Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Medieval Music in Africa

by Anna Maria Busse Berger

Anna Maria Busse Berger

(Photo Gregory Urquiaga)
NOTE: Anna Maria Busse Berger today delivers the annual Faculty Research Lecture at the University of California, Davis. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the Academic Senate and has only been granted to one other Music professor, the composer Richard Swift (1984). Busse Berger’s research on German missionaries exploring music in Africa devolves from personal experience: in 1959, her missionary father moved the family to Tanzania. “My father, who later became an anthropologist, wrote a number of books on African languages and did a major ethnographic study of the Nyakyusa people in Tanzania,” she said. “He died when I was 22 and I was very close to him.” The following is an excerpt from today's remarks.


What happens when Western missionaries introduce Western religious music to local populations in Africa? Do they understand that African music is worth preserving, or do they try to replace it with European hymns? And how do the Africans react to Western music?
I have chosen to study four different missionaries from three denominations: two Moravians (Traugott Bachmann, Franz Rietzsch), one Lutheran from the Leipziger Mission (Bruno Gutmann and Elisabeth Seesemann who worked with him), and one Catholic Benedictine from St. Ottilien (Meinulf Küsters).

Remarkably, most of these missionaries were exposed to two significant movements in early twentieth-century culture that both shared a passionate interest in medieval music: the newly established discipline of comparative musicology and the Jugendmusik- and Singbewegung, movements that tried to revive early music and folk music by editing and performing Gregorian Chant, Lutheran chorales, and Renaissance polyphony. Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Carl Stumpf, founders of comparative musicology, established the Phonogrammarchiv in Berlin in order to collect, analyze, compare, and classify recordings of orally transmitted music from all over the world. They were convinced that music in “primitive” cultures was similar to medieval music, and often drew far-reaching conclusions about medieval music based on what they observed in other cultures. All four of my missionaries made recordings of African music now preserved in the Berlin Phonogrammarchiv.

Now, my questions are: how did comparative musicology and Jugendmusikbewegung influence the music in the mission stations? Did missionaries translate and publish the chorales they used in their missions?  Did they introduce musical notation? Did the missionaries ask members of the communities they visited to create new hymn verses and melodies they would understand better and find more attractive? Was there any room for improvisation? If they were open to local culture, what room was there for its music?  For example, were they able to teach the new congregations how to sing polyphony? And if so, how did this polyphonic practice relate to local polyphony? Did they do ethnographic work and try to relate what they found to medieval and Renaissance music?

All four of my missionaries come from communities with vibrant music traditions and have left extensive publications and letters that describe their experiences. Rietzsch, for example, made fundamental observations about Nyakyusa music only described in the late 1960s by the Austrian ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik. Gutmann was an important ethnographer, who advocated early on that Chagga rituals and dances should have a place in the service. Both Rietzsch and Küsters realized that much of the music in the Nyasa area is pentatonic. They describe in fascinating detail that local populations are completely unable to sing Western chorales. As a result, they automatically eliminate half-steps from the hymns and adjust them to their tonal system. Here is an example I made from a Nyakyusa congregation in Masoko in 2011.


Rietzsch tried to introduce pentatonic versions of Reformation-style chorales, which his congregation refused to sing. Küsters was more successful, he had his congregation sing pentatonic versions of Gregorian Chant.  All tried to apply medieval church modes to African music. But none of them ever understood fully that medieval music was very different from the one they encountered in Africa.

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