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. Kafumbe later studied with Buganda royal musicians and other masters throughout Africa. By age 11 he was performing with a noted Ugandan troupe. He went on to master the subtleties of diverse cultures’ songs and dances, and perfected the skills to craft traditional instruments. Another lesson that 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.”