Sunday, February 14, 2016

Institute for Signifying Scriptures: An Interview with Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, Professor Emeritus of Ethnomusicology at UCLA

Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, chair, Department of Ethnomusicology, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, photo by Patricia Williams

AfriClassical has followed the work of Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje for several years.  Here we post an excerpt from a recent interview which appeared in the Institute for Signifying Scriptures:

December 8, 2015

Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje is Professor Emeritus, former Chair of the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology, and former Director of the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive. Professor DjeDje is author, editor, and compiler of several books, collections of essays, and recordings, a few of which include Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures (2008); Fiddling in West Africa (1950s-1990s): The Recording (2007); Turn Up the Volume! A Celebration of African Music (1999); California Soul: Music of African Americans in the West (co-edited with Eddie S. Meadows, 1998). She has conducted field work in  West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Senegal), Southern Africa (South Africa and Zambia), and Northeast Africa (Ethiopia and Egypt); the Caribbean (Jamaica); and the western and southern United States, including California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. She has also served as President and Vice President of the Southern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology as well as Second Vice-President of the Society for Ethnomusicology. In addition, she has been a board member on a number of professional music organizations and has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). For her publication on Fiddling in West Africa, she was awarded the 2009 Alan Merriam Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology for the best book, and the 2010 Kwabena Nketia Book Prize (the inaugural award) from the Society for Ethnomusicology African Music Section for the most distinguished book published on African music.

by C. Travis Webb

Q: Your most recent work deals with the cultural (mis)representations of the fiddle. It’s a fascinating instrument, because as you mention in your work, it is already the site of contested representations within traditional Euro-American culture. The fiddle is most commonly associated with a folksy, tap your foot and dosey doe, down home southern good time, while the violin is associated with a buttoned up, respectable, classical Victorian parlor, even though they are, essentially, the same instrument. As you point out, though, this popular history—fraught as it is with class tensions—entirely white-washes the much longer history of the instrument, which reaches back across the Atlantic to the 11th century African savannah. It seems that the history of the fiddle in America, like the banjo, is yet another example of how white cultural appropriation tends to presage historical erasure. In this instance, the collective amnesia that this was an instrument used by certain African cultures as long as it had been used by European cultures, or perhaps longer—depending on whether you want to count the Byzantine lyra as “European”? How did you come to this history? Did your earlier work on African-American regional music prepare you for your current research on the fiddle, or was it perhaps something more intimate? Affection for The Mississippi Sheiks, familiarity with the instrument itself? I’d like to understand some of what brought you to the topic, before we head into the theoretical thicket, as it were.

A: Actually, I became interested in African fiddling during my first year as a graduate student at UCLA. J. H. Kwabena Nketia, the instructor of the “Music of Africa” course who later became my mentor, played a musical example in class to demonstrate a point he was making. I don’t remember the point, but I was blown away by the sound. It was East African music performed on the orutu (fiddle) by a Luo male singer from Kenya [1] (and here is another example of a performance of the orutu in the 21st century). As a result of listening to that example, I wrote a term paper on Luo fiddle music for the class. Nketia must have been impressed with my findings because he encouraged me (a year later, in fall 1972) to use the West African fiddle as the focus of my dissertation.[2] I should add that when I began my graduate training in the early 1970s, ethnomusicologists rarely talked about the “history” of traditional music because many researchers did not believe such a history could be documented. Since traditional music had generally been passed down or transmitted orally, the usual print sources that one would find in Western cultures were not always available; so this validated their point. Therefore, in African music, we often focused on performance or music making and sometimes the musician with little discussion of when or how it all began. But these narrow views have changed in modern times.

What’s interesting about this area of research is that while fiddling is widespread in many parts of the African continent (e.g., North, East, West, and even Central and Southern Africa), little is known about the instrument. Nketia probably thought that since much research had been conducted on drumming, this was an opportunity to bring attention to indigenous African fiddling, an important but often-ignored tradition. Although most African fiddles are constructed with one string, the ensemble organization in each culture tends to be distinct and the role and meaning of the tradition in each society also vary. For example, listen to “Barrahaza” by Haruna Yaron Goge, a Hausa fiddler from northern Nigeria,[3] and “Nyun Taa Jilma” by Salisu Mahama, a Dagbamba fiddler from northern Ghana.[4]

When I began my graduate studies at UCLA, I did not associate string or melodic instruments with Africa. I had been raised in a small town in southeast Georgia. And knowledge of Africa was shaped by what I saw or heard in the media, primarily Tarzan movies. Also, during the fifties and sixties, there was no black radio where I grew up. The music we heard on the radio was white country music by musicians like Eddy Arnold and Patti Page, and my mother loved it! She woke up every weekday morning listening to country music as she prepared breakfast and got ready for work. Of course, she also loved the music of black musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. But we only listened to black music on weekends — on Sundays in church or on special occasions (e.g., birthday parties) when she and my dad invited friends and family to our house. At those times, they took time to set up the Victrola record player and pull out their precious 78rpm disc recordings and listen to music late into the evenings.

Interestingly, my music education in high school and Fisk (I was a music major) did not change my narrow and biased perception of African music. In the first course I took on African music (at Fisk University in 1968, which was a rarity for a black college at that time), my professor, Darius Thieme, focused only on percussion whenever we discussed instrumental resources, probably because he had conducted research on music of the Yoruba of Nigeria where drums dominate. Although the Yoruba perform the fiddle, which I learned later when I began my research on fiddling while pursuing my PhD, this was never mentioned during our discussions on African music at Fisk or UCLA.

Comments by email:

1. Dear Bill,  Thanks for letting me know. I hope that all is well with you. Jackie
Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, Ph.D.

2.  Looks really interesting.....will explore!!!!  [Michael S. Wright]                                                                                                                                         

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