Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Enigma of Apprenticeship: Hip Deep with the BaAka Forest People

In preparation for Afropop Worldwide's upcoming Hip Deep program on the music of the BaAka (Pygmies) in the Central African Republic, I am reading Michelle Kisliuk's fascinating book, "Seize the Dance: BaAka Musical Life and the Ethnography of Performance."  It details her field work among the BaAka in remote parts of the CAR and the Congo in the late 80s.  Here's an image of Michelle in about 1989 with some of her subjects.

Michelle Kisliuk in Bagandou, CAR, circa 1989

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, a crucial part of Michelle's work involved learning to perform the songs and dances of the people with whom she lived.  So in addition to being a scholar and observer, she was also a participant, more precisely, an apprentice.  One look at this photograph tells you that Michelle had a lot more to negotiate than the particulars of dance moves and vocal techniques.  The cultural gulf separating a banjo-picking ethnomusicologist from Boston from African forest people, skilled hunters, living a life substantially unchanged for centuries, was immense.  And some of the most intriguing passages in the first half of Michelle's book involve the challenges she faced in negotiating the terms of this apprenticeship.  Whom should she compensate for teaching her?   How should she compensate individuals fairly in an egalitarian, collective society?  How would she strike a balance between fairness and overcompensation?  For it is important that the apprentice also retain respect.  This was especially the case for Michelle, who was facing two years of work on limited resources, and had to establish terms everyone involved could live with from the start.

Next week, I will be interviewing Michelle some twenty years after these sensitive negotiations took place.  These days, she lives and teaches at the University of Virginia and is married to Justin Mongosso, whom she first met when he served as her intermediary to the BaAka.  So it seems all has worked out well.  But when we speak, I will be particularly interested in exploring the dynamics of Michelle's unique apprenticeship in its inception.

The whole subject of apprenticeship between an American musician and Africans who are masters of their art is one with personal resonance for me.  In 1995, I went to Bamako, Mali, to apprentice with the great guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.  Of course, the world of Mande musicians in Bamako was worlds away from the one Michelle faced.  The musicians I worked with in Bamako were far more familiar with Western ways than were the BaAka at the time Michelle first encountered them.  Still, some of the issues were the same: how to value the learning of a distinctly local art form, and the mastery of particularly talented individuals within that world; also the built-in paradox of a person from the richest country in the world coming to learn from artists in one of the world's poorest, and how this inevitably affects negotiations.  In my own case, memories of all this came flooding back this week when Afrocubism rolled in to New York City, with my mentor Djelimady in a starring role.  I had not seen him in over five years, and we had a joyful reunion.  For details of how I forged my apprenticeship with Djelimady in 1995, I refer you to my own book, "In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali."  But I am please to report that this apprenticeship continues.  Djelimady still shares with me his boundless knowledge of music and culture, and I feel truly blessed by this.

Djelimady Tounkara and Banning Eyre (Erich Woodrum, 2010)
Keep an eye on this blog for more on Afrocubism's New York debut, and on my interview with Michelle Kisliuk and the ongoing production of Afropop's Hip Deep episode with the BaAka.

Banning Eyre
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