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10 Questions for Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje: Looking back and forward ? from the violin?s roots in Africa to the future of ethnomusicology

December 20th, 2009 · 21 Comments


Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje is professor and chair of the Ethnomusicology Department at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Professor DjeDje is author of the 2008 book, Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures, which won the Alan Merriam Prize. The award, given by the Society for Ethnomusicology to ?the most distinguished published English-language monograph in the field of ethnomusicology,? was announced in November of 2009 ? the latest honor for Professor DjeDje, who has been on the UCLA faculty since 1979. The recipient of two awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Professor DjeDje is also the author of Distribution of the One String Fiddle in West Africa, American Black Spiritual and Gospel Songs from Southeast Georgia: A Comparative Study, and Black Religious Music from Southeast Georgia (a recording with accompanying booklet). Professor DjeDje, who received her doctorate and master?s degree from the school?s Ethnomusicology Department, has conducted research throughout West Africa and the United States. She spoke with students who were taking a Fall 2009 music journalism course (Ethnomusicology 188, Lecture 3) at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Professor DjeDje talked about the future of ethnomusicology, her past research, how her ?60s activism helped propel her scholarly career, and other subjects. The interviewers were Joseph Buchanan, Christopher Robinson, Ji-Won Kim, Jennifer Li, and Jeehai Song.

Ji-Won Kim: Can you describe when you first discovered ethnomusicology ? when you realized that this was something interesting?

Professor DjeDje: I suppose everyone has this epiphany for ethnomusicology, because we don?t grow up in our lives saying we?re going to become an ethnomusicologist. We may talk about becoming a doctor and lawyer and maybe even a journalist, because these professions are around us, but who wakes up in the morning and says, ?I?m going to be an ethnomusicologist?? Even in high school, you don?t say that you?re going to be an ethnomusicologist. So it?s later in life. In my case, it was when I was a junior at Fisk University ? a historically black school in Nashville, Tennessee. Even though Fisk was founded in 1866, as an only-black school, throughout its history, there was very little about African or African-American culture that was a part of the music curriculum. It was really a Western curriculum, like most schools. Even still today, at historically black schools, if you go to a Fisk or a Morehouse, it?s not very different from coming to UCLA in terms of what you study. So, when I was at Fisk, this was the time of the civil rights period. I?m a child of the ?60s. I entered Fisk because it was supposed to be an excellent school for piano concert music ? and I wanted to become a concert pianist.

Have you heard of Stokely Carmichael? He was the leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). He came to Fisk my freshman year, and we were all excited and going out to protest and march, and this and that. And the police were surrounding the university. I was so excited. I went into my dorm and called home, and said, ?Daddy, daddy ? I?m protesting! I?m protesting!? And he said, ?Child ? you better go into your room and get underneath your bed.? (Professor DjeDje and the class laugh.) Somebody was shot during that protesting. Even though we did it and were excited about it, it was sometimes dangerous. But as a result of him coming to Fisk during that freshman year, many of us thought that changes needed to occur within the curriculum. And so all of us began to agitate for change within the music curriculum.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were there. They are well-known for introducing the spiritual ? an African-American art form ? back in the 1870s. But basically that was it. They sang the spirituals, but there was nothing in the curriculum. As a result of our agitation, in my junior year, Fisk invited Darius Thieme to teach a course on African music. He was an ethnomusicologist ? he did research in Nigeria, and studied there for two or three years before writing his dissertation. He was originally from the United States. He taught a course one quarter on African music, and then another quarter on music of the African diaspora. That just blew my mind. While growing up in a small town, and playing in a church, playing classical music, you?d snub your nose up at anything that was not classical. We privileged European classical music. And anything that was not that was not good. So to see all of that within the context of the university was special because it gave African music a certain amount of legitimacy that I had not experienced. So I asked Dr. Thieme if this was something you could really study, and he said, ?Yes.? And I said, ?Where? How?? And he said, ?Ethnomusicology.? And when he saw that I was serious, he said, ?If you?re serious about it, then you need to go to UCLA, because they have the major program for ethnomusicologists.?

So in my senior year I applied, and I was also able to get a nice grant ? a fellowship that paid for my training for five years. So, I came here. Actually, Fisk was ahead of its time. I think it was one of the only schools ? except for UCLA ? in the entire United States teaching courses on African music and the music of the African diaspora. This was in 1967. At UCLA, the ethnomusicology department didn?t add courses on African-American music until about 1967. Fisk was ahead of its time.

Joseph Buchanan: So this experience gave you an appreciation and pride in your own music and Western African traditions?

Professor DjeDje: Definitely. And I suppose that most people who are not from the European tradition probably had pride to be able to go to a place like a UCLA or anywhere else in academe and study the music of their traditions. Bringing it to the academy ? that wasn?t easy, I?m sure, at certain schools. UCLA was important because we had people like Mantle Hood. He received his M.A. here in composition. After finishing his M.A., he went to the Netherlands and studied with Jaap Kunst and received his Ph.D. focusing on the music of Indonesia. And then he came back here and began to develop courses in performance. He was a composer and was probably interested in figuring out ways to write music, and he needed to have the sounds and all the resources here. So he began to introduce various cultures, primarily from Asia ? Indonesia; Thailand; China; Korea; Japan. This was the ?50s and early ?60s. And then starting in 1963, 1964 and 1965, he began to invite people from other parts of the world to work here ? from Africa and also Persia, the Philippines.

He became friends with a man by the name of J.H. Kwabena Nketia. He was invited here in 1963 to teach a course during the summer with the African Studies Center. James S. Coleman, who was director of African Studies, invited Nketia to teach this course. That?s when Nketia and Hood established a relationship, even though they had met each other previously. But eventually, Hood was invited to the University of Ghana to study the music there. After going to Ghana, Hood made the film, ?Atumpan: The Talking Drums of Ghana,? and meeting some of those individuals, he decided to bring some of them back to teach African music at UCLA. Hood was a remarkable person. As someone with that kind of vision, he was able to get support from major foundations to bring in people. He caused UCLA to be a major player in terms of education. He had an interesting personality. Whenever he walked into a room, everyone knew he was there.

Joseph Buchanan: As you look back on the enthusiasm that went into building UCLA?s program, and you look at the current state of ethnomusicology ? does the field still have that enthusiasm? Is there still a lot of work to be done, or has most of the groundwork been done already? What new can be added to the field?

Professor DjeDje: There?s a whole lot that can be done. It?s only a drop in the bucket of what we?ve accomplished. Now that ethnomusicology has become a part of the academy, it has begun to embrace some of the approaches and methods and theories of the academy, and that?s fine. But there are also individuals who are still trying to make cutting-edge changes. There are certain barriers that still probably need to be broken. Here, at UCLA, because of our history of innovation, and always thinking differently, we?re probably in a good position to do that. I suppose the area where there seems to be interest in doing things is the creative area. To me, it?s almost as if we?ve gone full circle.

You had someone like a Hood who came in from composition, and probably became interested in all these new musics, these new sounds, because he wanted to integrate that into his work. That was important for him, but ethnomusicology has always been regarded as an academic tradition. In other words, you actually do research and write articles and books and eventually we began to make films, and that was accepted, but it?s been much more academic. And ethnomusicologists, here in the United States, have been pulled from anthropology, so the discipline has always had the culture focus, fusing ideas with anthropology. Ethnomusicologists study music and culture, so American ethnomusicology has had a focus on culture, whereas in other parts of the world, there has been a little more focus on music. The whole idea of studying music came from Europeans. People who were performers or composers were not always well-accepted within the discipline. The person who?s behind Africa Meets North America, Akin Euba ? one of the reasons he did this is that, as a composer, he didn?t feel that he was accepted within academe or ethnomusicology. He?s a graduate of UCLA. His degree is in composition, similar to Hood. And whenever you talk to people about using composition as a way to explore issues related to the world, rather than just through the academy and writing, you hear, ?Oh, yeah ? that?s good. But does it really belong? What could you actually say? How would it contribute to our greater understanding of issues related to the field??

Euba has told me that whenever he wrote proposals to present something on ethnomusicology at conferences, they were not always accepted. If they were accepted, they were not scheduled on days when you had the most people there. It may have been put on Sunday, the very last day, when there are very few people. I don?t think organizers do that intentionally, but as program chair, you look at what most people are interested in. In any case, that?s when Euba decided to do his own thing. He came up with all these ideas of creative ethnomusicology, intercultural ethnomusicology, and this AMNA is a reflection of that interest.

This idea of creativity ? looking at world music as a basis for being much more creative ? those are areas that need to be broken now. We are interested in that. We just established a new undergraduate curriculum two years ago, and students can now choose either performance or composition as an emphasis. People can now choose public ethnomusicology. That?s another area that was marginalized. People thought that if you go into ethnomusicology, you need to go into the academy. If you?re going into, say, arts administration or anything that had to do with the public, you might hear, ?That?s OK, but that?s not real ethnomusicology.? There?d be a snub on that. Our undergraduate curriculum has made these major emphases, recognizing that these paths are just as important, and they need to be emphasized so that students who are interested in these areas are not discouraged because they?re not doing ethnomusicology. Actually, we want them to be encouraged. Some of our students have gone into museum work. Some are going into archives. Some are going into government. And as the world gets smaller, with so many diverse people around, I think you need to have someone with a background in ethnomusicology to come up with new ways of working with people.

Jennifer Li: You were classically trained as a pianist. Have you ever trained as a classical violinist?

Professor DjeDje: No. The reason I became involved with the violin was because of my daughter. She was a violinist, and she started with the Suzuki method, when she was about five or six. Originally, she started with piano because I was playing piano and teaching her. Then, a teacher who came to her school introduced the violin. And his idea was to provide lessons for all the students at the school. She took lessons for that year. This was a private school, and they weren?t able to bring in the person again the next year, and there were not enough people willing to pay the lessons, so the program didn?t continue. She said, ?I really want to play the violin.? Suzuki allows you to play the instrument early, rather than the traditional Western way of teaching violin, so I identified a violin teacher who was Suzuki-trained, and she took violin. That became my interest in the violin.

Noteworthy is the fact that playing the violin was something that she wanted to do but her friends questioned why she wanted to learn the violin, because her father is from West Africa. ?Why aren?t you learning drumming,? they asked. ?Why aren?t you dancing, or doing this? ? the stereotype of following in the tradition of her father, and asking why she was studying this Western European instrument. And I said, ?Wait a minute now ? the violin is not only Western, it?s African; it?s global.? And I?d done all this research on the West African violin. That?s when I said, ?Why don?t I make my research on the violin more available to the world?? I wanted to do a cross-cultural study, looking at the African violin as well as the role of the African-American here in North America. It dates all the way back to the 17th century.

Interestingly, Africans were the people who played the violin here in North America. Whites didn?t always play the violin, because they saw it as work, and it was the Africans who did the work while the whites were there for the entertainment. Some Europeans taught their slaves violin, and Africans performed at settings or balls for them. So the violin was probably the most dominant instrument in African-American culture, up until the early 20th century. During slavery, it was more popular than the banjo, which actually came from Africa. So, with all this history, it was important for my daughter to feel comfortable ? to have legitimacy in the eyes of her peers. She could say, ?This is not necessarily Western. I am following my heritage by studying the violin.? So that?s how I became interested.

I?m not a violinist, except for the time that I was in Ghana and I was studying the violin. I was studying the gonje as part of my research, for about a year. But I?m a keyboardist. So those of you who play instruments, transferring the keyboard to the violin is not very easy.

Joseph Buchanan: Since your studies have taken you to West Africa, and you?re head of the Ethnomusicology Department, and with everything else you do, do you still have time for your classical piano playing?

Professor DjeDje: No. Not at all. When we had this (Africa Meets North America) conference here, it made me realize how much I miss playing the instrument. Being in academe, with scholarship, administration and teaching, it just does not allow me time to perform. I haven?t been able to find a balance. This is one of the things I?m looking forward to when I retire ? to devote my time to playing piano because, now, there?s just so much more repertoire available on Africa and African-American music.

I?m sure there were compositions before, but they were not accessible. People wrote their compositions, but no one was interested in publishing them. So you didn?t know anything about it unless you contacted the person and said, ?Send me your manuscript,? and maybe you?d pull together the manuscript so it?s legible, so you could perform it. But now, there?s just so much available. Publishers are publishing it. So it would be fascinating to go back and look at what?s there and learn it. Even just playing for myself, rather than playing for an audience ? I look forward to doing that.

Joseph Buchanan: Since you had experience in the classical world as a young person, and experience as an ethnomusicologist in West African traditions, do you find that it takes the same or equal amount of formal training and dedication to learn a one-string African fiddle and classical piano?

Professor DjeDje: I think it?s dedication all around. To me, it?s the individual ? if you?re really going to take something seriously, whether it?s a classical instrument or even a popular instrument, you have to be dedicated. I have a standard of excellence, and I sometimes am hard on myself because I?m trying to achieve excellence. And people who work with me may say, ?She?s very demanding.? (Laughs.) But it?s not ?demanding.? I believe that one should do their best, and the only way to do your best is to really be committed to doing that. So, yes, there?s this dedication.

When I studied the violin in Africa, I discovered they began learning the instrument in a way that?s very informal. In the part of Africa where I did my research, there were families of musicians, and therefore, you?re born into this family. You?re expected to learn this instrument. When the child is born, they may even hear the playing of the instrument at their naming ceremony, and when they?re introduced to the community. From when they?re about two or three years old, they?re given an instrument ? even though they?re not playing it, they?re supposed to go through the motions. Eventually, they?re supposed to learn the repertoire, learn the language ? this is required. So very early in their lives, this becomes something they?re supposed to do, like eating and drinking ? which is different from what we do here. We separate the two. We get up and we eat and drink and do this, and then we do our instrument, either for work or pleasure. In that particular part of the world, it?s a part of who you are as a person within that community. So, yes, there?s dedication and a commitment if you really want to excel.

Jeehai Song: In Korea, there?s the same emphasis, where families stress the playing of instruments that way, so that the playing is a natural part of their day.

Professor DjeDje: It used to be that way in many parts of the world. When I was doing my research on music in early America, I came across a culture of family musicianship. The fiddle was a popular instrument ? this was after slavery ? and you had, by that time, blacks and whites performing in these sort of fiddle bands. And you had children of different generations in a family who are performing the instrument. Sometimes, they used it for pleasure. There was not TV. There was not any of these technological entertainments, so they entertained themselves by playing musical instruments. Sometimes, they?d play for the community ? house parties or barn dances or perhaps there?s a major festival that takes place every year. So early in those families, children learned how to play instruments or learned how to perform the repertoire. So I think this is probably global.

Today, we separate musicianship as a profession and not as an experience, and we say, ?That person is going to be a performer. He or she has the talent and dedication to be a performer.? A person who is very good with math and science will be pushed to become a scientist or to enter the medical world. Today, you don?t think about allowing the person to do both if they wanted to do both. There?s this separation. In another time, you could do both. Sometimes people in the sciences were excellent musicians, especially in terms of theory. I had a friend, when I started at Fisk University ? I was a piano major and she was an exceptional pianist, and she was debating about whether she was going into math or piano. In the end, because of family pressure, she went into math. But out of all the people in my class, she was the best pianist. But she never did major in piano, because there was this separation.

Jeehai Song: In Ghana, where you did research, did you give advice on preserving their musical traditions?

Professor DjeDje: Whenever I go to a different part of the world, I try not to go in as if I?m the savior. I go in as someone who wants to learn. The people there are the authority and I want to learn, so I can share it with other people ? so they?re pretty much using me as a mouthpiece to make other people more aware of what they?re doing. It?s the individuals there who need to take responsibility for preserving it and maintaining it in whatever way they want. But you find that whenever someone like me goes into it and begins to recognize a tradition?s importance, people do take on that responsibility.

A good example is when I went back to Ghana in early 2000, and I interviewed one of the Dagbamba fiddlers I had researched, and he told me that he had started an archive. I said, ?Really?? And he said, ?Yes. All of these Europeans and people coming from the United States asking for this music ? it must be important, so perhaps I need to be able to save it.? And I said, ?How are you archiving it?? And for them, it?s the text, the song text that is important. Because the song text actually dates back to the 1700s, when Dagbon was just coming into existence as a political state, when the fiddlers had just entered their culture. And it was the song text for them that was very important ? they thought it was easy to learn how to play the instrument. But once the texts were lost, and the people who performed them were gone, there was no way to recover it. So what he?d begun to do is interview some of the senior people in his community, the elders within the family, and he?d begun to ask them to sing songs that they don?t normally perform, and wrote them down. He was Western-educated himself. He said, ?The young people may not be interested now, but at some point in time, they will be interested, and I?ll have the material for them.?

He lives in a very small village in northern Ghana, and he?s been writing down these song texts for the future. Whenever I record and document ? I use tapes ? I give copies to the musicians and their families. I give copies to the university where I was, and I also deposit material in the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive. In that way, the materials are preserved. But I think it?s really the responsibility of those individuals rather than me going in and saying, ?You need to do this.? To me, that?s one of the problems of the West, which is always going in and imposing their ways of doing things, and their values of things. And some people there believe it, and then the traditions of the native countries ? that helped them to survive in their own way ? they disappear.

Joseph Buchanan: You must have been upset by the theft of instruments at UCLA. Can you talk about that?

Professor DjeDje: I have a personal attachment to the instruments. I?m a graduate of UCLA, and I came here in 1970. I was around when a lot of these instruments were purchased. So you knew some of the people who were responsible for purchasing them. It?s always an interesting association when you make contact with individuals who either make instruments for you or purchase them for you. You get to know them, you establish rapport, and there are special students here in the department, and faculty, who were involved in the process. It just brings back memories. There?s this nostalgia that I have. It?s like taking something from your home that?s always been there.

Christopher Robinson: Last week, we got Professor Rice here, and he talked about some of his guilty musical pleasures. What do you listen to for fun and entertainment?

Professor DjeDje: I like gospel. I love gospel music. All types of gospel. It calms me, gives me strength. Sometimes when I come to work, I like to listen to classical music ? Western classical music. I love to hear the music of Chopin and Beethoven and some Bach, which takes me back to when I was a student. I still play that myself. When I?m going home, in the evening, I like to put on KJLH. I want to hear some R&B. I have a diverse musical palette.

Tags: Ethnomusicologists · Ethnomusicology · Faculty · Music education · Performance · Performance · Performers · School of Music · World Music · World music

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