I helped John Lambeth set up a web page for his University Scholars 201: Negritude class in Spring Term of 1996, and did a guest lecture on West African music. The following comments were posted to the class USENET group:
Newsgroups: wlu.negritude From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Manmeet Singh) Subject: Guest Speaker: Hugh Blackmer This was one of the most interesting and educating lectures that I have been to at W&L. Honestly, I am not exaggerating. I say this for various reasons, let me point them out. First, Mr. Blackmer seemed quite knowledgeable on the subject. True, there was an occasion when posed a question he admitted that he wasn't sure of the answer, but then that question was obscure itself. Mr. Blackmer more than made up for this though in the genuine enthusiasm he showed, both for the subject matter and the lecture. It was evident that he had spent quite some time preparing for it. Amazingly, I was captivated by the lecture for the full two hours....an extremely rare occurence as some of my Professors will point out. I also think that we covered the right amount of material in the lecture. The information was neither overwhelming, nor was it sparse. What did I learn from the lecture? Well apart from the facts and ideas that were presented I learned something else that I would like to share with the class. Although I have lived in India for only two years, I think I know a lot about contemporary life there and a bit of its history. This has primarily come to me via my experiences there when on vacation and from what my parents have told me of life there. My dad always reminisces about village life in Punjab (my home state), and he never fails to mention about the minstrels or "Banjaras" as they are known in Punjab. These musicians go around the coutryside and play in villages. They are paid, usually by the elders and their songs always contain a moral message (I have learned most of my moral values from these songs narrated to me by my parents when I was young). The whole village gathers to listen to them when they play. The similarities between Indian and African folk music doesn't end here. If you remember, we saw a clip of a group of musicians hired to play at somebody's house and their songs were in fact praises of their employer. We have the exact same tradition in Punjab, the musicians here are known as "Baajaigars." Lastly, I would like to mention that the in folk music from the southern half of India, one would find the same polyrhythmic characteristics and the same emphasis on rhythm as we saw in African music. They have the same, apparent, irregularity and disharmony. From: email@example.com (Molly K. Giese) Subject: hugh I thought Hugh Blackmer was awesome! That definately was a couple of hours well spent. Not only did he know a lot about what he was talking about (he probably could have made the whole thing up and I would have believed him considering how much I knew about African music) but he made it very interesting-- and relevant-- for the layperson like myself. I want to point out a couple of the things I thought were most interesting: First the jamming in the post office. If i studied music for years, I know I could never make anything sound as cool as those guys at work. Blackmer's comments on the jam-session reminded me of some ideas in the Senghor essays we read last week. He said that music is not, as we narrow-minded Westerners think, just for the ears to listen to. Instead it is for the mind and the whole body. Just as Africans are consummed in their perceptions of objects as Senghor described, they are also consummed by music. This is indicated by the stunning dancing that we watched on the vcr. THe man seemed also possessed by the power of the rhythms and they controlled his movement. White people, still along the lines of Senghor, physically conceptualize and think about the music-- presumably that is why we can't really dance. However Blackmer strayed from Senghor at the outset. He definitively discredited any accounts that this ability to "become" the music is attributed to any genetic or inherent quality. Although it is hard to believe, the Africans we watched imperceptibly learned-- throughout their lives-- to appreciate and produce all of the complex rhythems that I can't even comprehend. The second thing that struck me is related to the poly-rhythms in that the substance of the music comes, not from the music itself, but from the space between the sounds. Even more astonishing is that these gaps are what the good dancers dance to. I am looking forward to listening to more of the tapes and cd's that are going around, especially now that I have more of a clue what to listen for. From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Christine E. Bragg) Subject: Hugh Blackmer Hugh Blackmer was without a doubt one of the most interesting speakers I have ever heard! I was interested throughout the entire 2 hours!!!!! That is a rarity! He was very entertaining and had a lot of information to share. I really liked the way he used handouts, audio recordings, video recordings, and had an instrument to pass around. He kept the interest up be always using something new. He was very energetic and just pulled you in. The fact that he didn't use any notes proved that he knew his stuff. It was also quite obvious that he LOVES African music and is quite enthusiastic about his learnings. The thing that I found the most interesting about all of the info that he passed on to us was the recording of the postal workers. That is so amazing. Can you imagine how much more fun work would be if you could work to a rhythm and sing? I wouldn't mind doing that at all! I love the way Africans incorporate song into everything they do. They are so joyous and seem like they are always celebrating life. Another thing that I found really interesting was that African music deals with rhythms and silence. I thought it was really cool how the Africans try to fill silences with sound, thus creating unique but coherent rhythms. It was fun to learn about all the different instruments and hearing them being played, as well. It is so amazing how many of these instruments were the origin of European instruments we use today. The Africans have given our culture so much and we have given them no credit whatsoever. It was so much fun to hear the blues song sung by a man in a Mississippi prison back to back with the song sung by a man in Africa. They were so similar - it was amazing. I really enjoyed hearing Mr. Blackmer speak and would love to hear him speak again. He told us that he had at least 4 hours of stuff to speak about and I would be intrigued the entire time! From: email@example.com (Catherine B. Quinn) Subject: Hugh Blackmer Hugh Blackmer's lecture on West African music made our time on Monday the most enjoyable two hours I think I have ever spent in a classroom. As many people have already noted, his knowledgeability and enthusiasm made the lecture both informative and engaging. In addition, the information he presented was very enlightening - I'm sure it will help me to listen better and understand more of the music that is being passed around. One thing I particularly enjoyed was how Mr. Blackmer showed the connections and relationships between different types of music. It was interesting to see what influences on African music came from Islam, or from European and American music. As a huge fan of the blues, I found it especially fascinating to hear about how the African music and American Blues cross-pollenated, sharing and trading instruments and musical styles. What was even more interesting was to hear the comparison between coincidentally similar styles as we were shown in the alternation between American prison blues vocals and the songs of Africans working in the rice paddies. In addition to seeing the connections between different musical styles, I also liked learning about what instruments, styles, and techniques are authentically African. I think that will especially help my listening to the various CD's and tapes. Mr. Blackmer showed us some of these authentically African elements in several ways. One that I liked best was the video segment about the jalis, and how different generations of jalis play their music and regard their role in history and society. The video segments on dancing were great as well - I think it brought us closer to a fuller understanding of African music because when you study music you have to look at the reaction it inspires as well as the sounds that comprise it, and dancing is one of the most basic and natural responses to music. The dancing we watched and also the wonderful post-office-stamp-jam also helped to show us more about the African philosophy of music - how one is supposed to approach music, the attitudes of the music itself, and how music is involved in everyday life. Another good example of authentically African musical tradition and how it has evolved was the set of three examples of female praise singers. I enjoyed hearing how different the vocal style was from Western vocal style, but I couldn't help noticing that one woman's voice sounded a lot like Tina Turner's. That set of examples also demonstrated how production and marketing can change and "expand" a traditional sound. It was fun to hear some of the more modern styles as well, particularly the music by Prince Nico Mbarga. In addition to hearing an evolution from older styles, I liked being able to listen to the lyrics & gain some insight into what modern West African musicians are singing about. I would have never guessed that polygamy was such an important issue to the modern African lyricist! Overall, this was a great lecture. I felt like I learned a lot and that the time was well used. It didn't move so fast that we couldn't take it all in, and yet it didn't drag on or ever get boring. Plus, I think that a better understanding of the African approach to music will help us in comprehending African literature, and especially poetry, which is so closely tied to music. From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Elizabeth E. Detter) Subject: hugh blackmer I really enjoyed the lecture on monday about African music. I liked Baaba Maal and Angelique Kidjou when I listened to them, but I'm sure that as the term goes on I will develop a better appreciation for African music. At this point, I'm a novice, without a lot of grounds for comparison. The lecture with Hugh Blackmer provided a lively way of learning more about African music. Mr. Blackmer is obviously enthusiastic about the subject. It's amazing that we have such an expert on African music right here at W&L. I would be interested to know how he began to develop his knowledge of African music. Is availability widespread? I'm sure that most of those tapes that we heard, especially those by ethnomusicologists, are not easily obtainable. I really liked the songs by Prince Nico Mbarga, and may ask Wayne to order them for me if possible. I must say that Monday's class was one of the most enjoyable classes I've had in a while. The most interesting thing to me about our Negritude class is that I have so little background in this subject matter, and so everything we learn is new. I probably never would have had exposure to the sounds of an African post office, or the dance of Africans otherwise, unless I happened to catch a National Geographic special. During the fall, I learned a bit about African culture in Latin America, focused on the slave trade, and colonies of escaped slaves. I can better understand the role of music in those societies now. I am just amazed by the differences in culture between Africa and Europe. I'm a bit envious of the life in Africa, because it seems much less stressful than the life we've created for ourselves in the western hemisphere. Music and self-expression are great stress relievers, and it's too bad that we aren't more accepting of music in everyday life. From: email@example.com (Sara A. McCrone) Subject: HUGH BLACKMER Sender: firstname.lastname@example.org Message-ID:
I really enjoyed Hugh Blackmer's presentation in Friday's class. One of the main reasons I joined the University Scholars program was to be challenged and presented with sources other than textbooks, especially guest speakers. Mr. Blackmer's knowledge of West African music was both incredible and inspiring; I know that after I listened to him, I wanted to go home and listen to some tapes with a more appreciative ear. I was particularly fascinated by the polyrhythmic nature of African music. I knew it sounded different, but I couldn't figure out why. I also didn't know how one would dance to it. My favorite part of Mr. Blackmer's presentation was the video of the dancers from Coastal Ghana doing the kpanlogo. If we thought stepping would be hard, I would love to see us try this! I also enjoyed the postmaster example. At first I thought it was a professional, rehearsed piece. I still cannot believe it was an impromptu performance in a local post office. It was also interesting to learn how even a simple instrument such as the ektar can produce a variety of sounds. I also was fascinated by the drum which imitated the tonal Yoruba language. It cleared up a mystery for me. In _Things Fall Apart_, Achebe often described how the inhabitants of one village would know about something that happened far away because they could hear the talking drums. It didn't seem like Morse code or some similar idea, so I wondered how they could tell what the drums were saying. I feel I know much more about African music than at the beginning of the term. Mr. Blackmer obviously knows his material well: he presented a broad sampling of music and ideas without making the information seem overwhelming, and his visual aids were helpful. Most important, though, he was enthusiastic and entertaining. I enjoyed the entire two hours and would be interested in asking him back to present more music selections. From: email@example.com (Teresa K. Joy) Subject: hugh blackmer mr. blackmer's class on african music was the most enjoyable two hours i have ever spent in a classroom, for lots of various reasons. mr blackmer was obviously VERY knowledgeable about african music, and you couldn't miss the enthusiam he had for the subject. his love of the music and his obvious interest made it all the more fun for those listening to him. i found his explanation of some of the background of the music and the surrounding cultural influences fascinating. his handouts were also a great way to provide some information he didn't have time to discuss to us as well as give everyone a visual link to his presentation. the music itself was just cool... there's no other word for it. i must admit, it was completely different from anything i've ever heard in my life. i can't imagine how it's done, it sounds so complicated and comnplex! my favorite piece was the postal workers little song. it showed better than anything else, i think, the central role music and rhythm plays in the african's life; anyone who can make music while hand cnaceling stamps (definitely one of the monotonous jobs ever) is a genius, as far as i am concerned. i was just relly impressed by both the quality of mr blackmer's presentation, his love of the music, and the music itself! From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Maciej B. Golubiewski) Subject: Hugh Blackmer I think it was a very good class. I wouldn't call a it a lecture but a truly learning experience. Hugh Blackmer has a gift of conveying his thoughts that is very captivating and simply interesting, sometimes even funny. The part of the presentation that I liked the most was when Mr Blackmer was talking about West African instruments. I have never realized that tuning of the balofon (I don't know if I spelled it right) was totally different from instruments such as xylophone. Sure, I would not imagine that Africans somehow invented exactly the same harmony as Europeans. Nevertheless,the fact that even their single tones fall in between European half-tones and that there is no possibility of creating the same chords and melodic configurations as on the piano due to that fact is most astonishing. Hmm, another interesting fact was to discover that behind very complicated sounds and melodies there was often a single and simple instrument often consisting of one string (like the archetype of the banjo, for example). I also liked the short movies showing people actually playing the instruments and dancing to them. Also learning about the philosophy and often differing traditions of playing the same instrument (balofon) was definitely interesting. All this mixed with Hugh Blackmer's anecdotes about his friends from Nigeria made it an excellent experience. From: email@example.com (Cindy J. Young) Subject: Guest Speaker: Hugh Blackmer We don't incorporate music into our lives nearly so much as do Africans. That seemed to me to be one of the main points of Mr. Blackmer's lecture last Friday, and yet I think it's maybe a bit too general. What I mean is, Mr. Blackmer seems to have incorporated music, particularly and all the more impressively, the music of a very foreign culture, into his own life. And I don't think it's exaggerating to say that he has managed to incorporate it into ours a little as well. This write-up follows many others, but I have the advantage of seeing the reactions of everyone who has posted so far to Mr. Blackmer's talk, and so I know my appreciation for his lecture is hardly alone! I'm not sure what I most clearly take away from his lecture, whether it is some of the historical oversights he offered us regarding African music, or a memory of the sound of the drum that we each got to grapple and tap on, or the sight of the old griot squinting into the sky and explaining the hundreds of years of culture that the griots have sustained through their art, or the sight of the young man and woman dancing with each other without choreography, and yet perfect nonetheless! Or of course the sound of the postal workers improvising at the University of Ghana, and creating a rhythm which sounded less like an improvisation than like a precisely-timed performance. Probably, though, I will remember some of each of these sights and sounds - our (or at least my) first introductions to the very different and very interesting world of African music. Something else I know I will remember is the very enthusiasm of Mr. Blackmer's that so struck nearly everyone whose posting I have now read. Sometimes I nearly forgot to look at the screen or listen to the tape, I was so cheered watching his toes a-tappin'. Involuntarily of course. Besides the scheme of the lecture and the audio-visual aids he had planned I myself was also interested in the anecdotes of his own (African) friends with which he occasionally indulged us. It made the whole lecture seem so much more real to me, that these are of course actual people and not just musical beings we are nodding at in our studies and marking in our notes. The idea of two men not being able to forbid their bodies to dance any longer is so perfect to me! I for one do think we ought not entirely dismiss whites as entirely lacking in the ability to respond to music, however, and not just for the sake of assuming the role of devil's advocate, if I've followed class discussions rightly. I am very devoted to ballet, you see, and aside from pointing my finger at the many talents who now dance across the stage, I think it only fair to point to the most brilliant dancers of the ballet - and modern dance - in order to defend the point that there may in fact exist some whites for whom music is an involuntary and an incidentally graceful form of expression and even life. Dance for Martha Graham was the pulse of her blood. I don't mean to stretch my point, but only to suggest that we not distinguish the Africans as so entirely different from ourselves.