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25.01.2021 Feature Article

Counterfeit Degrees In African Music And Dance

Author:Doris Green and Wangari Maathai, the first African recipient of the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE in 2004
LISTEN JAN 25, 2021
Author:Doris Green and Wangari Maathai, the first African recipient of the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE in 2004

The words of the late Dou-Dou N’Diaye Rose, Africa’s most luminous drummer, actually castigates the Presidents of Senegal, both past and present for not having created an institution or university solely for the teaching of traditional African music and dance. There are a number of reasons why, but at the top of the list is a large percentage of African music is percussive and therefore “cyclic” in nature. An African percussive ensemble composed of many instruments such as drums, bells, rattles, singers and clappers, with each instrument entering the cycle at different points creates difficulty in comprehension for the western trained musician whose orientation to music is melodic. Moreover, if not guided by the spoken language of African people, the foreigner will be at a total loss as to how to interpret or write African music that does not have a solfeggio for signposting. As a result, the western trained person would write the music for different instruments as they enter the cycle, thereby creating non-coinciding bar lines with different time meters within the score. The African, on the other hand, perceives music as a whole and not by individual parts. Therefore the bar-line is a western concept being applied to African music and does not serve the same purpose.

Unfortunately, to date African universities are still unable to assist the African student who is seeking a doctoral degree in traditional African music/dance, so the student can only resort to attending western universities in Europe or elsewhere. However. these Occidental institutions of Higher Education cannot truly offer a viable education in African percussion music because the African student instinctively knows more than the western professor or adjudicator does. Yet the sad reality remains that African students continue to acknowledge a western academic qualification has greater currency at home, than a degree from an African university. This is ridiculous, because the greatest drawback is the inability of Africans to write their own music and dance on paper, thereby advancing the cultural ‘oral folklore’ to ‘written folk law’.

Writing percussion music is my expertise. I created the system from the Pitman Stenography system when I was in high school. This was only one part of the equation as African music always accompanies African dance, therefore, African dance had to be written parallel to the music in a single score. I studied Labanotation, the system for writing dance movements, and became a certified teacher of Labanotation. I fused Labanotation with my music system called Greenotation wherein both the music and dance are represented in a single integrated pictogram. The beauty of this connection is that it can be written on the computer, preserved and later reproduced from a print source. The African Union has endorsed my work (1980) and recommended it for inclusion in all schools throughout Africa.

Over the years of working with my cultural informants, I was able to glean that outsiders were claiming that they have studied with the African scholars. However, one of the scholars told me that he has never seen the person in his compound. When I demonstrated my work in writing African percussion music to Duro Ladipo, he applauded my demonstration and invited me to return to Nigeria to personally work with him on the Iya-Ilu Dun-Dun and Bata Drums. It is unfortunate that the western interpretation is being readily accepted into libraries and institution as the canon of African music where it was purloined from African villages and taken back to their western country without examination or verification.

I entitled this article “Counterfeit Degrees in African Music and Dance” mainly because such a Western conferred degree is useless, especially in view of the fact that until Africans learn to write their own music and dance on paper, any comprehensive thesis and/or dissertation cannot be written on this cyclic music which for centuries has been lost upon the death of an elder who may have held this magnificent knowledge in his /her head. Therefore the degree has no written value per se. In fact a western degree only it forces the African percussionist to write not about the music, or to demonstrate the findings in written documentation, but instead record the history of their music, a distinguished personality in the field of African music, a popular dance of the time, or a particular National Dance Company. This is also compounded by the verity that a number of these well- known African artists are now deceased and did not write their autobiography. Even in the case where the African elder had written his autobiography, the western student in search of the doctorate would prefer to take the word of an outside western counterpart who, for instance, may not have been part of the original plan for the creation of the first African national dance company designed for world tours, which would expose the outside world to the diverse cultures of African people. The National Dance Company being referred to her, was the brainchild of Senegalese Maurice Sonar Senghor who took under his wings Keita Fodeba (of the Guinea Ballet) and they worked assiduously creating routines for the group. Senghor planned it this way because dance was the visual component of the music and was not subject to knowing the spoken language of the people to be comprehended and enjoyed.

Previously the largest depository on African music was the International Library of African Music, located in Roodeport, Transvaal, South Africa. They produced a book and recording African Music of the Witwatersrand. These were dances unique to the gold mining workers and their daily routines in South Africa. In this book, the most common movement occurring therein defined the dances. Therefore, we have titles of dances such as Stamping, Gliding, Stomping, and Striding. Keita Fodeba, Maurice Sonar Senghor, Albert Mawere Opoku, Akin Euba, or J. H. K. Nketia defined none of these categories in the writings on dance. Fodeba, Senghor and Opoku speak of dance as part of the lives and culture of African people. Some Africans have written extensively on the music using western notes, and connecting it to photographs of a dancer in a certain pose. This is meaningless as it merely shows a pose that lacks movement to create a comprehensive connection. I question this and ask on what beat does the dancer reach that pose in the accompanying musical phrase?

It is unfortunate that while plans have already been drafted to create a facility for the express purpose of teaching traditional African music and dance in several countries, the Africans involved showed greater interest in padding the budget, and placing their relatives on payroll, especially persons who were not skilled in any area of music and dance. But most unacceptable was the attitude and poor treatment of women by men in general and in particular those men in a position of power. Notably the Women Rights Movement was not even in its embryonic stages on the African continent. And as a female who had fought against such offensive misogynistic behavior from day one, I found this inexcusable.

I also recall when I received an invitation from UNESCO to create a facility in Senegal to teach my system of notation to Senegalese musicians and dancers. Although I was working with Maurice Senghor, the first theatre director of Senegal, and the Senegalese government praised my work while granting me several attestations from Ministers of Culture over the course of time, the project failed for the same reasons cited above. I was against placing people on payroll who were not accomplished artists. Moreover, I had developed certain standards from my years in the business world and would not compromise these standards. In the long run the project to make Dakar the cultural center of West Africa failed because the powers that be did not respond in a timely fashion. In fact when I contacted UNESCO I was informed that Senegal, after assuring me that they would send the completed project in immediately, did not do so at all. Undaunted I decided to concentrate on Ghana where I knew I could make a strong impact. After all the University of Ghana was the first institution that introduced African dance as a course of study in the curriculum. I had also studied with Godfrey Sackeyfio the Lead Dancer of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble who, in turn, introduced me to Kobla Ladzekpo. I further studied with Kobla Ladzekpo when he was at Columbia University and knew members and worked with members of the Ladzekpo family in performances, such as Kwaku and Kofi Ladzekpo. In fact in the late sixties, I invited Sackeyfio and Ali Abdullah, alias Oliver Jones, to join me in securing a place for African music/dance in the curriculum of the schools of New York.

As a doctoral degree is necessary to advance in the field a number of people interested in obtaining the doctoral degree are forced to pay large fees to on-line Occidental universities, especially those with ’soit-disant acclaim’. They create their own programs built on their own subject matter or in the latest Western doctoral category called “Literacy”. This doctoral is generalized, but it is not a doctoral as such in African music and dance until they learn to actually write the music and dance. I have known interested students who were forced to purchase a degree from storefront or computer-front universities who that awarded them a doctoral degree without the student ever having to attend a single class. The only African students, who benefits from attending a western university is the African musician whose interest involves a melodic instrument or voice. But even then the African describes the approach to defining or explaining the music in terms relevant to the western interpretation. In defining a rhythm that has a short note followed by a long note, Samuel Akpabot, a Nigerian musician, in his writing described this as “Iambic”, wherein a short sound is followed by a long sound. He also defines rhythm as “Trochaic”, wherein the first syllable is stressed followed by an unstressed syllable. These are terms found in western interpretation of poetry. Using the African interpretation popularized by Nigerian, Solomon Ilori, the term would be expressed as the Kon-Ko-Lo- phrase. In this phrase ‘Kon’ is a long note; ‘Ko’ is a short note that follows a long note, and ‘Lo’ is a long note that follows a short note. The entire phrase would be sounded as “Kon-Ko-Lo-Kon-Kon-Ko-Lo”. But the spoken language of the people would dictate the order of the phrasing. Thus the Yoruba people of Nigeria would state the rhythm as ‘Kon-Kon-Ko-Lo-Kon-Ko-Lo.’ But the Ewe people of Ghana would express the rhythm as Kon-Ko-Lo-Kon-Kon-Ko-Lo. My students would substitute the words, long and short creating the phrase “Long-short-long-long-long-short-long.”

I have spent approximately fifty years researching African music and dance throughout the continent from Tanzania to Senegal. I have conducted research in places unknown to the average person, and places that are not written on the map. I served as a Fulbright scholar in Ivory Coast and the Gambia. In 2002 I served as a Cultural Specialist under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. In this position I taught Greenotation to African students, professors and performing artists from the University of Ghana, the National Theater, and the Noyam Contemporary African Dance Institute and the Ghana Dance Ensemble. These students learned how to write dance on the computer and to later read and perform it from the print out. We collectively worked on the dance TOKOE that was widely performed in the early seventies but was not being performed with great frequency in 2002. I used the music I recorded in the seventies as my point of reference. The students learned the dance and we wrote it with the LabanWriter program on the computer thus giving it permanency. A couple of students and I even appeared on Ghana National Television “The Breakfast Club” where they performed this dance. TOKOE is now part of the list of dance included in the forthcoming text Greenotation: Manuscripts of African Music and Dance.

To date there has not been a Masters thesis or a Doctoral dissertation that is written with systems of notation that can be read and comprehended by those versed in notation. Candidates for the masters or doctorate need to acquire the invaluable skill of written notation to documents their writings.

Until Africans learn how to write their own percussive music, African music and dance will remain as practicum courses in the curriculum with little or no credit instead of the fully accredited courses they are designed to be. The time has come for them to buckle down and learn how to write their music and dance just as the students in the pilot project of 2002 learned to write the dance TOKOE. African music and dance are no longer oral traditions. The cultural ‘oral folklore’ must be converted into ‘written folk law’ as the only way forward in the 21st century.

© Doris Green, 2021

Doris Green
Doris Green, © 2021

The author has 16 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: DorisGreen

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