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Senegambian Music and Performance Scholarship

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Essay title: Senegambian Music and Performance Scholarship

Senegambian Music and Performance scholarship

As my interest in Gambian drumming and dancing grew throughout my graduate career, I realized that there was very little research completed and published about it. Roderic Knight presented the ethnomusicological community with the first in-depth research into Gambian music, particularly in the genealogy

of and performance practice of the kora (21-string spiked harp) and the role of the jali. Knight however, was also the first American scholar to publish on Mandinka kutiro drumming (Knight 1974). This article still stands as one of the only published articles in a scholarly journal that is devoted entirely to kutiro drumming and the dancing and singing that accompany it. Similar information is found in Knight’s contribution to the collection Performance Practice: Ethnomusicological Perspectives (Behague, ed. 1984). Knight’s germinal work is a musicological survey of the performance style including description of techniques of playing the instruments, short transcriptions of a few drum patterns, descriptions of the dances and singing style, as well as indigenous terminology.

Two decades later, Robert L. Thompson and Eric Charry have conducted research and written on Mandinka kutiro drumming. Charry’s recent publication (2000), is a comprehensive survey of music of Mande peoples throughout West Africa. An excellent addition to the small body of literature devoted to music of the Mande, Charry’s book fills a needed void. There has been no definitive text that successfully ties together the historical, linguistic, cultural, and social links that relate the music of Mali, Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea to one another. Charry’s text now stands along side the work of Nketia (1974) Berliner (1978), Chernoff (1979), Stone (1982), Waterman (1990), Erlmann (1996), Kisliuk (1998), as a landmark contribution to Africanist ethnomusicology. While each of these texts are concerned with different subject matter, as well as theoretical, methodological foci, each scholar has given the field of ethnomusicology extraordinary insight into African music, culture, and society.

It is my intention to create a text that engages with Charry’s work (and Knight’s to some degree) on two different levels. First, I will use as much common orthography as possible in order to provide continuity in scholarly writing on music of this region in West Africa. While it is not my intention to create a “standardized” orthography of Mandinka or Jola terminolgy with this one writing, I do intend to make a point to use the same spellings of Mandinka, Jola, or words, phrases, and names unless certain words or names were spelled differently for me. Since the literature on music and culture in The Gambia is still rather sparse, it is an important responsibility for each successive scholar to contribute to creating a unified terminology and orthography that will benefit those who choose to continue to research and write about these topics in the future.

Second, like Knight’s work on Gambian music, Charry provides an outstanding musicological exposition of music from both The Gambia (Knight), and other West African countries that are influenced by Mande culture (Charry). Charry’s thorough research of historical literature, archival research, and extensive fieldwork enable him to create a text full of outstanding information on West African history, organological information, and an excellent comparative study of specific performance practices on a variety of different instruments. Because of the large-scale comparative focus on the performance practices of drumming and other instruments spanning five West African countries (The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea-Bissau), there is less of a focus on intra-performance dynamics in highly specific regions

My research represents a departure from the geographically expansive “overview” method of musicological research presented by Knight and Charry into a realm of intense, empirical focus on performances by certain people in a very geographically specific region. Moreover, my research will fill a lacuna in research in The Gambia. Specifically, an ethnographic treatment of performance practice which intends to illuminate new theoretic possibilities, and continue to raise question and bring into focus the importance of empirical research. I intend my research to compliment the pioneering work of Knight and expansive study of Charry. Future scholars will then be able to consult with Knight and Charry to address broad questions of the existence of music and its history in the Senegambia region. Those same readers may then turn to the research method I have chosen in order to gain a deeper insight into the nature of context specific performances. Those readers seeking vivid and active engagement with localized performances in The Gambia

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