Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Well, plans have a way of changing, and mine are no exception. I left Cameroon early and am now taking it easy in Scarborough. Some of you know I was tentatively planning another tropical expedition unrelated to my research for early this year, but now I don't expect to leave the continent of North America any time soon. When I'll be relocating to Ann Arbor is still unknown, but I expect it will be between May and September 2007.

What will become of this blog? I don't know. Eventually, I will get around to posting more photos of Bangangte here - that's for certain. I might keep it as a regularly updated blog concerning whatever happens to be going on with me: a way to disseminate news. That would require changing some of the blog settings, which is not a big deal. So, we'll see. Thanks for reading so far. (Yes, this photo was taken in Bangangte.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

many facets

A lot of anthropologists who work in former colonies encounter a great deal of suspicion and disapproval in the field. The locals, of course, had decades of oppression, dishonesty, and betrayal at the hands of white people with questions, tape recorders, and clip-boards; one can understand being wary today. I, however, have not encountered much of that. Most people are dying to participate in my study, give their opinion etc. Presumably, though, there are people who don't feel good about me doing a study in Bangangté, but who just stay quiet or avoid me. There is one guy who comes into the coffee shop regularly, who is not like this; he lets everyone know exactly what's on his mind. When he's having a bad day, he more or less tries to find just the right way to bother everyone else there. With me, he blames me personally for the systematic exploitation of Africa by Europe and North America for the past several centuries, or he tells me all the reasons I'm a terrible anthropologist. In all honesty, the guy is clearly pretty unhappy; he hates Europe and he hates Africa; he has lots of big ideas about changing the world and making a living, but he's broke and unemployed. Other people think he's borderline insane.

Today, I saw him and asked him if he'd like to do one of my informal interviews. I wondered if he might just refuse or start making fun of me. Instead, he lit up like a Christmas tree - clearly thrilled to have been asked. Maybe I got him on the right day, maybe he's thirsty for someone to take him seriously, maybe both. He especially enjoyed telling me why he likes jazz (which he was exposed to during university); he sees it as importantly connected to the liberation of black people. I believe it was a satisfying exchange for both of us, and he was very appreciative of the cash gift I give to everyone who participates.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

further developments

What happened in the aftermath of three musicians quitting that group? The board members had a talk with me and explained their rationale for the rule: if loyalties are thinly divided, they fear that no one will take responsibility for anything. They also said that, since I'm just a visitor, the rule doesn't apply to me; I can do what I want, as far as they're concerned.

However, the musicians themselves said petty jealousy was the real explanation for this rule, and, furthermore, that it would be inappropriate (as in, socially weird, a faux pas)for me to both stay with the first group and join a new group. They said that it was my decision and that there would be no hard feelings regardless of which direction I take, but that I must choose between them. I objected in vain. I'm not going to leave the first group, but I haven't given up hope of getting to know the new group. Last night, on the spur of the moment, they invited me to perform with them, which I did. And, by coincidence, one of their dancers is a server at a restaurant I frequent.

Both the drumming and the dancing they displayed were fantastic - a significant cut above the average, it seemed to me (the musicians themselves don't mind telling me that they hold their own playing in the same high esteem). Most of them have been gigging musicians since the age of ten. They launched right in at break-neck tempo, eschewing the typical practice of slowly increasing speed as excitement builds among the assembly. Even to play maracas with these folks was both a thrill and an honour.

And what has happened for the original group in performance? They have some new people who, to my ear, are certainly not as good. Second - and surprisingly - one of the guys who supposedly quit returns for performances, but doesn't attend regular meetings! In other words, he's still breaking the rule, everyone seems to know it, but no action has been taken yet.

can't resist

Two or three months ago, I performed with an ensemble at an opening ceremony-of-sorts in Bangangte. Lots of townspeople were in attendance. What I didn't notice was that someone was videotaping the proceedings. Last week, as I walked into town in the morning, several of my friends stopped me to ask if I'd watched TV the night before. It turns out that exerpts from this opening ceremony had been broadcast on national television (a channel called "CANAL 2") to advertise the Medumba Cultural Festival which opened in Bangangte on July 8th. My maraca-playing had been featured and now people all over the country know there's a foreigner in Bangangte who can play "traditional" music. One of my friends in the Peace Corps says I'm becoming a Bangangte rock star.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

some drama

At these groups I go to, there are usually a handful of people who are what I call "vocational musicians" - mastered all the parts in the ensemble, familiar with several types of music, and play with a number of groups - and a large number of people who can play some of the instruments, but not all, and are poor soloists. (Actually, it's not rare for someone to able to play one and only one part.) Well, at one of my groups, there was a decision last week by "the board" that it was inappropriate for members to play music with more than one group. In this group, there are 4 vocational musicians; 3 of them (including the group's music director) decided to quit, taking it as an insult and an absurdity that multiple membership would be frowned upon.

From my perspective, this has pretty-much gutted the musicking potential of this group. I suspect that it will be possible for them to replace the members who quit, but also that it will be very difficult to find people that good who are willing to abandon other groups they may be associated with. I hope to be allowed to attend another group with these 3 who quit (aside from being inspirational players, they're super-sweet guys) and keep attending the first group's meetings. I'm curious to see what the first group will do about upcoming gigs.

It's not directly relevant to these developments, but I thought it might be interesting to say a few words about the gendering of music around here. I know of zero female vocational musicians. A good number of women can play background parts in their groups. I have never seen a woman take a solo on an instrument [since time of writing, I've seen one female drummer soloing]. Singing and dancing, unlike instrument-playing, seem to be equally open to both men and women. Whether men or women sing about different things, or in different styles, or at different times are questions I might be able to answer later after analysis of my data at home.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


My parents have almost finished a two-and-a-half-week visit here. We are having a great time. The two music groups I'm with regularly, and my landlord's family all created little ceremonies on three separate occasions. All three of us Canadians played instruments and danced, and my parents were given gifts - pottery, fancy bags, and clothing. My regular music teacher was amazed - even shocked - at the abilities of my musical family.

At one of the ceremonies, I was officially inducted as a member of the "orchestre" and was given the shirt we're supposed to wear at performances. I was also fined (about one dollar) for having missed a performance during my parents' visit.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

real work

I've started in doing the transcription of another musical event I recorded. The guy I'm working with is very forthcoming with in-depth explanations and background information on the Medumba poetry we're translating into French.

There are 2 singers this time, and it's interesting to hear people contrast and compare them. One is deemed too repetitive. My transcriber said, "it's okay to sing whatever crap comes to mind while performing at a funeral because all you need is a good groove. For a recording, you should sing something important - maybe a story." The other singer did improvise a few stories, so we find his sections less tedious. (Believe me, transcribing spontaneous language is no picnic.)

My transcriber also has some controversial views on other matters. He says that "the message" is the most important thing in a musical performance. My primary music teacher sometimes says the most important thing is "the sound," but sometimes he says it's "rhythm." (We can't assume he means the same thing by "rhythm" that someone with a B.Mus. does. And what's "the sound", anyway?)

In a classic field linguist's conundrum, my transcription of Medumba song is made more exciting by the fact that my transcriber has no front teeth. This means it's hard to distinguish between alveolars and postalveolars - a.k.a "t,d,s,z" and "sh,zh." This issue created a serious problem for students of North American languages early in the 20th century. While it turns out that many of these languages do have a staggering number of consonants, these pioneering linguists were often confused by the challenge of distinguishing between how the language was "supposed to" sound and how it sounded in the mouths of their aged and toothless informants.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


I decided to move, finally. I now have a two-bedroom apartment with indoor plumbing. Unfortunately, the water's no more reliable than the electricity, so I have to keep a couple of barrels of water saved in case nothing comes out of the taps. Both water and electricity in Cameroon were privatized (probably in the '80s). Disaster. A British firm does the water, and an American firm does the electricity.

Anyway, when I was staying with that family, I didn't have a decent place to work - transcribe recordings and stuff - when the need to do that arose. Also, now, I can get some quiet if I feel like it.

On Sunday, I participated in a music competition with one of the groups I'm associated with. I think everyone was satisfied with the proceedings, but I didn't see anything that looked like comparison or judging. I'll ask them tonight about how it all works.

Friday, January 13, 2006

living the dream

Different disciplines have different cliches or stereotypes about the major cultural areas. For example, one could get the impression that anthropologists think that the only thing Sub-Saharan Africans care about is how much an engaged man should pay his bride-to-be's family for the privilege of marrying their daughter. Ethnomusicology's cliche about the same region is that live music is constant. This has not been my experience, but I did encounter the kind of prototypical activity that students of African music dream about.

Two people in my house were working away at preparing food this morning. One of them (atypically, a man) was pounding greens with a huge mortal and pestle. The woman began singing in time with his steady pounding. What was especially compelling about it was how moving I found this slice of life. The singing was quite beautiful to me - much as it would be to hear someone informally singing a child to sleep. When the same woman raises her voice to sing a Michael Bolton or Celine Dion song, however, the result to my ear is a musical disaster. I wonder if this suggests some important differences between celebrity/expert-based musical systems and folk systems, or between engagements with one's "native" system and an "imported" one. On the other hand, it may only suggest that my likes and dislikes are not those of my hosts.