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In Merging of Music, Africa Met North America at UCLA

November 30th, 2009 · 6 Comments

In late October, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music hosted the third international Africa Meets North America symposium and festival. Workshops, performances ? and dialogue ? were central to the event, which drew scholars and musicians from around the world. Also there were four students ? Joseph Buchanan, Ji-Won Kim, Jennifer Li, and Jeehai Song ? who are taking a music-journalism course (Ethnomusicology 188, Lecture 3) at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Through their words and observations, Buchanan, Li, Kim, and Song captured the spirit of the symposium and festival.

An Integration of Tonal Colors

By Joseph Buchanan

The international symposium and festival of music held at UCLA?s Schoenberg Hall, designated a Dialogue in Music Project, was an entertaining and educational endeavor that more than met its objective to

CK Ladzekpo leading an opening performance at the AMNA event (photo by Katie Stuffelbeam)

CK Ladzekpo leading an opening performance at the AMNA event (photo by Katie Stuffelbeam)

merge cultural diversity through aesthetics. The organizers of the event wanted to illustrate and illuminate the influence African music has on North America, and engage a discourse through scholarship and musicianship. Saturday, October 24 was the Drumming, Jazz, and Art Music concert. The evening was hosted by Professor Kimasi Browne, director of Ethnomusicology at Azusa Pacific University. Dressed in a long colorful African dashiki, Professor Browne set the tone by inviting the audience to participate in a question-and-answer session regarding the conception and arrangement of the musical performances. It was akin to a town-hall meeting, which engaged the cerebral and accentuated the aesthetic.

An eclectic array of musical styles was merged together to incorporate the melodic, harmonic and metrical aspects of African, American and European art forms. It was a delightful integration of polyrhythms and tonal colors, aptly described as ?a multi-textured painting? by Bill Banfield, who wrote and performed his original composition, ?Essay for Orchestra.? The central theme of the dialogue was Africa meets North America. And the performance by the Ethiopian-born classical pianist Girma Yifrashewa exemplified/embodied this theme with his rearrangement of a popular tune from his native land entitled ?Tenkaraw Menfese? (My Strong Will).

The Ethiopian folk song was rearranged in classical style for quartet consisting of Girma on piano and members of the UCLA Philharmonia: Luke Santonastaso (violin), Jonathan Sacdalan (clarinet) and Jennifer Li (cello). Girma was attired in black pants and a shirt over which he wore a green, yellow and red vest ? the colors of the Ethiopian flag and, more appropriately, colors that represent the ideology of Pan-Africanism. Other members of the quartet had on a white African-inspired embroidered tunic over black trousers, which reflected a connection with the ongoing cultural dialogue. The instrumentation provided the rich tones and rhythmic complexity, and the haunting melodic structure spoke of Africa. Like an African griot reciting tribal history, the song was nostalgic and reflective of the rich historical legacy of Ethiopia. A classical arrangement illustrated the contrast and bridged the cultural connection.

Another performer was Jason Squinobal, a doctoral student, composer and wood-wind player who merged elements of avant-garde jazz improvisation and reggae with African polyrhythms, and pushed the boundaries of blending idioms. While Squinobal (sax), Sean Sheriden (guitar) and A.J. Bunel (piano) wore black suits with white shirt and tie, both of the African conga players wore dashikis and provided a steady rhythmic pulse. Jazz riffs were set against traditional West African beats. After each piece, Squinobal gave the audience a brief synopsis of the melodic and harmonic free-form structure, and discussed the connection between African and American musical forms. His treatment of Bob Marley?s ?Redemption Song? was an intriguing rendition, with the bass clarinet and guitar alternating lead verses while the piano and congas maintained the reggae syncopated rhythm. It demonstrated an excellent example of merging musical genres through innovative use of textual and tonal sonorities.

According to Kimasi Browne, the UCLA Herb Albert School of Music?s Department of Ethnomusicology ?for the first time in history brought together like minds and all the genres out of the African diaspora?an event predicated on an African thing.? This festival was an integration of tonal colors and the merger of diverse musical forms that helped to bridge a cultural gap. Let us keep this dialogue open.

Uncommon Harmony at UCLA

By Ji-Won Kim

The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music?s Ethnomusicology Department is definitely one of a kind. At no other place can one be taught and also engage in so many world music cultures. Each academic year is filled with world music ensembles, visiting artist workshops, symposia focused on particular cultures, and special concerts. For proof, the department hosted the Africa Meets North America symposium and festival. On October 22, music lovers squeezed into the choir room, not only to be educated but to actively participate in African music traditions. All eyes and ears were tuned to Jean Kidula, professor at the University of Georgia and also a UCLA alumna, as she presented her workshop, ?British Colonial Government, the Christian Missionary Enterprise, and the Modeling of Musical Styles in Kenya.?

The workshop was not merely a lecture ? it was a time of musical bonding between the diverse people in the room. The space was filled with UCLA professors, music students, non-music students, visiting scholars, and many others who had the genuine desire to learn about the ties between western customs and African music. Once the actual music was taught to the attendees, magic happened. More than a hundred individuals from radically different musical backgrounds came together in one voice. Professor Kidula encouraged everyone to also dance ? and not a single person hesitated to get up from his or her seat. Not very often, does one get to participate, let alone observe, such diverse harmony. Amazingly, it?s quite common at UCLA.

Key participants from the Africa Meets North America conference (photo by Beto Gonzalez)

Key participants from the Africa Meets North America conference (photo by Beto Gonzalez)

Musical Evening Ends on a High Note

By Jennifer Li

The first loud crack of the iron rod hitting against the thick skin of the Ghanaian brekete drum rudely awoke the audience from its tired slumber. The accent resonated through Schoenberg Hall?s 550-seat auditorium. When the stage lit up, a renewed liveliness began to fill the half-empty space.

As Obo Addy pounded the instrument, showing off his virtuosic ability to bring out the different tones and colors of a single drum, members of the audience began to groove to the steady rhythmic pulse.

Addy may have been a one-man show at the end of a long evening, but he certainly didn?t leave without a bang.

Professor Emeritus J. H. Kwabena Nketia giving a keynote lecture -- photo by Beto Gonzalez

Professor Emeritus J. H. Kwabena Nketia giving a keynote lecture (photo by Beto Gonzalez)

Karen Wilson ? A Singer of Life

By Jeehai Song

Musically, she puts the burdens of life into small pieces, then throws them to the air. Her straight verses of life resonate with courage. A pioneer of the ?blues woman? genre, Karen Wilson of UC Riverside paid homage to women composers, lyricists, and performers ?who put the genre of blues on the cultural map of the United States.?

Wilson?s October 22 performance held me from the beginning. Highlights included ?Big Mama?s Hound Dog ? and ?Now, Baby, or Never,? which describes waiting for a lover to make up his mind. That night, listening to Wilson, I could throw away my own burdens.

Tags: School of Music

6 responses so far ↓

  • CWatson // Jul 24, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Last year, I had a chance to visit the area of Ethopia that is home to some of its most purest tribes that still live by ancient customes. This are is known as the “Omo Valley”. This area has many unique tribes that play a variety of great Ethiopian folk songs and due this by the pure power of their vocal abilities and homemade musical instruments. has pics of the tribes so you can get an idea of what I mean by unique. Its a truly amazing thing to watch in person if you ever get the chance to visit Ethiopia.

  • shaydrums // Aug 18, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    The influence of African music on North American music is huge. Of course this is mainly rhythmic. The syncopated rhythms of jazz, pop, R&B, and some rock would not exist without the African influence. Call-and-response vocal phrasing mostly comes from the African influence as well.

  • preston // Jun 26, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    As a lover of music, especially jazz and the blues, I have always been keenly aware and appreciative of the influence of African musical traditions on the music of North America. Once again UCLA, through the work of their Herb Alpert School of Music, has exhibited why they are one of the nation’s great universities. I know several people who have been terrifically schooled in their Department of Ethnomusicology. Go Bruins! Another job well done.

  • gearone // Dec 5, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Love reading about other cultures, thanks for posting.

  • andrewadam88 // Sep 28, 2013 at 1:04 am

    It is interesting information and I must say that the musical culture and traditions of South Africa are very better and perfect than America.

  • emmalomax // Jan 13, 2015 at 9:34 am

    This is really very useful posting about merging music in North America. Thumbs up for this great article.