My Conference Experience: Presenting Research as An Undergrad

Selfie from L to R: Marissa, Ellen Eberst, Lily Fedorko, and S. Brent Plate

Selfie from L to R: Marissa, Ellen Eberst, Lily Fedorko, and S. Brent Plate

In March, I had the privilege to give a paper at the Syracuse University Undergraduate Conference on Religion and Culture. I have to say that it was one of the most tiring and stressful, but awesome experiences that I’ve had so far as a religion major. I met a lot of brilliant scholars, like S. Brent Plate (the Author of A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects), and I also met a lot of more senior undergraduates. But before I tell you what this experience was like for me, this intro wouldn’t suffice without giving a shout-out to Lily Fedorko and Ellen Eberst for driving the 5 hours there and back with me, and all of the moral support!!

I am interested in religion and gender, and the conference paper that I presented dealt with these topics; but this blog post needs a trigger warning, because in my paper, I explored cultural concepts about gender as well as the contemporary legal issues that surround the sensitive but important issue of rape. In my paper, “Gender in the Age of Contemporary India: Aspects of Masculinity, Femininity, and Contemporary Legal Issues in a Predominantly Hindu Society,” I wanted to sketch out some of the realities of rape in India as well as the ways in which it is impacted by Hindu traditions. This paper specifically discusses motives behind rapes that occur in India, and drew upon various sources including: article publications, legal texts, news articles and the Ramayana, a Hindu religious text. The Ramayana was significant in my research because there is a present theme of gender and women’s bodies, and how these are affected by power and honor. Being that the Ramayana is a historical and culturally influential text, I used it as a touchstone to talk about how Hindus might mobilize religious ideas about rape. To some extent, I found that rape in India is a gendered desire for honor and power (specifically in terms of males), in many of the cases that are reported by females. This may be simple, but I argued that texts are interpreted, and used in many ways, and one of the ways in which the Ramayana seems to be used is to structure patriarchal systems, including rape culture.

This project started out as an blog assignment for my Studies in Hindu Tradition Religion class with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst. She also helped me to edit my paper very short-notice and very extensively, for which I am eternally grateful. I was so happy to have my paper accepted to the conference, but to give a paper on my own research, that I was completely interested in, was both absolutely nerve-wracking and fulfilling. For me, there was a way in which I had this knowledge that I was presenting that I was seeing uniquely, and that was exciting; but I also had a looming sense that someone might be an expert and ask a question that I should know the answer to—but didn’t. I was scared of drawing blanks, or stuttering over my paper. Plus, I was nervous about the fact that I was presenting on a touchy issue.

IMG_6056-768x1024So with that said, I think fear deserves a lot of the credit in my success, at least during that point in time, because I was imagining things so hugely out of proportion to the point that when I got there, things seemed much smaller. I was still intimidated, but when I saw that I was in a classroom like those in Lafayette, rather than in a room like Billings Lecture Hall (which is colossal) I felt a lot better. There is a way in which I over-prepared, and that proved to be helpful in my situation.

The most important thing that I learned from this conference is that there is nothing to be worried about when you’re the center of attention in a room full of people, at a low-key conference because you have the same thing in common with (almost) everyone else there: you’re there to speak and they’re there to listen to you speak. I think that giving a paper is a great experience if you are interested in becoming an academic because it provides a way to get your name out there, conduct research for a purpose, and practice a key element of academic work.

If there was one thing that I was not expecting from this conference, it was that people (like, real-life PhD candidates and Professors) were impressed by my work (or so I was told!). I was shocked, and still am. But I am also humbled. I think that as undergrads, we might feel that our work is not important because we only do it for a grade in a specific class. In fact, our work is always given a letter, which in a lot of cases, is the only thing that we care about as students. But the conference that I went to showcased everyone’s work as something more than a grade. At the conference, each panel had moderators, who guided us in the sense that they told us how we could, and should do better work; that is, if we were willing to put in the effort. For example, one of the more significant critiques that I received was that my paper was solid, but could be part of some kind of bigger research and therefore, was a work-in-progress. And this makes sense to me because (at least in my universe) everything can, and should be better.

Now that I have participated in a conference, I know that I will probably continue to do so if I have the opportunity again. I have learned that conferences are actually awesome because you have the opportunity to network with great scholars and to hear what they have to say about your own work. To me, this is important because they’ve been where I am right now. Talking to PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows, about their work and what they had to endure to get to where they are now, was kind of like looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, in terms of all of the hard work that is put into becoming an academic.

In terms of viewing myself as a future academic I have thought about the ways in which I could re-work this research. Ideally, I would like to narrow my research down to a more specific time frame. Right now, the partition of India is the historical context that I have in mind. In this context I would like to look comparatively the motives and dynamics behind the gender violence that occurred among Hindus and Muslims after the establishment of Pakistan as a state for Muslims, and India as a state for Hindus. I hope to find an answer to at least part of this question, as I continue to do work on this project in the future.

Senior op-ed highlights Religion

JoesphOteng

Joey Oteng ’15 (image via UVM Orientation website)

In a recent article in the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student newspaper, senior religion major Joey Oteng discussed religion and religion classes, and asked his readers to join the conversations so prevalent here at 481 Main Street.

Joey’s piece, “Why Religion Should be Discussed,” highlights some of the key questions religion majors are asked to tackle: religion in the public sphere; appropriation, adaptation, and adoption within and across religious traditions; how to talk about a subject fraught with politics and that might transgress mores of “polite dinner conversation.”

He wrote:

“We should want to study religion because it is all around us. Daily rituals as simple of rolling over every morning to check your phone, to mindful practices of yoga or even the culturally appropriated Hindu spring festival of Holi repurposed as secular color runs.”

Do read his whole piece, and then be sure to follow his advice: join us in the conversation.

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The Phonograph and the Research Process

This post will be the final one on my research on Yoruba gospel music. It has also been the most difficult to write. In part, this is because I want (need?) to be more speculative and abstract in my discussion of the recordings of Yoruba Christian songs made by the Reverend J.J. Ransome-Kuti in London in 1927. My previous posts have been based on the historical and musicological sources that I have been able to find concerning Kuti’s life and music. In Part 2 I looked at how Kuti’s biographers positioned him as a Christian pioneer who mediated between old and new in colonial Nigeria. In Part 3, I discussed how Kuti’s musical compositions resolved a problem of musical translation for early Yoruba Christians; namely, the tone-tune issue where the tonal aspects of Yoruba language clashed with the musical melodies of translated European hymns. Today I want to return to some of the questions I raised in my first post and to ruminate on the issues and further questions raised by my investigation into these recordings.

As you may recall, I am especially interested in the recordings themselves and the issues concerning technology and materiality that they raise for our understanding of Yoruba Christianity. These questions speak to wider concerns in anthropology, African studies, and the study of Religion: the place and contributions of colonized Africans in the making of our modern world, the role of sound technologies in transforming religious and cultural practices,and  the transformations of the senses—in ways of hearing and soundings—by recording technologies which enabled a new way of transmitting and circulating sounds.

phonographWhile I can’t address all of these issues directly here, I want to reflect a bit on the phonograph, a technology central to the story I have been telling so far. There are numerous scholarly writings about the place of the phonograph in the shaping of modern experience and conceptions of music in particular and sound more generally. A key theme in these writings has to do with how recordings enable sounds to be dislocated and disembodied from their original sources, resulting in what R. Murray Schafer has termed “schizo-phonia,” a term with which he meant to indicate the troubled nature of such a relationship between sound and source. A similar strain may be found in the critical writings of Theodor Adorno, who in 1934 wrote of the phonograph record as designating a “two-dimensional model of a reality that can be multiplied without limit, displaced both spatially and temporally, and traded on the open market.” Thus, for Adorno music becomes less about technology serving human needs and desires, but rather about the subjection of humans to things, and the reduction of music to an object that can be bought and sold, thus transforming human history and experience.

More recent writings on the phonograph have complicated these arguments, seeking to uncover the assumptions about the nature of sound, music, and hearing that underlie them. For example, Jonathan Sterne in The Audible Past outlines the history of the possibility of sound-reproduction in order to show how many of our now taken-for-granted ideas about sound and human experience emerge in relation to sound-reproduction technology itself; so that, for example, the universal primacy of face-to-face human interaction which is assumed in arguments such as Schafer’s is actually a historical and specific set of ideas that emerge out of an engagement with sound technologies. Other writers have considered the ability of sound technologies to repeat and circulate sounds outside of their original contexts in the formation of racial categories and subjectivities. For example, the role played by the phonograph in colonialism, particular in the kinds of racial imagination and desires enabled by the technology have been discussed by writers such as Michael Taussig and William PietzAlexander Weheliye considers  the creative possibilities of sound-reproduction technologies as enabling of black cultural production and productive of a “sonic Afro-modernity” that entails new modes of and new possibilities for being.

Placing the technology of the phonograph recording at the center of the story I am telling here shifts priorities, questions, and possible conclusions. For example, why is it that Kuti’s biographers merely mention the fact of the recordings rather than emphasizing them as part of his mediation between old and new? Certain events, such as Kuti’s challenge to Yoruba traditional authority through the desacralizing of the umbrella, or his encouragement of the Christian ogboni as an Africanization of Christianity, receive detailed, chapter-long treatments in Delano’s biography. In contrast, the recordings are only briefly mentioned, in Chapter Nine of the book entitled “In Remembrance” which describes Kuti’s efforts at maintaining the church in the context of the loss of independence of the Egba nation to the colonial government. Delano writes of the recordings in a single sentence, which appears in a paragraph documenting Kuti’s travels outside of Nigeria. Here is the paragraph in its entirety:

In 1922, by the kind munificence of the late Mrs. J. B. Wood, one of the early European missionaries, he visited the Holy Land. By invitation of the CMS Authority he travelled through Europe, and attended the CMS Exhibition in London. He took this opportunity of making some gramophone recordings of his songs. This was his second visit to London; the first had been in 1905, when he preached in St. Paul’s Cathedral. On his return form his travels  he was made a Canon of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos. [emphasis added to original.]

That’s it?! Really? This is the only mention of the recordings in a 64-page text about Kuti’s life. Of course, this passing mention might be understood in relation to Delano’s purpose in writing the book, which is to cast Kuti as a pioneer of Christianity among the Yoruba, and as an influential figure in the transformation of Egba society from old to new. Delano thus dwells mainly on Kuti’s activities in Egbaland, suggesting, perhaps, that the recordings had very little influence on Yoruba Christian life in Nigeria beyond the fact of their being made.

Extending this line of argument to the tone-tune issue discussed by musicologists, Kuti’s recordings then are also a document of his resolution of this issue in his compositions. Furthermore, as Akin Euba notes, it is one that has little impact on Yoruba Christian practice; as Euba writes, “ironically…the sings which today appeal most popularly to the grassroots of the Christian community…are songs in which the intonation of the words is often distorted, as if they were European hymns translated into Yoruba and sung to European tunes.” So much for Kuti’s impact on future Yoruba Christian musical production, whether through the printed hymn book or the recordings.

Further support for the lack of importance or impact of the recordings in Nigeria is provided by the journalistic website Sahara Reporters, in an article about “The Singing Minister: The unsung story of Fela’s grandpa.”  Here Kuti is depicted in reference to his grandson, Fela Kuti, the contemporary Afro-beat superstar whose life and music has been the subjects of numerous books, films, and even a Broadway play. The article about the “unsung story” of J.J. Ransome-Kuti provides the (apocryphal?) tale of Kuti’s grandson, Dr. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, learning of the existence of the recordings from a librarian at the British Library. Olikoye is reported to have been “shocked to listen to his grandfather’s voice, not in Abeokuta, his ancestral home, but right in far away British Museum.” Certainly a displacement of object from source, a voice calling out across the generations. Could it be that Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti’s recordings really had so little impact in Nigeria that they were lost even to his family members?

From the blog Postcards: Then and Now (http://postcardsthenandnow.blogspot.com/2012/05/hayes-middlesex-station-c1914.html)

EMI Factory; Hayes, London; c.1914. From the blog Postcards: Then and Now

 

Coming at this issue from another direction, there is the possibility that the recordings were made for European audiences and that it was there where their impact lay.  Recall that Paul Vernon suggested that these records were “aimed at a European audience and regarded as novelties.” I dismissed this possibility in my first post, but now I want to reconsider it. Indeed, a number of novelty recordings of Africans and other colonial subjects were made for sale in European markets, though the majority of them were of folkloric songs or performances. Some recordings featured speakers of African languages demonstrating the diversity of human linguistic output. Other recordings were distinctly ethnological, intended to preserve aspects of local cultures that were seen as disappearing in the face of European colonialism.

Thinking about the recordings in this way opens up a number of new analytic questions: What does it mean to think of Kuti’s recordings as a novelty for European listeners? What did that even mean; in other words, in what way were they a novelty? Why might European listeners want to hear a Yoruba man sing his Christian songs in a language that they could not understand? How did these recordings impact British understandings of the colonial project and of the place of Africans in British conceptions of Christianity?

While I do not have the answers to these questions, they present fruitful avenues for further research into this topic. My intention in this series of posts has been to describe my current research and to provide insight into the research process. My posts make clear that the research process is often messy and incomplete, requiring one to move forwards and then back again as the researcher’s categories are refined and her questions reformulated. While I hope that you have enjoyed learning more about the recordings made by J.J. Ransome-Kuti, I also hope that you have learned a bit more about the nature of research in the humanities (and the humanistic social sciences). This is the reason why my series of posts on this topic ends with more questions than answers. As the sociologist Andrew Abbott writes:

In the humanities and social sciences we do not ask questions to to which final answers already exist, answers which can be found somewhere. We seek to adjust the questions we can ask and the answers we can find into harmonious writings that explore again and again the subtleties that constitute human existence. It is our pleasure to do this in a rigorous and disciplined way. That is what makes our research academic. But our research is not scientific, for the things we wish to discuss do not have fixed answers. We discover things, to be sure, but their discover merely opens further possibilities to complexify them.

Faculty featured in UVM Humanities Publication

Recently, the UVM Humanities Center produced an aptly titled publication, Humanities, which focused on humanities and the creative arts at UVM, and captured the depth, range, and relScreen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.00.09 AMevance of work by UVM faculty, students, and alumni. It featured a number of Religion Department faculty!

Prof. Thomas Borchert‘s recent research on Buddhist monks in Thailand–a regular element of this blog!–was highlighted in a piece titled “Crisis in the Temple” by Basil Waugh (pp. 50-51). Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst’s use of social media and digital technologies in the classroom was featured in a piece titled “Follow that Professor,” authored by Amanda Waits (pp. 74-75). And Thomas Weaver wrote an article titled “Humanities at Home,” (pp.  78-79) which foregrounds Prof. Richard Sugarman talking about the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP), one of the College’s Teacher-Advisor Programs for first-year students, of which he serves as Director.

Download the whole Humanities magazine here (in PDF format).

 

The Genius of Yoruba Music

This is Part Three of a series posts about Professor Brennan’s new research on Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti and the history of Yoruba gospel music. Here are links to the earlier posts: Part One and Part Two.

I want to build on my previous post about how Reverend J. J. Ransome-Kuti negotiated old and new ways of life for Yoruba communities in colonial Nigeria by talking about how Ransome-Kuti’s music was a part of that dynamic.  Despite the overwhelming attention to issues of language and translation by missionaries who attempted to present Christianity in terms that local Yoruba communities could understand, music was also seen as key to attracting converts as well as for their properly adopting Christian practices. Hymn singing was central to Christian evangelism, and harmoniums and hymnals were part of the cargo sent to West Africa along with Bibles and other religious tracts. Missionaries ideally sought to use the words and tunes of the hymns in order to arouse the emotions of a religiously awakened congregation.

Early musical practices in Yoruba mission churches involved translating English hymns directly into the Yoruba language and then fitting those lyrics to the appropriate melodies and harmonies hen they were performed. This practice resulted in what the musicologist Akin Euba has called “an unhappy cultural marriage.” The mismatch between Yoruba lyrics and English hymn tunes was due to the fact that the tonal nature of the Yoruba language was often distorted by the melodic contour of a given song. The Yoruba language relies on three tones—high, medium, and low—in order to distinguish semantic meaning. Translating English hymns into Yoruba, and then applying those Yoruba words to the already existing melody that was written without regard to the tonal requirements of the language potentially rendered the lyrics meaningless or at best altered their meaning unintentionally.

Akin Euba explains the tone-tune discrepancy in translating English songs directly into Yoruba. From Euba, A. 1989, "Yoruba Music in the Church"

Akin Euba explains the tone-tune discrepancy in translating English songs directly into Yoruba. From Euba, A. 1989, “Yoruba Music in the Church”

It was for this reason that early converts—and indeed the missionaries themselves, many of whom came from Yoruba communities and spoke Yoruba fluently—endeavored to compose original tunes to Yoruba hymns. One of the earliest records we have of such compositions may be found in the letters of James White, a Yoruba pastor assigned to the Church Missionary Society mission at Ota, outside of Lagos. White encouraged the production of local hymns and Christian songs, noting that Yoruba communities were skilled at using music and poetry to praise religious figures. His letters from 1857 included the following observation: “Our converts, when heathens, certainly had hymns and songs of praise in honor of their gods—might they not also, now that they are Christians compose songs and hymns in honor of the God of gods?” White’s letters also included a pamphlet entitled “Orin, Ati Iyin si Olorun” (“Hymns and Praises for God”) which contained printed lyrics and translations of hymns composed by church members.

While the efforts of White’s congregation represented an early move towards the development of a corpus of indigenous hymns among the Yoruba, shifts in the nature of evangelism and the understanding of the role of Christianity in the new social and political order of the colony at the turn of the twentieth century further encouraged such practices. In response to a shift in mission policy away from “native governance” of mission affairs, many Yoruba clergymen reacted to European assertions of African inferiority through a revaluing of Yoruba culture. Yoruba pastors and scholars developed an increased interest in Yoruba history, religion, and politics which resulted in the first books written in English by Yoruba authors concerning Yoruba history and culture. These included Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yorubas (manuscript completed in 1897, published in 1921) and James Johnson’s Yoruba Heathenism (1899).

Proponents of this perspective articulated a form of cultural nationalism that claimed that conversion to Christianity did not necessarily require a wholesale adoption of European or English ways of life. Mojola Agbebi, a leader of this movement, argued in an influential speech given in 1902 that certain practices were not essential to being a Christian but instead interfered with what he saw as the African achievement of a Christian identity identity:

Prayer-books and hymn-books, harmonium dedications, pew constructions, surpliced choir, the white man’s style, the white man’s name, the white man’s dress, are so many non-essentials, so many props and crutches affecting the religious manhood of the Christian African.

In this speech Agbebi suggested that the style or form in which Christianity was practiced was not important.  Agbebi began a process in which Christianity became unlinked from “whiteness” and cultural aspects which were seen as being European not African. In this way Christian practice became open to the inclusion of African modes of expression.

Mojola Agbebi

Mojola Agbebi

In a sermon later that year Agbebi expanded further on the ways in which Christian musical practices could be “Africanized”:

It was recorded of the early disciples that after the Celebration of the Last Supper ‘they sang a hymn,’ yet it should be remembered that neither the harmonium, nor the organ, nor the piano was known to them. Our dundun and Batakoto, our Gese and Kerikeri, our Fajakis and Sambas would serve admirable purposes of joy and praise if properly directed and wisely brought into play. (…) In the carrying out of the function of singing, therefore, let us always remember that we are Africans, and that we ought to sing African songs, and that in African style and fashion.

In this sermon Agbebi articulated a particular conception of Christianity connected to a newly developed sense of historical time and global space as he attempted to account for the location of Africans—particularly Yorubas—within a wider Christian historical framework. His call to “sing African songs” in an “African style and fashion” suggests that singing itself was an important aspect of Christian practice, not the nature of the song itself, which should be suited to the linguistic and emotional preferences of the person singing the song. Agbebi’s comments here also spoke to the way in which musical practice could become compelling for Yoruba Christians through the integration of African musical practices for the purpose of joy and praise.

Ransome-Kuti’s corpus of sacred songs was part of this movement towards the Africanization of church music. In addition to composing new hymns that began with Yoruba lyrics and adapted melodies to suit them, he also took the bold step of adapting indigenous tunes to newly composed Christian words. A selection of his hymns, entitled Awon Orin Mimo Ni Ede Ati Ohun Wa (Sacred Songs in Our Language and Intonation), was published by the CMS bookshop in Lagos in 1925. In addition, 57 of his songs were published as an appendix to the standard Yoruba hymnbook (1923), and editors noted his contribution in the Preface by writing:

No tune, however, can possibly express the meaning of words in a “tonic” language such as Yoruba, so well as one written specifically for the words. Great thanks are therefore due to the Rev. J. J. Ransome Kuti for his contribution of original airs, which express the genius of Yoruba music, and will, for that reason, be greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, no such note of acknowledgement exists to account for the Ransome-Kuti’s recording of his songs in 1922, though we might make a reasonable assumption that they were also part of this movement for greater autonomy for Yoruba clergy and indigenization of Christianity in Yoruba communities. I hope through future research to substantiate this assumption.

Ransome-Kuti: Between Old and New

In my last post about Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti and the origins of Yoruba gospel music I indicated that there were a number of things that I do not know about his recordings; namely why they were made, how they were distributed and marketed, and who constituted their audiences at the time. I am still continuing to research those questions. However, there is much that is known about Ransome-Kuti and the period of Yoruba church history in which he made his recordings. In today’s post I will write about how we can understand the Ransome-Kuti recordings in relation to both his life history as well to historical developments in Yoruba Christianity.

Isaac Delano, Ransome-Kuti's biographer.

Isaac Delano, Ransome-Kuti’s biographer.

There are a number of published biographies of Ransome-Kuti, though they are mainly available to readers in Nigeria. Of particular interest are two books written by Isaac O. Delano, a Yoruba intellectual from a prominent Christian family in Abeokuta, who wrote a number of books about Yoruba language and culture. Delano’s first book about Ransome-Kuti, The Singing minister of Nigeria, was published in 1942 by the United Society for Christian Literature. The intention of the book, as noted in the Publishers’ Note, was to “stimulate Africans to take an interest in the reading of the great tribes and personalities of their continent.” The second book, Josaiah Ransome-Kuti: The drummer boy who became a canon, is an abridged version of the first, and was published by Oxford University Press in Ibadan, as part of their “Makers of Nigeria” series.

In Delano’s account, Ransome-Kuti is depicted as champion of local Yoruba leadership within mission Christianity. One of the ways Delano does this is through stressing Ransome-Kuti’s devotion both to the Yoruba communities in which he worked as well as to the goals of Christian evangelism and conversion in those communities. Delano describes Ransome-Kuti as “the link between the old and the new civilizations, as well as between the black and white” (51).  Thus, even though Ransome-Kuti was a tireless warrior against traditional religion, he recognized the values of Yoruba language, music, and forms of social organization in his ministry. Even though he was a representative of the British colonial administration (according to Delano he was given a mandate by the Egba Government to act on its behalf), he was also a keen voice in support of “native” leadership in the church and at local levels.

Two examples from his biography make these aspects of Ransome-Kuti’s orientation towards Yoruba Christianity clear. The first concerns his campaign in the town of Ilaro to allow Christians to use umbrellas. The umbrella served as symbol of royal power and for this reason was restricted to the use of the ọba (king) of the town.

Egba Kings with Umbrellas

Egba Kings with Umbrellas, a symbol of royal power under dispute in Ilaro.

Ransome-Kuti’s petition was granted by the palace; however his actions were viewed as threatening to local authority by some members of the community. Ransome-Kuti was attacked with machetes in the night by members of this faction. These actions led to a larger stand-off between the Christians in the community who wanted to take their revenge, the parties connected to the King’s palace who were seen as responsible for the attack, and the British government representatives who sent a battalion of soldiers to the area in anticipation of violence. Ransome-Kuti worked to stave off a large-scale conflict in the community by negotiating between the three sides. The resolution of this event involved the trial of those involved in the attack on Ransome-Kuti in the British court and an easing of tensions between Christians and non-Christians in Ilaro. Ransome-Kuti is identified by Delano as responsible for this; as he writes, “Christianity at Ilaro was built on the blood of Kuti” (35).

At the other end of the spectrum, Ransome-Kuti was also not afraid to challenge the mission leadership and colonial administration in support of the Yoruba communities in which he worked. For example, he challenged the church constitution by baptizing the children of of those whose parents weren’t married in the church and was found guilty by the Episcopal Court for this offense. When his followers in Abeokuta wanted to split from the Diocese over this, he implored them to work to change the church policy from within. Ransome-Kuti’s other clash with church leadership was over whether or not a group of Christian elders who called themselves the “Christian Ogboni” could hold their Thanksgiving service in the church. The Ogboni were a secret society that before colonialism had played an important role in politics and who acted in a judicial capacity in Yoruba communities. The Christian elders at the Ake church in Abeokuta had formed  themselves into a similar society, taken titles, and went about settling matters between Christians. For allowing the Christian Ogboni to hold their Thanksgiving service, Ransome-Kuti was charged with “introducing heathenism into the church” (46). Due to the overwhelming support of the local congregation for Ransome-Kuti’s actions, he was let off from this charge with a warning.

It is actions such as these that lead Delano to celebrate Ransome-Kuti for being “a man who stood firmly between the old and the new Egba people at a time when they were passing through difficult and revolutionary changes” ( 63-64). Here, Ransome-Kuti stands as a metaphor for Yoruba modernization.

Such qualities also characterize Delano’s description of Ransome-Kuti’s musical abilities. While Delano writes little about Ransome-Kuti’s musical recordings other than noting that they were made, he does tell us about Ransome-Kuti’s musical endeavors, portraying them as similarly straddling old and new, black and white. Delano writes,

He was first and foremost a craftsman, labouring to build up native music with the same conscience with which a first-class carpenter would build a table. He picked some of the best native airs, polished them up and set them to music. They were more easily followed and understood by the hundreds of converts whom he was to bring into the fold of Christ. [12]

In this way Ransome-Kuti is portrayed as both Christianizing and modernizing (by “polishing up”) Yoruba music at the same time as he translated Christian musical practices to Yoruba communities. Delano also notes the importance of music for galvanizing Yoruba and Christian devotion. Towards the end of the book he describes an enthusiastic crowd listening to Ransome-Kuti preaching in the town market:

Mounted on a petrol box, Kuti would be singing with hand raised, his earnest face illumined but the peace in his soul; his bushy hair waving in the breeze. The people around him would sing lustily. They sang as they felt; they felt as they sang. The same cure, the same key was offered for the unlocking of the mysteries of their hearts. [58-59]

It is in such descriptions that we can better understand why Ransome-Kuti’s songs may have been singled out to be recorded. More importantly, we can see the centrality of musical practice for Yoruba Christian experience—the feelingful aspects of singing that drew converts to the church and made them feel connected to and at ease with the changes that were happening around them at the time.

In my next post I will address some of the musical characteristics of Ransome-Kuti’s songs, in order to better understand how this negotiation between old and new was accomplished musically.

Rev. J. J. Ransome-Kuti and the History of Yoruba Gospel Music

Last September I announced on the REL@UVM blog that I would post periodic updates about what I was up to while on sabbatical. I then disappeared…into my field notes, stacks of library books, and pages of notes on my new book project. Well, I am back! I am still in the thick of it—ordering books from Interlibrary Loan, searching through indexes to find out which archives might hold relevant sources, and scribbling and typing notes on what I know and what I need to find out. This month I plan to share some of these notes in a series of posts describing my current research and providing some insights into the research process.

A selection of labels from releases by J. J. Ransome-Kuti, from Black Europe endpapers.

A selection of labels from releases by J. J. Ransome-Kuti, from Black Europe endpapers.

The main project I have been working on since September has been a study of commercially recorded and distributed Yoruba gospel music. This topic emerged naturally out of my research on music in Cherubim and Seraphim churches in Lagos, as the church where I based much of that earlier research had a choir that released a number of successful recordings (see my article about these recordings here). My interest in the gospel music industry in southwest Nigeria led me to investigate the history of this genre. When were the first recordings of Yoruba Christian music made? How? Who made up the audience? Do the recordings circulate today?

These questions led me to focus on what I believe are among the earliest—if not the earliest—sound recordings of Yoruba gospel music. In 1922 the Reverend Josaiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti traveled from his home near Abeokuta, Nigeria to London, England to attend the Church Missionary Society Exhibition. While there, he recorded a total of 43 songs which were released on double-sided Zonophone discs by the Gramophone Company.

Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti

Reverend J. J. Ransome Kuti

According to most sources, Ransome-Kuti wrote and arranged all of the songs he recorded. The recordings feature Ransome-Kuti singing to piano accompaniment. The majority of the songs are described on record labels as Yoruba “hymns” or “sacred songs.” In addition to these Christian songs he also recorded a funeral lament, and a track described on the label as “Abeokuta National Anthem,” a folk song about the strength of the Egba Yoruba community in which Ransome-Kuti lived.

I first heard these recordings when I visited the British Library in 2010. However, they have since been released by Bear Family Productions on a monumental boxed set called Black Europe that documents the sounds and images of black people in Europe prior to 1927. The set includes 45 discs of music and data, along with two coffee-table books that provide documentation and background information about the recordings. While only 500 copies of the Black Europe set were released, when I asked Lori Holiff, the librarian at UVM’s Bailey-Howe Library, to purchase a copy she readily agreed. In the past three months I have been poring over the recordings and combing through the extensive documentation to help me understand the significance of these recordings for both the history of Yoruba Christian music as well as for the development of the music industry in Nigeria.

I have a lot of questions to ask of these recordings. It is unclear exactly why they were made and how they were used. In a paper concerning the history of the recording industry in West Africa, Paul Vernon suggests that the Ransome-Kuti recordings were likely novelty records made for British audiences. I have a difficult time imagining non-Yoruba speaking listeners to these recordings, nor does this explanation account for the number of songs that Ransome-Kuti recorded. A more promising explanation is found on a promotional sheet reproduced in the Black Europe book, which notes that the recordings were made by Ransome-Kuti “so that the Sacred Songs of his own composition…may be available to all Yoruba speaking people” (Vol. 2, p. 194) This statement opens up the possibility that they were recorded for and distributed to the growing number of elite, educated, and Christian Yoruba families in Lagos and Abeokuta, Nigeria in the 1920s. This group constituted an early market for Western commodities, which may very well have included gramophones. I am looking for additional evidence that supports this interpretation. I still have to follow the strands through the archives and history books to determine to what extent the playback technology was available for consumers in Nigeria in the 1920s and 1930s and whether or not recordings such as those made by Ransome-Kuti were marketed to listeners in Nigeria.

I am also interested in how these recordings were used, and what people thought about them at the time. Did they help to circulate the growing corpus of Christian songs composed by Yoruba musicians to the expanding number of churches in the Yoruba-speaking region of the colony? If so, this represented a transformation in the way Christian practices were circulated between churches. Were the recordings intended to help congregations learn these songs so that they could sing them during church worship? Did they supplement the numerous printed hymnals and other song books in which the songs appear?

I do not have the answer to these questions though I have some ideas about what I will find, as well as some ideas about the implications my findings will have for understanding the development and significance of Yoruba Christian music. In the coming weeks I will tell you more about what I have found out about J.J. Ransome-Kuti and these recordings, how my research questions have developed over time, and what new directions this project will take me towards in the future.

Read Part 2 of this series of posts, “Ransome-Kuti: Between Old and New.”

Babies, Babar, and Yoga

BKHALDBabarsYogaLarge300I have an almost-two year old daughter, and she has a legion of Nanas, Pop-Pops, Grandmas, Grandpas, Aunties, Uncles, and general well-wishers who love buying things for her. (This is lovely and appreciated, even if often roundly met with frustration: Please bring less stuff into my house. Please.) In the midst of a now-typical “But, seriously, what does she need?!” conversation, Babar’s Yoga for Elephants, a book in the (revamped, English) Babar series, was suggested as a perfect gift. After all, it’s Babar! And he’s doing yoga! 

Cue a surprise academic moment. This is Babar, an elephant king who shares his name with Babur, the first Mughal ruler. This is Babar, whom I read about avidly as a child–only to get to college and realize my love of Babar meant I had participated in the orientalist assumptions with which it was written. This is Babar, keeping up with the times and staying fit with yoga. This is Babar, practicing bendy, stretchy, mindful-but-not-religious yoga, at the feet of a stereotypically dressed yogi, fashioned as a dark-skinned, eyes-closed, bearded, bare-chested man in a white turban and wrapped, white bottoms (a dhoti?). B7zLqS6CEAADINa.jpg-large

At once, the obvious problems with depicting a generalized South Asian–the man in the image above–are as banal as they are startling. This image is readily critiqued, easily identified, and almost boring in its cliche; yet seeing these problems replicated not in an early-20th century text (when French and English colonialism were in full swing) but rather in a recent book, intended for children, is disconcerting, if not altogether shocking.

Before one even gets to the book, we encounter its dust jacket–which itself serves as fodder for analysis. It reads:

“Well before yoga became fashionable via Sting and Madonna, our friend Babar and all the residents of Celesteville were finding peace and tranquillity through yoga. And now elephants everywhere can join them! … Written by Babar himself, the book explains how yoga was introduced to Celesteville and how he and Celeste keep fit doing yoga on their many travels.” (Replicated here.)

There are multiple truth-claims within this short passage which, in turn, represents the universe in which Babar exists. The first is that Babar is an original practitioner of yoga; his instructional book is thus both authentic and accurate. It ought not to be confused with new iterations of yoga, or newcomers to the practice (like Sting and Madonna), which represent a passing fad and even a disingenuous interest. But while Babar and the residents of Celesteville originally found “peace and tranquility through yoga,” now, in his own words, Babar tells his audience how to “keep fit doing yoga.” What began as a way to find calm, well before it was popular among those living beyond Celesteville, is now a way to keep fit.

A yogi in a cross-legged position doing Machendra asana, British Library: Add.24099, f.14.

This, in some ways, reflects the adoption, adaption, and appropriation of yoga in contemporary, often Euro-American, contexts. What started as a set of disciplines–what yoga literally translates to–in some South Asian religions, for specific participants (usually male, high-caste, and ascetic, as argued by many, for example Sarah Strauss) is now a multi-billion dollar exercise (and perhaps self-help) business. While it’s easy and appropriate to point to the contemporary uses and alterations to yoga, it’s not the whole picture: there is ample evidence that many non-casted, non-Hindu or Buddhist actors have adopted, adapted and appropriated yoga in other historical periods. For example, Muslim Sufis utilized yogic techniques like breathing and meditation, with some even advocating for its adoption into appropriate Islamic praxis (see Ernst here and Kugle there). Yoga, as most other religious ideologies and forms of practice, has been adapted for and by different communities for centuries.

But that doesn’t mean we ought to label Babar practicing yoga as evidence of how normal and normative yoga has become, and move on. There are some for whom this appropriation of yoga is normal, but inappropriate. As schools debate incorporating yoga, mindfulness, and/or meditation into curricula, some Hindus have argued that this misuses their religion, of which yoga is a part; some Christians and atheists, likewise, have argued that allowing these practices in school promotes (a specific) religion, and is inappropriate. All the while, the American Yoga Association claims yoga is not a religion. Debates about what religion is, how it ought to count, and how what counts (or doesn’t) is used are all central to these ongoing conversations, in and outside the public sphere. They also all apply to how we read and see Babar’s Yoga for Elephants. Is Babar practicing religion? Is it spirituality that Babar practices? Is he just participating in a fun, hip exercise program? Or is it a mindful, meditative way to calm down?

If what yoga was, is, and might become is both historically delineated and constantly shifting, how do we read Babar and his instructive yogic text?

Part of my answer to this question lies in thinking about the historical implications and legacies alongside contemporary assumptions and conceptualizations. Babar isn’t just a fun children’s character. He’s an elephant king, developed at the height of colonialism, and, as others have argued, “a tool of colonialist oppression.” In this Babar book, he practices an ancient-but-living Indic form of religiosity (which is, as above, depicted as led by a stereotypically drawn man) for the purpose of “keeping fit.” Beyond contemporary popularity, scientific evidence of its efficacy as a medical treatment for certain issues and people, and the widespread availability of “yoga pants”–in other words, beyond the normative expression of yoga–is a familiar problematic in which someone else’s history, praxis, culture(s), languages, and religions are adopted, adapted, and appropriated, all for our contemporary uses.

My daughter (and I) do participate in yoga. There’s a lovely, local place that offers classes for kids, and my wild, busy toddler loves the space for wiggling, running, and when she slows down long enough, doing an occasional down-dog. Yoga, and our contemporary uses thereof, isn’t inherently a problem. But, with all the complex and overlapping colonialist and orientalist images in Babar’s Yoga for Elephants, she will not get a copy as a gift. Since it seems better suited for my research, I picked up a copy for myself.

Student Research: Complications Within a Feminist Sita

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).
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Complications Within a Feminist Sita
by Kathryn Meader

Sita is often heralded as the ideal woman, the ideal wife, and the ideal mother. A monumental and intimidating character, she is almost more central to the Ramayana than Rama himself. She is the mother of Rama’s children, and cares for them as the poet Valmiki recounts her story. When Sita arrives on the banks of the Ganga, Narada says to the poet, “Get up, save her life, and let her live here with you and your companions; and make in measured words the song of Rama”(Buck, 6). She frames the story, and she sculpts the story, all while still maintaining an outward appearance of a demure, submissive wife. The image of an ideal wife as dependent upon her husband is an attractive one to a mainly misogynistic society, but what happens when women take ownership of Sita as a role model? Do they see a demure, restrained woman, or is she transformed? In feminist readings of the Ramayana, Sita is still seen as an ideal for every woman to strive for, but she is far from quiet. She is fierce as she endures a trial by fire to prove her faithfulness, and is strong as she defies her husband when he asks her a second time to walk through the flames. In many ways, this moment within the text can be used as a focal point from which to see the various ways in which her image is manipulated popularly in both feminist and traditional reads of the text.

In Madhu Kishwar’s article, “Yes to Sita, No to Ram” she explores the popular understanding of Sita as a woman “whose sense of Dharma is superior to and more awe inspiring than that of Ram – someone who puts even maryada purushottam Ram – the most perfect of men – to shame”(Kishwar,1).  This deeper read of Sita’s character is much more compelling than the simple, surface level understanding. She is not a meek woman who allows herself to be enslaved and mistreated by her husband. She is a fierce creature with a sense of pride and duty, whose rejection of Rama is the ultimate representation of dignity.

Looking at her actions within the Ramayana, one can open up the possibility for a feminist read of Sita that is at once empowering and quite complicated. It is complicated simply because if she is the ideal woman, and he the ideal man, how can the reader comprehend and rationalize the horrid mistreatment that Rama puts her through? In Linda Hess’s article “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife” she goes into an analysis of the various versions of the Ramayana and how these versions betray the cultural attitude towards Sita’s treatment, and what we can learn from these variations. She attempts to understand the issues involved with using such a complicated character as an image of empowerment, while she is simultaneously being used as an image of oppression.

Today more than ever before, Sita is a site of contestation. The Sita who clung to the dharma of worshiping her husband and bowing to his will, even when he repeatedly and cruelly rejected her, is still embraced as the ideal woman by many Hindus of both sexes. But others, increasingly, are describing that ideal as concocted by and serving the interests of dominant males from ancient times to the present. (Hess, 27-28)

The culminating moment of Sita’s story in the Ramayana comes during her trial by fire when she and Rama return victorious to Ayodhya. Her devotion to Ram is so complete that she is willing to walk to fire to prove that she had not touched or been touched by another man during her absence. His lack of faith in her, and unwillingness to prove to his people her innocence is what causes her eventual exile. This moment of Sita within the flames has been depicted countless times. Images have many layers of meaning, and every character in these depictions is giving us insight into the commentary of the artist. Sita is often shown serenely within the flames, with Agni by her side as Ram and Lakshman look on coldly. Hanuman is sometimes turned away from the sight. Each character is giving an opinion of the trial, as well as their opinion of Rama’s actions, through their body language.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire” (c.1895) from the British museum

In this popular depiction of the scene from c. 1895, Sita is as serene as ever, and the god Agni is faithfully by her side, but what is going on in the audience is very interesting. Rama is being restrained forcefully from entering the flames to save his love, while Hanuman shields his eyes (whether in aversion for the sight or disapproval of Ram, one cannot be sure). This version of the image is interesting because it illustrates the mixed feelings that Ram must have had about the ordeal for Sita. This image emphasizes the popular belief that Rama was wrong to exile her from the palace after she had proved herself to him, not to mention the fact that she was pregnant with twins. These opinions are not found within the text, and are a clear example of popular understanding of the story working its way into more widespread imagery.

Another important arena where a more feminist read of Sita flourishes is within the folk tradition of songs. In Rashmi Luthra’s article she goes into the connections between main female characters in the epics and the way they are represented in popular folk songs. The re-articulations within this setting create greater space for the elaboration and positioning of post-colonial Indian feminisms. The epics continue to be an important part of the cultural field and these appropriations are placed within the debate over the use of traditional narratives, in order to garner insight into the potential of the narratives as a resource for feminist projects. (Luthra, 35). Usha Zacharias is engaged in the same project of examining post-colonial feminisms in her article “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Zacharias moves between the development of Indian feminism and various instances of Sita’s character within the Ramayana, and serves to illustrate how Sita’s image is used to create the modern ideal of female citizenship. The ideal being pushed is that of a strong woman who stands up for herself, but also understands her place within the larger scheme.

Sita is a character that does not receive the development that she deserves within the text of the Ramayana. When she is understood in the hearts and minds of the readers, her personality and actions are elaborated in ways that are not always the way that the text intended. She can be used by the most traditional of men to set forth an example of their perfect, subordinate wife, while simultaneously being used as a rallying point for women who have had enough of their husbands. All who read her story carefully witness the strength within her character, but the way her image is employed in the popular arena illustrates the variations to be found within this ancient text.

Works Cited:

Buck, William, and B. A. van Nooten. Ramayana. Third Edition. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 2012.

Hess, Linda. “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 67. No. 1 (March, 1999).

Kishwar, Madhu. “Yes to Sita, No to Ram: The Continuing Hold of Sita on Popular Imagination in India,” in Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Luthra, Rashmi. “Clearing Sacred Ground: Women-Centered Interpretations of the Indian Epics,” Feminist Formations 26, no. 2 (2014): 135–61.

Zacharias, Usha. “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Social Text 19, no. 4 (2001): 29–51.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire.” British Museum. (Click on image above for link)