5 Questions With . . . Eric Charry on Ethnomusicology, Culture

Olivia DrakeJune 22, 201110min
Eric Charry, associate professor of music, is the project director of the Ethnomusicology and Global Culture Summer Institute. (Photo by Bill Tyner '13)

This issue we ask “5 Questions” of Eric Charry, associate professor of music. Charry, an expert on African music, is currently directing the Ethnomusicology and Global Culture Summer Institute at Wesleyan.

Q: Professor Charry, as an associate professor of music, what are your areas of musical expertise and what classes do you teach at Wesleyan?

A: Most of my research and writing until recently has been in the area of African music, specifically, the West African region where Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea and Mali meet. I spent two years in the region learning to play the kora (harp), balafon (xylophone), and jembe (drum). My office is filled with these instruments and I occasionally use them for an ensemble course (Mande Music Ensemble). More recently I have picked up on earlier musical interests and am working an a book on the emergence of an avant garde in jazz in the 1950s and 60s as well as a related book on music in downtown New York during these two decades. I teach an FYI on the latter topic and our field trip walking around New York is always a highlight for everyone. I see a lot of Wesleyan students passing through my large History of Rock and R&B course, and I’m working on a text that I can use in the class, something like a concise history, that will address my needs, without the gratuitous filler chatter. Many of my most interesting musical experiences have come out of hearing student projects in that class. The diversity and depth of creative work cuts across campus in really fascinating, and often hilarious (to us all) ways. The projects are open to the public. Next spring I’ll be teaching a seminar on global hip hop.

Q: You’re the project director of the Ethnomusicology and Global Culture Summer Institute, which is ongoing at Wesleyan through July 1. (View photos of the institute here.) Who sponsors the event, and what are some of the topics addressed throughout the two weeks?

A: Several years the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) wanted to make a push on several fronts to raise the profile of our field. They put out a call for proposals to host a summer institute. Several of us in the Music Department responded and they selected us, in part due to our successful hosting of the annual SEM meeting at Wesleyan in 2008 (over 1000 members attended). SEM and Wesleyan’s Music Department made a joint proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities and we were fully funded to invite 22 college and university teachers and 3 graduate students here for two week to study recent developments in ethnomusicology with an eye toward enhancing teaching in the humanities. The participants (they’re properly called NEH Summer Scholars) receive a stipend, which is providing a small stimulus to our Main St. restaurants! They are all staying at 200 Church St., and seem to have blended in with local frat culture, although perhaps slightly tamer. The overriding theme of global culture allows us to address a broad spectrum of musics from around the world. We’re especially interested in musics that have moved in one way or another across the globe. Full details about the event, including biographies, are on our web site.

Q: Who teaches the summer institute?

A: The core faculty members are myself, Mark Slobin and Su Zheng. Mark Slobin is the Richard K. Winslow Professor of Music, and is one of the most prolific and respected scholars in our field. He is a past president of the Society for Ethnomusicology and the Society for Asian Music, past editor of Asian Music journal and past Chair of the Music Department. Su Zheng is an associate professor of music and finishing up a three-year term as chair of the Music Department. She specializes in gender and music, music in Asian America and traditional and contemporary music of East Asia. She is a visiting professor of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, as well as a special researcher of the Anthropology of Music Division, E-Institutes of Shanghai Universities. Our guest faculty include Melvin Butler, assistant professor of music at the University of Chicago; Peter Hadley, who has a Ph.D. from Wesleyan and teaches the didjeridu; Maureen Mahon, associate professor of music at New York University; Maria Mendonça, the Luce assistant professor in Asian Music and Culture at Kenyon College; Alex Perullo, associate professor of music at Bryant College; and Wesleyan’s Sumarsam, University Professor of Music, who is one of the most highly respected Javanese gamelan artists, dalangs (puppet master) and scholars.

Q: Where do the summer scholars come from and what are some of their areas of expertise? Also, what is the advantage of having scholars from different musical disciplines convene for one institute like this?

A: We were extremely impressed with, and humbled by the quality and diversity of those who applied. The 25 who were selected come from all over the U.S., including Florida, Texas, California, Utah, Virginia and closer to home. About two-thirds are in music-related disciplines (ethnomusicology, musicology and music theory) and the rest are based in anthropology, history, literature, communications and philosophy. Many have published books, with topics such as the hip hop scene in San Francisco, Burma’s pop music industry, women in Puccini’s operas, Bartok’s legacy in cold war culture, the music of experimental composer La Monte Young, Nuevo Mexicano popular musics, mask performance in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), music and racial politics in California, hip hop in the Mississippi delta region, legal aspects of American foreign policy in the late 19th century, and an analysis of Nietzsche’s sense of humor. As yet unpublished projects include a study of queer fans of heavy metal, a dissertation in progress on electronic dance music in Paris, Berlin, and Chicago, indie music in post-bomb Bali and the role of women mbira musicians in Zimbabwe. The interdisciplinary atmosphere here has been electrifying for all.

Q: Tell us about the forthcoming book that you are editing on rap in Africa? Where else have you been published, and on what topics?

A: The book, called Hip Hop Africa: New African Music in a Globalizing World, includes contributions from 12 scholars from the U.S., Europe and Africa, and is due out in June 2012 on Indiana University Press. Most of my publications have been on African music, including a book (Mande Music, University of Chicago Press, 2000), articles, dictionary and encyclopedia entries, and CD liner notes. I have also written about the music of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and wrote the introduction to the autobiography of Nigerian drummer Olatunji.