Filed under Asia, Performers

Asian-European music research e-journal

In summer 2018 the Asia-Europe Music Research Center at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music launched Asian-European music research e-journal, a peer-reviewed open-access journal that publishes scholarship on traditional and popular musics and fieldwork research, and on recent issues and debates in Asian and European communities. The journal places a specific emphasis on interconnectivity in time and space between Asian and European cultures, as well as within Asia and Europe.

The journal provides a forum to explore the impacts of post-colonial and globalizing movements and processes on these musics, the musicians involved, sound-producing industries, and resulting developments in today’s music practices. It adopts an open-minded perspective on diverse musics and musical knowledge cultures.

Below, a silent film shot in Bali in 1928—part of Bali 1928, a repatriation project discussed in the inaugural issue.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, New periodicals

Béla Fleck’s Africa Project

In early 2005 Béla Fleck traveled to Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, and Mali to meet, jam, and record with an impressive array of musicians, bringing along a recording engineer, a film crew, and enough gear to ensure that no encounter would go unrecorded. He accompanied the player of a massive marimba in Uganda, played with kalimba masters and harpists in Tanzania, and encountered a possible banjo ancestor—the akonting—in Gambia.

In an interview, Fleck explained that his aggressive travel agenda was part of a strategy to circumvent his inner control freak. “By putting myself in a situation where I couldn’t really be completely prepared, I was forced to dig deep into things that I do that I can’t tell you where they come from. I have been pegged as a complicated guy, and so it’s funny that I feel freer not being complicated in this setting.”

This according to “Béla Fleck’s Africa Project” by Banning Eyre (Guitar player August 2009).

Today is Fleck’s 60th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from his award-winning film Throw down your heart.

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Filed under Africa, Instruments, Performers

Karinding Attack’s heavy metal bamboo

Karinding Attack is a group from Bandung, West Java, that performs original songs, covers international death metal hits, and engages in collaborations with musicians who specialize in other genres—all to the accompaniment of Sundanese bamboo musical instruments that were virtually extinct only 20 years ago.

After the Sundanese people’s embrace of a hegemonic modernity in the 20th century relegated these instruments to obscurity, their efflorescence represents an alternative modernity in which, instead of adopting disdain for their own past as the primitive Other against which European hegemonic modernity is constructed, Sundanese people construct their own history against which to articulate a coherent Sundanese modernity.

This according to “Heavy metal bamboo: How archaic bamboo instruments became modern in Bandung, Indonesia” by Henry Spiller, an essay included in Studies on a global history of music: A Balzan musicology project (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018, pp. 241–55).

Below, Karinding Attack covers Sepultura’s Refuse/Resist.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Instruments, Popular music

Balasaraswati and bharata nāṭyam

T. Balasaraswati (1918–84), a dancer and musician from southern India, became recognized worldwide as one of the great performing artists of the twentieth century. In India she was a legend in her own time, acclaimed before she was 30 years old as the greatest living dancer of traditional bharata nāṭyam.

Balasaraswati was a passionate revolutionary, an entirely modern artist whose impact was proclaimed by some of the most prominent figures in contemporary dance in India and the West. Her art and life defined the heart of a tradition, and her life story offers an extraordinary view of the enigmatic matrilineal devadāsī community and traditional artistic practice from which modern South Indian dance styles have emerged.

This according to Balasaraswati: Her art and life by Douglas M. Knight (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010).

Today is Balasaraswati’s 100th birthday! Below, a 30-minute film about her by Satyajit Ray.

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Filed under Asia, Dance, Performers