Thursday, July 18

Abroad in Africa, students adopt fresh musical horizons


Shelley Brown / Daily Bruin

There is something fascinating and moving about Africa, the continent that boasts both the origins of humanity and continual proof of human resilience. No doubt part of this cultural appeal lies within Africa’s deeply ingrained rich musical culture.

As it is the second-largest continent, there is inevitably no one African musical sound. However, students who travel to Africa become immersed, intentionally or not, in a culture in which music and dance are inextricable and inescapable. Stephanie Martinez, a third-year international development studies student, spent eight weeks in the Tanzanian village of Gedamara with Support for International Change, an organization that seeks to reduce the effects of HIV and AIDS.

Martinez was inspired by the positivity of the Tanzanian music scene. Whether it was native Tanzanian music in Swahili, or bongo music, a genre of eclectic African music, there was an uplifting, energetic sound that kept Martinez going throughout her volunteering experience.

“I started listening to really upbeat music in Tanzania. It was a really integral part of keeping you motivated. I didn’t even know what the lyrics were all of the time, but there was something very motivating about the beat,” Martinez said.

Although music is also ubiquitous in the United States, Martinez found the constant bombardment of musical culture in Tanzania to be more community-based and organic. While students in America were drifting off to the sounds of their iPods, Martinez was falling asleep to the sound of drum circles and outdoor music festivals.

“I was staying in a really rural village, and at night we would go to bed early because there was no electricity. I would be lying in bed and I would hear drums off in the distance. It was surreal,” Martinez said. “There was always some kind of festival going on outside where there were people always dancing and having fun to tribal beats.”

While Martinez did hear American artists such as Kanye West occasionally on the radio, her experience of Tanzanian music was proof of a Tanzanian cultural independence from the Western world.

“Tanzania is not a sounding board for Western culture. They have their own unique musical culture that is very strong, and the new generation is definitely aware of it. It is really awesome the way the youth is blending new (musical styles) with the old,” Martinez said.

Although a more Westernized country, South Africa also boasts a thriving music scene, influenced by European musical trends and genres. Sarah Winter, a UCLA alumna, spent a semester at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. Winter attended several music festivals where she encountered bands similar to those she had heard at home in the United States.

“The South African bands I saw fell into all categories. There is a an emo scene, a punk scene, an electronic scene. … For the most part (South African bands) sound the same (as American bands) ““ unless you can pick up on the accent on certain words ““ though some of the music is in Afrikaans, an African language,” Winter said.

In addition to Westernized genres of music, Winter also found the South African club scene to be heavily influenced by the European club scene, where pulsating electronica trumps hip-hop’s bump and grind. Winter found that not all of South African music was imported from Europe, however, as kwaito, a combination of house and slower tempo vocals, is a strictly South African genre.

“Kwaito is a South African genre that originated in the townships. It is uniquely South African. You don’t hear much of it in the mainstream music scene, but it has become very popular in the townships. … It is sort of like electronic reggae,” Winter said.

For some students, however, the allure of studying in Africa lies in discovering a culture untouched by the Western world.

Christopher Albrecht, a fourth-year world arts and cultures student, studied in Burkina Faso, a small West African country that remains relatively undeveloped and thus maintains a musical culture less diluted by Westernized pop. Because of his studies in dance, Albrecht immersed himself in the musical culture of Burkina Faso immediately in a West African drumming and dance intensive.

“Four of the days we were there, we did drumming workshops with Amadou Kienou, the most famous West African drummer. We really got an insight into traditional drumming and West African drumming. I bought a lot of (Kienou’s) albums, and I brought them home because they are nostalgic.”

During his studies with Kienou, Albrecht learned to play the djembe, a traditional West African drum. Though the djembe is only one instrument, it remains immensely important to West African music and the music of Burkina Faso as the motivating beat behind West African dance.

“The djembe, specifically it was used to call between villages. It is a hallow piece of wood with goat skin stretched on top of it. It has three tones, and it sounds like a hallow slap sound,” Albrecht said. “It is such a part of their culture, so naturally musical and artistic forms of it have taken root and evolved as the culture has developed.”

Although Albrecht brought home a djembe drum and West African albums, it was the culture shock of a musically enriched society that most impressed him. As an aspiring dancer and choreographer, Albrecht said he was pleasantly surprised by the deep appreciation for the arts he found in West Africa.

“Although it is a poor country, you can dance for someone and they’ll smile. Music and dance is such a part of people’s lives there, it is really inspiring for me as an artist to come from a school where athletics are at the top of our priority list and artists and dancers are dropped down a peg,” Albrecht said.

“It is just so refreshing to experience a community where music and dancing are so prevalent.”

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