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Bringing Sounds of Africa to Middlebury

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video
CircleDanceAbove

Sounds of Africa
Professor Damascus Kafumbe—ethnomusicologist, performer, composer—teaches students what music means to world cultures and how to perform the music of his own.

Back in Uganda, Damascus Kafumbe’s mother would wonder why he took so long to bring water back from the village well. It seems the well was too convenient to two Buganda royal enclosures where a young boy peeking through reed walls to watch court musicians could lose track of time. By age 11 Kafumbe was performing with a noted Ugandan troupe. He continued his studies with Buganda royal musicians and other masters throughout Africa, learning the subtleties of diverse cultures’ songs and dances; he also perfected the skills to craft traditional instruments. Another lesson, which he immediately makes clear to his Middlebury students today: “In all the African languages I’m familiar with, there is no word for ‘music.’ It’s such an integral part of life that we don’t have a word for it.” Even “African music” is a misnomer in such a culturally varied continent, says the affable, soft-spoken Kafumbe. As an ethnomusicology scholar, he settles for “African musics”; as an artist, he counts on his teaching and playing to evoke what English can’t translate.

“Damascus is the stunningly right person in the right place at the right time,” says Greg Vitercik, chair of the department of music. Middlebury wanted to give due attention to non-Western traditions, and ideally wanted a performing ethnomusicologist to bring some of them to life on campus. Kafumbe, also a composer, arranger, and ensemble director, was a hand-in-glove fit.

His arrival in 2011 as an assistant professor opened a path for students to explore  musics they might only know through a Putumayo collection or YouTube video. They learn how Balinese gamelan, Nuyorican rumba, Irish fiddling, and Hindustani raga reflect and relate to the cultures, politics, economics, and religions of their societies. Student musicians with scholarly leanings can learn ethnomusicological research methods and techniques. Those wanting to pursue African musics in greater depth have a teacher who knows them in his bones.

“OK, so what do chimurenga and bikutsi have in common metrically?” he asks his African Soundscapes students after playing recordings of the two genres.

“Three-quarter time,” answers a student, correctly.

This survey course routinely shatters preconceptions that “African music” means drums and hand-clapping. Students examine traditions from the northern Maghreb to the southern Bantu cultures: songs that exalt kinship, encourage trance, or inspire dancing. “I had no idea!” is a common student reaction to this cultural kaleidoscope. Throughout, Kafumbe reminds them, “The ‘why’ is more important than the ‘how.’” Yes, they learn to distinguish different genres, but they also learn to hear the mix of ancient traditions and more modern responses to Africa’s tribal migrations, colonial rule, missionization, and surges for freedom.

“I’m proud that Middlebury can be one of the few institutions to promote the idea that African musics are not just drumming,” Kafumbe says. Students who want to feel Africa’s layered rhythms and distinct timbres in their fingers can take his African Music and Dance Performance course (there are dozens on the waiting list, notwithstanding an 8:00 a.m. start time and mandatory attendance.) With no audition, students learn to play an ensemble of traditional, mostly Ugandan instruments, some of which Kafumbe has crafted himself from natural materials such as animal hide and hair, Ugandan woods, fibers, reeds, and seed shells. For most of the students, mornings spent with the ndingidi (tube-fiddle), madinda (xylophone), or other instruments is their first experience playing music. (see slideshow to hear concert selections.)

In a dress rehearsal before the ensemble’s spring concert, Kafumbe gets the students’ attention by clapping a rhythm that they repeat. “When I am talking, no one is talking, no one is playing, please,” he says softly. He shakes a pair of nsaasi (gourd shakers) to start them in a piece he composed by blending modern and traditional elements. The students strike, bow, and pluck their instruments; the sound is lively but slightly ragged. “Oh, you’re slowing down,” he warns, and stops them.

He leans forward. “Music is a sweet thing. We have to feel it. We have to enjoy it, and we have to express it.” When they begin again, the loose ends have knit together. “I have never heard any of my American students play the madinda with such a sweet tone,” he compliments.

For graduating physics major Joe Putko ’13, this introduction to playing music has been unforgettable. “We miss out on these sounds in America—but I’m so grateful we can have this experience now,” he says during a break. “This class was a history class, a gym class, a performance class, but more than anything I’ve taken here it’s taught us to work and struggle together. It’s been a life class.”

Kafumbe closes the rehearsal on a musical high note that will carry into the next night’s packed performance. “When you are struggling—that’s when you make magic,” he reassures them. “I’ll love you guys till I die.”

 

Food Matters

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Always at the forefront of new ideas for summer studies, Middlebury’s at it again with FoodWorks, a nine-week internship program for Middlebury students interested in local food and sustainable development. FWLettuce

With locations in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as here at home in Addison County, the program offers students a chance to work four days a week in different local food-related jobs and then take the fifth day to gather as a group and focus on a particular topic of the curriculum, such as sustainable agriculture and ecology, food systems, community and economic development, nutrition and health, food security and justice, and cultural food traditions.

FoodWorks was piloted in Louisville last summer and expanded this year to include Vermont partners. The 26 students—16 in Vermont and 10 in Kentucky—are working in local government, business and retail, publishing and marketing, nonprofits, and on area farms.

To learn more about what the students are doing on a daily basis and how they’re contributing to their communities, check out the FoodWorks website and blog.

Food Matters

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Always at the forefront of new ideas for summer studies, Middlebury’s at it again with FoodWorks, a nine-week internship program for Middlebury students interested in local food and sustainable development. FWLettuce

With locations in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as here at home in Addison County, the program offers students a chance to work four days a week in different local food-related jobs and then take the fifth day to gather as a group and focus on a particular topic of the curriculum, such as sustainable agriculture and ecology, food systems, community and economic development, nutrition and health, food security and justice, and cultural food traditions.

FoodWorks was piloted in Louisville last summer and expanded this year to include Vermont partners. The 26 students—16 in Vermont and 10 in Kentucky—are working in local government, business and retail, publishing and marketing, nonprofits, and on area farms.

To learn more about what the students are doing on a daily basis and how they’re contributing to their communities, check out the FoodWorks website and blog.

A Return Engagement

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

It seemed improbable that five alumni, in the middle of their busy professional lives in film and theatre, would return to Middlebury on short notice to work on a new play and perform it during Reunion Weekend. And as if that weren’t enough, the alumni — together with the theatre department’s resident playwright, Dana Yeaton ’79, in the role of producer, cajoler, and on-site coordinator — decided to make the week in June a learning experience for nine current Middlebury students. There would be rehearsals, feedback sessions, master classes, on-camera workshops, and more rehearsals. They called it MiddSummer Play Lab, and boy did they ever pull it off!

Rehearsal in Seeler Studio Theatre

Rehearsal in Seeler Studio Theatre

Emily Feldman ’09 brought her play “The Pilot Project,” about three people who meet on a flight from New York to Rome. Jesse Holland ’02 came from Los Angeles to direct; Tara Giordano ’02 and Joe Varca ’02 came from New York for the roles of Savannah, a sharp-tongued flight attendant with a heart of gold, and Larry, a suspicious man might also be a reluctant hero; and Kristen Connolly ’02 arrived from the set of season two of “House of Cards” to play the part of Eve, a gentle ingénue in emotional danger.

The play was performed on June 8 as a dramatic reading in Seeler Studio Theatre with about 50 people in the audience. Throughout their week together, the five professionals revised the 75-minute drama by cutting lines, changing stage directions, and examining the logic of each character’s words and actions.

On the eve of the play’s premiere, the cast sat down with Middlebury Magazine for a conversation. 

MiddMag: What’s it been like to test out a new play here?

Emily: We are doing it in one of the safest possible ways, but with people who are fiercely intelligent and able to help us decide where to go with it. For me to come back and be amongst the teachers who got me interested in writing and supported my writing, and to connect with them and show them where I am now as opposed to where I was four years ago, it’s a great benchmark. And it’s a way to launch myself into the next phase of my writing, which will be pursuing a master of fine arts [at UC-San Diego] in the fall.

Dana: It feels like the same voice grown up. [To Emily] You have always had this quirky ability to nail the thought, nail the emotion on paper, but you have all this confidence now about what’s theatrical and what pleases you and what makes a scene work in your world. It’s still “Emilyworld,” but it’s all grown up.

Tara: We have a similar language as a foundation because we all went through the theatre program here. But it’s not only that. Jesse directed my senior project and Joey’s senior project and Kristen’s, and now he’s directing all three of us. We don’t have to figure out what’s safe. We have a shared history together and I feel really comfortable going deep into the work right away.

Joe Varca '02 as Larry, the salesman

Joe Varca ’02 as Larry, a modern-day traveling salesman

Joe: Jumping into that vocabulary is such an incredible gift for all of us. And it’s wonderful when you start working on a new play and there’s already so much depth there. There is logic and answers for all of the stuff our characters are doing. It just feels like an incredibly even and rich world that we are jumping into.

Kristen: A lot of times when you are working on a new play or you are doing a staged reading, you don’t have that much time to work on something and people are running in a million different directions, but here we can focus. We have had this whole week to work together, and then, by all of us going back to the same house at night, we keep talking about the play.

Emily: Right! When working at home, people meet for rehearsal and then go their separate ways. But by having a house for a couple of days and having the college let us to go back to college for a week [everyone laughs] lets us keep the conversation going about the work.

Jesse: Most of us live in cities right now, and it is just really, really beautiful up here. And the people in cities are generally pretty stressed out and self-centered, and the people up here are generally very giving. We have gotten so much support from everyone here. They really didn’t have to do it…

Dana: Fools! Fools!

Jesse: … and then there are trees and people here.

Kristen: And the cheese.

Jesse: Yes, the trees, the people, and the cheese.

Kristen: Let’s devote a few hours of rehearsal to that.

The cast of three

The cast of three: Tara, Kristen, and Joe

MiddMag: How did the idea for MiddSummer Play Lab get started?

Tara: Emily said, “Do you want to work on a play again this summer?” We had worked on one in a similar manner last summer in New York. And she said, “I’ll write it. Who do you want to be in it with you?” and I thought immediately of these two [pointing to Kristen and Joe] although we figured they’d be too busy.

Jesse: For me, it just felt like something I really wanted to do, so I came on board and committed to it happening.

Kristen: And then there’s the other part. We thought maybe there’s a way of incorporating theatre students into the process — to be rehearsing the play and working with the students. So it was like, “What would they be interested in?” [During the course of the week the students produced their own actor demo reels.]

 Tara: After the first rehearsal we had a feedback session with the students. I was taken by how much the students had to contribute and how intelligent their views were. It was one of the best feedback sessions I had ever been to.

Jesse: Yeah, I have been to some deadly feedback sessions! This was the best feedback session I have ever been to. It was a combination of Dana leading it and the brilliance of the students.

Dana: The students were all talking about the play as opposed to pretending to be talking about the play when they were talking about themselves, which is what kills feedback sessions.

Jesse: Who’s idea was it to use the [Liz Lerman Critical Response] guidelines?

Joe: It was Emily’s.

The playwright and the director.

The playwright and the director

Emily: So I was thinking about, what do I have to offer people who are actors going into theatre, especially in New York? When I first got out of college, I was practiced at talking about work when the writer wasn’t there, [but not at] talking about work that’s in progress. I had to get used to phrasing my questions and opinions in a way that’s flexible and opens up possibilities for the writer rather than closes doors.

Kristen: It was really great.

Jesse: It was astonishing!

Joe: One of the exciting things about what we have been doing is that we have an on-camera class with the students during the day, and then we have the open rehearsals so the students get to see how a new play is made. They are getting both worlds: film and theatre.

Emily: It was exciting for me watching Dana lead the feedback session, especially thinking about myself as a teacher this fall. Recognizing the presence and clarity and peace of mind he brings to creating the energy in that room. He allows for those kinds of conversations.

Jesse: I have a final thought. My focus right now is on directing films and my favorite part of the process is working with actors. Unfortunately, that is not a high percentage of the film experience because the focus is on getting the shot, and so this week has reconnected me with what I love most in the world, which is working with actors.

Emily: I don’t think I knew when I was 18 why I was choosing to go to a small college in Vermont, but the ability to do this kind of thing now is probably why.

Kristen: I hadn’t been back in 10 years so I got choked up a couple of times. It’s wonderful to see the things that have changed and the things that have stayed the same, and just to be here.

Kristen Connolly '02

Kristen Connolly ’02 as Eve

And with that, Kristen Connolly’s final remark hung over the theatre for a few extra seconds, for isn’t that what a college reunion is supposed to be all about? Seeing what has changed and what has stayed the same and immersing oneself in it for a few days.

The alumni then stood up and Jesse Holland announced that rehearsal would start in five minutes. Later this summer, “The Pilot Project” by Emily Feldman will be presented again in a special one-night-only performance, July 26 at 10:30 p.m. at the Atlantic Stage 2 Theatre in New York City, in conjunction with Middlebury’s Off-Broadway summer theatre project, PTP/NYC.  

Reunion ’13: Tell Us One Thing

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video

At this year’s Reunion, MiddMag recruited a group of alums at the Saturday evening dinner to tell us one thing they just had to see when they came back for Reunion. Here’s what they told us:

The Faces of a Farming Tradition

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

With a little extra time over his break this past spring, Levi Westerveld ’15 decided to pursue his interest in portraiture and begin sketching the local farmers around his home in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, where agricultural traditions are fast becoming a thing of the past. The sketches became an impressive exhibit at 51 Main, and here Levi talks about the people in the drawings, their individual stories, and his sketching process. (For more of Levi’s work, visit his website.)

Things That Happened, Things To Do: Week of May 13

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

dispatch_distressed-300x160Our regular recap of goings on at the College and a look ahead to events on the horizon. As always, we hope to call your attention to items that captured ours and alert you to events that you won’t want to miss. If you have a news item that you think we’d be interested in, drop us a line at middmag@middlebury.edu.

  • If you missed the Narrative Journalism Showcase on Tuesday, you still have a chance to listen to the amazing stories in the “How Did You Get Here?” series on middmag.com. Check out the trailer to get a taste of what’s in store!

  • Not only is Sue Halpern the director of the Narrative Journalism Fellowships, she is also the author of A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher.
    She talked to the folks at the Dish about what surprised her most as she visited nursing homes with her therapy dog, Pransky.

  • The Solar Decathlon team is hard at work on its entry for the competition next fall, Insite. Recently the Burlington Free Press highlighted the students as they worked to deconstruct a historic barn so they can repurpose the wood to use as siding for their house. Check their website to stay up to date on their progress!
  • The school year is winding down, but some athletic teams are still going strong. Both men’s and women’s tennis won their respective NCAA Regionals and are headed to the NCAA Quarterfinals. The women’s lacrosse team is making its 16th trip to the NCAA Final Four this weekend, and the women’s golf team is competing in the NCAA Championship in Destin, Fla.
  • Senior Andrew Ackerman has been working hard on this thesis project and as part of his research, he’s been training in extreme mixed martial arts. Recently he took part in an amateur fight night in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in his first competitive fight ever. And he won!

  • Finals begin on Wednesday, so it’s quiet on campus and things to do other than studying are scarce. Downtown, at 51 Main, good music is available as usual with a Blues Jam Wednesday night and Mint Julep on Friday night, performing an ecletic mix of swing and Latin rhythms.

  • Artist and photographer Edward Burtynsky is receiving an honorary Doctor of Arts from the College at Commencement on May 26. His exhibit, Nature Transformed, will be on display at the Museum of Art until June 9. If you haven’t seen it yet, you still have a few weeks to check it out!