Four months (or is it years) later

It’s almost impossible for me to fathom that I left Accra a mere 4.5 months ago. So much of daily life has changed since then, not only for me personally but, needless to say, for the entire world. The pandemic hit us in California just as I was beginning to pick up the thread of my thoughts about my Ghana experience. Since then, aside from scattered moments of insight or reflection, I have been unable to do any sustained thinking about anything unrelated to the immediate needs of my family, and of my students and colleagues in the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies (where I serve as director).

But this morning, I find myself in a moment of pause — between the Fall schedule which is finally ready to go live tomorrow, and the end-of-semester flurry that will begin at any moment — and wanting to write and think about Ghana.

As my daughter recently noted, it has been difficult to hold onto the expanding perspectives we came to inhabit in Ghana once we returned to our American lives. I imagine this is true for anyone returning from an extended period in a new place. After a day or two of heightened awareness of the differences between here and there, one slips all too easily back into the well-worn grooves and practiced rhythms of “home.”

My WhatsApp chats and other social media have nonetheless kept me connected, however tenuously, to friends and news in Accra, and to the distinctly Ghanaian style of texting I’ve come to know and love.

It took me months to exit the English department WhatsApp chat, which turned quite serious once the University of Ghana shut down and required conversion to distant learning (much more difficult where internet connections are expensive and unreliable).

I continue to lurk and even participate at times on the still-active student chats that were formed for the courses I taught, and to hear from students and colleagues and other friends on WhatsApp and Facebook.

I’m most in touch these days with my music friends, whether directly via chats or indirectly as I follow their various “challenges” on Instagram.

Before the pandemic took center stage, I was involved in planning and fund-raising for a music festival and workshop in Accra, originally scheduled for August 2020. (We are now aiming for August 2021.)  I have continued to work behind the scenes, as well, with the Accra Youth Sinfonietta, which had several rehearsals in 2020 before such gatherings had to be shut down. The string quartet I had coached in Accra also regularly check in with me, and we even tried a coaching session over WhatsApp, which at the time (pre-COVID) seemed quite special.

But if anything, these threads of continuity with my Accra music community leave me quite aware of my growing distance from it (and they from me). The shared spaces of social media seem only to highlight the distance between the lived spaces of our everyday lives.

Which brings me back to this blog. One of the things I find myself thinking about a lot these days is how quickly social media has become a space/medium for music education, performance, and reception during this pandemic. The relationship between music and social media was already on my mind a lot in Ghana, where YouTube in particular has long been a valuable source of musical training, and also where live performances so often seem to serve the goal of producing promotional video clips.

Now that musicians in the so-called “global North” are migrating in new ways to YouTube and social media for teaching, learning, performing, I think it’s important not to overlook the very real differences in how these online spaces and practices are evolving and being used as well as valued across the globe. One would have to start with the big differences in accessibility and affordability of high-speed internet connections.

Questions I want to keep pondering include: what online genres of music performance are emerging in response to the pandemic? what relationship do these emerging genres have with off-line music performance? to what extent, if at all, are these emerging genres blurring or crossing cultural (and other) boundaries in new ways? how are emerging genres going to be/being monetized? how are musicians in different places making money during/after this pandemic?

Stay tuned.


I have questions

I’m going to skip the throat-clearing paragraph of excuses for why I’ve essentially let this blog fall to the wayside and come right out with it. The more I devoted myself here in Ghana to working within the musical community, the less I felt able to find the distance to write about it.

In the real time of rehearsals, performances, practicing, and scheduling, I found myself less and less focused on the cultural implications of my relationship–as white, American, classically-trained violinist–to the musicians and music scene here, and more focused on the work at hand: how to teach vibrato? how to find times and places for rehearsals that will work for everyone? how to get a room full of teenagers to pay attention to me? how to get violinists who have never played out of first position to learn music that requires numerous shifts into second and third position? how to include the girl who desperately wants to join the orchestra but only started learning violin three months ago? how to get over my own constantly recurring flare-ups of tendonitis? how to convince an adult violinist to change his self-taught bow hold so that he can play legato sixteenth-notes with multiple string-crossings and shifts? how to get a string quartet to want to play in tune, let alone hear the difference?

At every moment of my journey here I have had a critical narrative in the background of my multi-tasking brain that I simply could not give space to while getting done what I’d committed to doing.

Some of the questions that I stuffed back into hiding over the last several months:

Having been compelled by Kofi Agawu’s thesis that tonality is a form of colonialism, WTF am I doing teaching European art music in Ghana? This easily wins the prize as most nagging/most repressed question taking up space in my brain. (It’s also one I’ve asked out loud numerous times to my Ghanaian friends/colleagues, and let me just say for now that their responses have kept me going on this path. Many of them think it’s a ridiculous question: they want to play it, they have a right to play it, it’s long exceeded its “European” origins and been embraced and appropriated across the globe, get over yourself!)

And what on earth could be the value of reproducing the 18th and 19th-century European organization of the symphony orchestra — with its rationalized and hierarchical division of labor with all eyes focused on the one and only leader-conductor — in Africa, especially with said white American classical musician in the latter role? (Terrible optics!)

(Interestingly, I am less worried about the form of the string quartet which also promotes a very European set of social values, though more the ones I still believe in, i.e., democracy, equality.)

What does it mean to play “in tune”? What is the value of playing in tune? of vibrato? To what extent is my idea of playing in tune silencing or implicitly denigrating other ideas/forms of intonation ?

Why do so many Ghanaians want to learn violin (but not cello or viola)?

What role has the internet, and specificially YouTube, played in the apparent explosion of interest in learning the violin in Ghana (and I assume many other places in the world that lack string teachers/resources) and of the belief that one can learn to play violin from YouTube?

Is there really anything wrong with learning to play the violin from YouTube?

What new forms of violin-playing and music-making have been generated by this YouTube generation of violinists? (This question perhaps fascinates me most, because it seems to me there’s a whole lot going on there.)

What constitutes a “good” violin? Are the factory-made Chinese violins so many are using (as the only instruments available here) all that bad? Who decides what constitutes a “good sound” on a violin?

What roles are music NGOs playing in the burgeoning classical music scene in Ghana? What role should they be playing? (This is a big one as I have recently joined the boards of two NGOs.)

And that, my friends, is only the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, I’ve been involved in several musical projects that seem to have brought people pleasure and a real prospect of new possibilities for music-making in Accra.

I leave Ghana in a little over a week, to return regularly if all goes well (stay tuned). I am equal parts inspired, exhausted, humbled, proud, excited and muddled by the last several months. Perhaps that means I’ve crossed over into becoming a little bit Ghanaian myself. I certainly feel this place has become a second home.


I’m back

It might not have been the best of plans to start my blog right before a 3-week trip that was decidedly music-free. While we had an amazing time visiting Jo-burg and Cape Town and then camping in Namibia and Botswana, I missed my violin and the music community I’ve been working with over the last several months in Accra.

On the horizon are two projects that will likely become ongoing food for thought on this blog.

In the shorter term, I have been asked to conduct a movement of a Mozart symphony (#40) for the August Afro-Classical Nights concert at the African Regent hotel. A bunch of Accra’s musicians have been practicing their parts while I was away, and in the next several weeks we’ll get serious with some high-intensity rehearsals. While this will be my first attempt at conducting, I am hoping that my many years of orchestral playing with so many amazing conductors will serve me well.

Longer term, I am part of a team preparing a group of children from Kinder Paradise, a school and home for former street children, for an orchestral performance in November. This remarkable school has developed a promising music program, largely through the dedicated work of volunteers like my friend Julius Richardson (you can read about his music school, Genius Hive, here) and rotations of young Europeans working with Musicians Without Borders.

I am looking forward to starting work on both of these projects in the coming days, and invite you to stay tuned as I will inevitably have things to say about them both.


Music and money

_K9A1836.jpgEarlier this week, our trio performed at the luxury Kempinski Gold Coast hotel, where a concert and cocktail party were held in honor of the new COO of the company’s Middle Eastern and African hotels. We shared the program with Accra’s premiere jazz musicians and played to an international audience of bigwigs in the business, embassy, and government sectors of Accra. While our nerves were a bit frayed by a series of logistical mishaps (long story), the trio played very well, and the audience, who are not at all used to hearing chamber music performed live in Ghana, seemed largely to agree.

This ballroom, with its elaborate light show and sound system, its elevated stage, its invitation-only guests, its cocktails and hors-d’oeuvres, is a far cry from the cherished “chamber” that I wrote about in my last post. One hopes that something of that intimate, conversational dynamic is communicated from the stage, but all of the trappings of the concert hall seem designed to make such communication nearly impossible.

My friend agreed to organize the musical part of the event not only because it would provide an opportunity for the musicians to perform and make some money. He is also seriously devoted to the larger project of creating a place for classical music in Ghana, which can only happen if one also creates a paying audience. Anyone who studies the social history of classical music (which I prefer calling “art music,” to emphasize its open-ness to contemporary/global/new directions, as opposed to its rooted-ness in a European past) cannot avoid also studying its economic history.  In so far as art music’s implicit commitment is less to entertaining an audience than to saying something meaningful, the question for musicians has always been: who will pay us to do what we do? Who will pay for the hours and space needed to practice, to rehearse, to perform? (For the story of how this came about in the U.S., where there was little investment of any kind in art music before the 1870s, see Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow.)

And the answer to that question, since the shift to a market/capitalist economy, has almost always been governments and/or rich people, and increasingly, since the neoliberal drive to privatize almost everything, simply Rich People.

While many might assume that art music hasn’t thrived in Ghana because of its Euro-centric (and neo-colonial) associations, my above-mentioned friend would argue that it is more importantly due to the fact that those who might be willing to fund it haven’t yet had the opportunity to hear it in a Ghanaian context. It doesn’t yet feel like a real thing with potential for a real future in this country. Hence the effort to make that which already does exist (through the remarkable efforts of the musicians themselves as well as their occasional volunteer teachers) more visible in venues like this fancy corporate event we played at this week.

Of course, cultivating these funders and audiences doesn’t always feel good or right. As a musician, who is often living hand to mouth and has sacrificed quite a bit in time and money to learn one’s instrument, one typically feels little authentic connection with those for whom one is playing. Indeed, those who pay for art music are often doing so for reasons that have much less to do with the music itself than with what the music represents (i.e., “class,” social status, “highbrow”).  This is the compromise that is largely necessary for the existence of a creative class under today’s capitalism. (And of course, there are certainly exceptions in this characterization of the paying audience, many of whom have genuine interest in and connection to what they are paying for.)

In my next post, I will write about my friend’s other project, which takes us to quite a different strategy for cultivating art music in Ghana: bringing music education (including a vibrant string program) to an orphanage/school for at-risk children. Stay tuned!


Musical space

Since this blog is getting started 10 months into my time here, I will likely be oscillating a bit between back-story and current goings-on. Just a heads up.

One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last several months is the relationship between space and social relations. How do particular social and institutional spaces shape, enable, limit, encourage, discourage, particular kinds of communication, interaction, and attention?

In the UG English department, where I’ve been teaching American, African and African diaspora literature, I’ve been thinking about the space of the classroom as an opportunity for a kind of focused attention and interaction that is increasingly rare these days. I’m particularly interested in how the classroom can become a space for meaningful dialogue across differences in background, world-view, and values, where those differences are not pressured into becoming sound-bytes, or some kind of made-for-Twitter battle between us and them.  In a future post, I will write about a course a colleague and I are creating that will create a space for dialogue between classrooms in Ghana and in the U.S., in which students will be teaching and responding to one another about their respective locations (Accra and San Francisco) — using online digital space, we hope, to generate productive cross-cultural listening and communicating.

But back to music. Whether one is listening to or making music, I think most would agree that music has a way of taking us out of our every-day relationship to space and time and putting us into a space/time that feels different. It’s a power, one could argue, unique to music, and one that allows it to function at times as a crucial form of escape from everyday life, and at other times as an annoying or even threatening interruption of it.

Musical space, as it reshapes our sense of where we are and how time is passing, also reshapes our sense of who we are in relation to others. This is true, if in different ways, for those who play as well as those who listen/dance to music — however you find yourself within a musical space, you become a part of that space, which draws you into its flows, nodal points, inclusions and exclusions, and ways of hearing in ways specific to the moment and to the music itself.

And so, back to chamber music or, if you prefer, music played together in rooms in a house. I have in no other context in my life felt so immediately engaged with complete strangers as when playing chamber music with them. Our shared literacy in the language of “classical music” allows us to communicate and express ourselves across a wide spectrum of emotion and gesture even if we speak mutually unintelligible languages or come from completely different backgrounds. As importantly, chamber music creates an opportunity for meaningful interaction, collaboration, agreement and disagreement, development of ideas.  It’s not simply about what is being expressed (and one never knows for sure how others understand what we’re expressing), but the collective activity of producing, revising, and rehearsing musical ideas, emotions and gestures, listening and responding simultaneously to create something together.

In a way, rehearsing chamber music is analogous to discussing a novel in a classroom. We share our responses to particular passages, and learn from one another how that passage resonates for different people in different ways. We live, if briefly, in a space where the main activity is focusing on what we and others mean to say about something we have all experienced, a space of thoughtful listening and speaking and revising and, yes, arguing — all with the goal of producing a better understanding. That is a kind of space I want to spend my time in.


Chamber Music

Chamber music

It sounds foreign, dated, and vaguely aristocratic to call a room a chamber. And yet this category of music lives in humble opposition to the grand, public, and professional space of the concert hall. It is music composed for the intimate spaces of home, not necessarily for an audience, played by people coming together to create a collective interpretation of a score of their own choosing, perhaps simply for the joy of it.

Of course, the private space of chamber music as I’m conjuring it is indeed foreign and vaguely aristocratic to most of the world, where privacy and leisure time, let alone Beethoven string quartets and the string instruments for which they were composed, are anomalous.

But for me, coming from where I come from, to play chamber music is one of life’s highest pleasures and in spite of my deep resistance to universalizing my own cultural or aesthetic values, I have to be honest and confess that I truly believe that anyone with access to the best of the chamber music archive, particularly as a player of an instrument, would agree with me. Yes, I said that.

This week I have been rehearsing Beethoven’s string trio, Op. 3, with two young men I met last semester when I helped run the University of Ghana string ensemble. Neither of them had attended UG, but they were friends of those who had and regularly invited to join the group for concerts. I immediately could tell they were good, not only at getting around their instruments but also at listening, phrasing, and turning notes on a page into music. They both play in the National Symphony here, and one of them spends much of his time playing/improvising with hiphop artists, who pay him well.

When I was asked to put a top-notch string quartet together for a party last month, I immediately thought of these two. I quickly learned that they were, in fact, two of the best string players in Ghana. We were joined by a third who also belongs in that category. (The stories of how they came to play string instruments are, to me, quite remarkable and will be the focus of another post for sure.) After a few rehearsals, we began to sound very good, and we have since picked up a couple more high-profile gigs, including one next week for which the trio is rehearsing.

For those who don’t know me, though my career shifted to academia in the 1990s, I have quite a bit of high-level training and experience under my belt in the area of chamber music. I grew up playing string quartets with my peers in the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, continued to play seriously in college (though I majored in English) and then, unable to let go, spent three years earning a Masters in Music Performance at the New England Conservatory, where I was fortunate enough to play with three fabulous (now successful professional) musicians in the honors string quartet, and receive coaching from some pretty amazing people. The biggest downside to my otherwise fulfilling career in academia is that I no longer travel in these musical circles, and thus no longer regularly play chamber music. (Orchestra playing I can quite easily live without.)

So, while I came to Ghana to teach American literature, my discovery of these musicians has provided me not only with a way to be useful here, but also with an opportunity to do what I have spent many many hours of my life training to do, and what I most love to do, but have had neither occasion nor time for in the last couple of decades.

I am trying to keep these entries to not much more than 500 words, so I will stop there. But my next entry will continue to focus on chamber music, and the experience in the room of rehearsing and interacting with the music on the page and one another.



New focus

Clearly my original intention for this blog was a non-starter. Social media, rather than long-form blogging, quickly became the default way for me to share my Ghana experience with friends and family while conveniently removing much of the burden of writing in ways that venture beneath the surface.

I now find myself, however, at a turning point in my time here in Ghana, which coincides with a desire to turn away from social media. And so I have decided to try once again to keep a blog, as a way to share my experiences with friends and family, but perhaps more specifically as a space in which I can develop my thoughts and ideas about what I’m doing here as a mentor, teacher, and collaborator. And even more specifically, I want to write about what has become, somewhat unexpectedly, the main focus of my time here: working within the small but passionate and growing circle of classical musicians in Accra, particularly string players.

Next month, my family will be returning to California while I will remain in Ghana, devoting myself more fully to musical projects, as well as to a couple of writing projects. I want this blog to be a kind of first draft of an essay (and potentially a book) that I’m tentatively calling Teaching Violin in Ghana. Through a primary focus on my work with young string players, I want to examine the more general conditions, limits, dynamics, and cultural implications of playing and teaching an instrument strongly affiliated with the European tradition usually referred to as “classical music” in a former British colony  still working to cast off or otherwise navigate the political, economic, and cultural legacies of colonialism.

Even as I find myself embracing this opportunity to share the music I have spent a life-time practicing, I find myself again and again asking: What is “classical music” in and for Ghana in 2019, and what should/can it be? I have long pondered a version of this same question in the U. S., where classical music has always had a complicated and sometimes fraught relationship to American culture and identity, mediated by class, gender, race and ethnicity, among other things. But to ask this question in Ghana is something quite (if not entirely) different. While it is not my question to answer, and while I remain committed to listening and learning more than professing, neither is it a question I can ignore.

Stay tuned (if you wish) as I work through it here.






Welcome to my blog

It’s taken me a full 5 weeks to start this thing since coming to Accra in early August. In part, because I’ve been distracted and preoccupied with other things, like setting up our new home, quickly putting my classes together (after learning my teaching assignment less than a week before classes began), figuring out where/how to buy groceries (still working on this!), and exploring the city and beyond.

But the main reason for my procrastination will be the topic of this first post, a throat-clearing of sorts: Whenever I have begun to compose a post in my mind, I come to a point where I see myself falling into some version of the inherited narrative of “white person in Africa,” a story that has done and continues to do serious harm in the world and that is profoundly inadequate to my experience here so far. And yet it invariably intrudes into my developing narratives, perhaps because this story and its variants are so deeply entrenched in the “western” mind as to function as a kind of default way of seeing the moment one of “us” puts on our writer’s hat.

I certainly don’t want to make this blog all about me and my struggle to find my voice here. But it will inevitably be some of that, and not only because (as my teenage daughter is quick to point out daily) I tend always to make things All About Me, but also because I am deeply committed to the project of confronting and working through the problem of writing, as a white American, about a place and people that have for so long been used primarily as props in the story of white/American self-discovery, adventure and enrichment.

As it happens, one of the courses I was assigned to teach this semester is a grad seminar on Postcolonial Literature. As an Americanist, primarily, my relationship to the field of postcolonial studies has been mainly through the field of African diaspora studies, although during my 20 years in the Humanities program at San Francisco State University (SFSU), I have been teaching and thus educating myself in a cross-cultural/ global cultures curriculum that brings American cultural forms into relationship with works of literature, film, visual arts and music from elsewhere in the world. My focus as a teacher is always historical as well as formal/aesthetic, and so I work hard to get my students to think about how texts are made, situated, and understood in their own moment before then asking them to think about how they talk to one another, and to ourselves, across time and place.

On the first day of seminar, after we all introduced ourselves, and talked generally about the postcolonial projects of casting off inherited and internalized colonial discourses, my students asked me some pointed questions. What were my assumptions about Ghana before getting here? What were the dominant representations and stories I had consumed that fed those assumptions? What surprised me so far in my experience here?

After telling them that I wasn’t typical in that I had had quite a bit of exposure to West African literature, film, and music, I admitted a few things that did surprise me, even as they were things I’d already known superficially: I was surprised by the constant juxtaposition in urban spaces of what seemed to me very rural/traditional and very urban/modern modes of being, the most pronounced being the many vendors hawking their wares in the streets, carrying their products in large pots on their heads. I was surprised, as well, by how many different languages were spoken in Ghana, and how multi-lingual Ghanaians, especially those living in Accra, had to be in order to understand one another. Ghana, though “racially” quite homogeneous, is in fact profoundly multicultural, in some ways much more successfully than places more typically identified as multicultural.

But I also told them that many of my friends and family, who weren’t particularly well-read or educated when it came to West Africa, responded to our announcement that we were traveling to Accra in what boiled down to a more typical American point of view: “Where exactly is Ghana?” “Please be safe!” “What an adventure for you and your family!” or “Why would you want to go to Africa? Aren’t you an Americanist?”

In other words, my well-intentioned and generally well-educated friends and family also found themselves slipping into inherited assumptions: that a generalized “Africa” is unsafe; that it is a place for “adventure”; that one would only go there as an Africanist or, presumably, as an NGO worker; that I was brave for taking my family there. Add to that an only vague sense of African geography (and I, too, had to look Ghana up on a map, not knowing precisely where on the western bulge of West Africa it lay, and I still can’t properly fill in a map of the continent), and you’re pretty much up to speed on the meaning of Africa to Americans.

My students responded with animated frustration — they knew this to be the case, but it clearly upset them to hear it put so directly. Ghana, unsafe? But we’re a peaceful country!  They began to tell stories of their own experience of being mis-read by foreigners, such as one student who told me she’d been turned down for a job as an au pair in France because they wanted someone who could speak/teach English to their children. She was deeply offended, given that English remains the official language in Ghana and every educated person speaks it fluently. (The job went, she told me, to a South Korean.)  Another talked about how difficult it was to jump through all of the hurdles and expense of applying to grad programs in the U.S., including (to follow on the first story) the requirement to take the TOEFL (which presumes, again, that Ghanaians don’t speak English as a native language). A few then lamented the American news coverage of “Africa” (which they see via CNN) as being limited to stories and images of violence and poverty.

I feel very privileged to be teaching here. My intention in the classroom, and really in general while we’re here, is to be as open and transparent about my own assumptions as I can, and to listen more than speak.

Well, I have run out of time for work on this post today, as I have a lesson plan to put together before my daughter returns from her first real day at Ghanaian basic school. Thank you for reading! I’ll do my best to keep this blog interesting and informative, as well as to keep the navel-gazing to a minimum!