Tags » Featured Multimedia

 
 
 

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.”

 

Removal of “Bubble” Clears Way for New Field House

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video

Middlebury Athletics said goodbye to a popular local landmark this week with the removal of its inflatable field house, a.k.a. “the bubble.” But now the campus community is looking forward to a new permanent field house. For more details about this project and the new squash facility under construction see this story in the Middlebury News Room.

Sights and Sounds of Commencement 2013

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video

Middlebury just celebrated its 212th commencement, welcoming the class of 2013 to the alumni family. Though forced inside after days of pounding wind and rain, the ceremony was warm and festive. International best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer delivered a gripping talk to the 557 graduates, and student speaker Bronwyn Oatley spoke with humor and insight to her classmates. Full coverage, including more photos and video, is available on the college web site. But to whet your appetite, here’s a short video by Brendan Mahoney ’11, which captures the excitement, emotion and energy of a day packed with traditions. Enjoy!

Academe: Science on the Brain

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video

Academe is Middmag’s occasional check-in on what students and faculty are talking about.

Last week President Obama announced an ambitious plan called The Brain Initiative—a $100-million project to study brain function. The goal is for scientists working in the field of brain research to further their understanding and continue to develop resources that will lead to breakthroughs in treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s, autism, and stroke.

That announcement got the attention of some neuroscience faculty and student researchers here on campus. Middmag caught up with Professor Tom Root and Stephen Lammers ’13, Ben Wagner ’13, and Deirdre Sackett ’13 during a break from their studies. Here’s what they had to say about Obama’s plan—and what it might mean for the future.

Solar Decathlon ’13 Team Kicks Off Spring Construction

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video

Middlebury’s Solar Decathlon ’13 team gave students, faculty, staff, and the community a first look at their solar-powered home this week, and MiddMag was there for the fun.

Drawing On the Wall

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The American artist Sol LeWitt was widely known in the 1960s for the temporary wall drawings he devised for others to produce per his instructions as part of a growing Minimalism movement.

In what might be the epitome of hands-on learning, a group of art history students installed LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #394 last week as part of their class, “Minimalism: Art, Objects, and Experience,” with professor Eddie Vazquez.

The drawing came to Middlebury’s Museum of Art with a detailed set of instructions, including specifications for materials used and orientation of lines. Museum designer Ken Pohlman and preparator Chris Murray created the pencil grid guidelines, and each student could choose from a limited selection of lines to draw. The whole process took about 50 hours to complete, and the finished product will be on view in the Overbrook Gallery through April 21.

Drawing On the Wall

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video

The American artist Sol LeWitt was widely known in the 1960s for the temporary wall drawings he devised for others to produce per his instructions as part of a growing Minimalism movement.

In what might be the epitome of hands-on learning, a group of art history students installed LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #394 last week as part of their class, “Minimalism: Art, Objects, and Experience,” with professor Eddie Vazquez.

The drawing came to Middlebury’s Museum of Art with a detailed set of instructions, including specifications for materials used and orientation of lines. Museum designer Ken Pohlman and preparator Chris Murray created the pencil grid guidelines, and each student could choose from a limited selection of lines to draw. The whole process took about 50 hours to complete, and the finished product will be on view in the Overbrook Gallery through April 21.