Senior Spotlight: Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Rebecca Friedlander in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Rebecca Friedlander, ’17

I majored in religion because I took a world religions class in high school and realized how much I didn’t know. I really wanted to learn about new places and new people and I was already planning on majoring in anthropology so religion seemed like a good second major to really give me a broad world view.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years I’ve hopefully completed a masters and maybe even further schooling but I’m keeping my options open right now. Currently I’m thinking about graduate school in archaeology but I’m taking a year off to work and really get a plan together.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would definitely say take at least one class with every professor if you can and don’t miss out on office hours. That’s one thing I wish I had done more of when I was in college because the few times I went it was super helpful and it’s amazing how much you can learn outside of the classroom when you’re just having a conversation and how much you can improve your own work and your life.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

I’m reading a lot of dystopia right now so if I could write a book it’d probably be something along those lines. I really like novels that look at how simultaneously expansive and small the world really is in terms of how much everything is connected and impacts everything else but also how much the world contains. So I guess it would have characters vastly different from one another but that have intertwining storylines.

 

Responding to the 2016 US Elections

The outcome of the 2016 Presidential election was shocking to some, and a surprise to most. However, it is probably not a surprise to anyone who knows us that the REL@UVM faculty have things to say about the election and the way that it impacts our research, teaching, and broader work with campus communities. What follows are links to short comments and observations from a handful of our faculty, with the promise of more analysis and questions to come in the near future.

Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies
Professor Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst 

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The UVM Interfaith Center & UVM’s Post-Election Future
Professor Kevin Trainor

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Pan-Indigenous Pipeline Religion
Professor Todne Thomas Chipumuro

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What now? Scholarly Work in the Wake of Trump’s Election
Professor Vicki L. Brennan

 

Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies

By Professor Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst 

It’s no secret that Donald Trump ran a campaign that stoked Islamophobic sentiments (in addition, of course, to anti-immigrantanti-Mexicanmisogynisticableist and homophobic rhetorics and staff picks). In the few weeks since the election, we have seen Trump name members of his cabinet who espouse patently and expressly anti-Muslim positions. What seems to have surprised many around the country, however, are the ways in which hate crimes—and Islamophobic or anti-Muslim hate crimes—have seemed to tick upward since the November 8 presidential election. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, reported on November 29 that they had tracked over 860 hate-related crimes since the election. Of these, roughly 6% (or ~54 incidents) were against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims; additionally, Muslim women who choose to veil are at particular risk, given the public ways in which their religious identities are marked. Campuses—assumed to be both liberal havens and safe spaces by many—are not immune to post-Trump increases in harassment and violence against people of color, Muslims, Jews, LBGT+ and other minorities

These issues of violence and harassment, especially as part of campus, are tied up with white supremacy, racisms, and a now-longstanding process of labeling Muslims and Islam as a problem with which to be dealt. As far as how this effects Islamic studies, from conversations at international conferences, digitally, and in person, it is clear that many of us who study Islam have been called upon to talk with the media, offer sessions for students, join panels on our campuses, and write articles—scholarly and popular alike. In other words, as scholars of Islam, it is clear that in a moment of heightened Islamophobia, our expertise is in high demand. As teachers, it is similarly clear that we have been and will continue to be asked to tailor our syllabi to student interest (what *is* Islam, anyway?) as well as public need (let’s unlearn some of the stereotypes that contribute to Islamophobia). Personally, I’ll be on a panel in the spring for Blackboard Jungle and talking about Islamophobia; my REL30: Introducing Islam will specifically and methodically address anti-Muslim rhetoric in historic contexts and today, instead of just referencing it as we go. Moreover, as a scholar-teacher and as an advisor, I have seen the traffic in my office increase in manifold ways to students of color and of minority religious traditions, some hoping to talk through their experiences, others looking for scholarly resources, and others still seeking a safe space in which to talk about bias incidents or fears about racism and prejudice on campus.

The UVM Interfaith Center & UVM’s Post-Election Future

By Professor Kevin Trainor

On November 16th, one week after awakening to the shocking result of the presidential election, I attended the formal opening ceremony of UVM’s new Interfaith Center on the Redstone Campus, located in a building with a complicated institutional history. It began fifty-two years ago with another opening ceremony, presided over by Harvey Butterfield, the Episcopal bishop of Vermont, as he dedicated the newly constructed St Anselm’s Chapel. I have been researching that history as part of a broader survey of the teaching and practice of religion at UVM, and in a future blog post I will give a longer overview and analysis of that history, which provides the wider context for understanding the institutional significance of the new Interfaith Center, and of the recent appointment of Laura Engelken as UVM’s first Interfaith Coordinator. Here I will focus on the ceremony itself, and what I think it might mean for UVM’s post-election future.

While I’m not sure that the election results were ever explicitly referenced in the words of the various speakers that afternoon, the fact of Donald Trump’s election, and its apparent validation of his campaign’s embrace of hateful and violent rhetoric, hung like a dark cloud over the proceedings. Like many people with whom I had spoken the previous week, I felt disoriented and anxious about the future. I experienced the election results as a direct assault upon the values and forms of practice to which I, as a member of the UVM community, am committed. It thus seemed fitting to come together with a large group of UVM community members to inaugurate a new university facility whose mission is defined as “creating space for all people to explore and ethically engage the meaning-making systems that sustain their own lives and communities as well as of others” (Interfaith Center Facebook page). The creation of the new Interfaith Coordinator position and the Interfaith Center, which are administered through the university’s Center for Cultural Pluralism, are evidence of UVM’s dramatically expanded institutional engagement with issues of religious and spiritual diversity, now foregrounded as foundational elements in the university’s commitment to diversity, equity, and justice, as encapsulated in UVM’s Our Common Ground statement. This represents a significant shift in policy and practice. At UVM, as at most state-supported public universities, questions arising from community members’ religious identities were for the most part rendered invisible to public discourse, a situation that many community members have found oppressive.

Several members of the UVM community spoke: Laura Engelken (Interfaith Coordinator), Wanda Heading-Grant (Vice President of Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs), Tom Sullivan (University President), Annie Stevens (Vice Provost for Student Affairs), and Aya AL-Namee (Senior Admissions Counselor, former Student Government Association President and 2015 UVM alumna), each of whom played an important role in the creation of the Interfaith Center. All the speakers spoke movingly of the personal significance that the new center held for them, but for me the most memorable reflections came from Aya AL-Namee. Identifying herself as a Muslim, she spoke of walking about since the election feeling like “I have a target on my back.” As SGA President in 2015, she played a key role in organizing student support for hiring an interfaith coordinator and for creating a safe place on campus for students to explore and practice their religious and/or spiritual beliefs, which culminated in the passage of an SGA resolution.

St. Anselm's Chapel

St. Anselm’s Chapel from p. 20 of A Goodly Heritage: The Episcopal Church in Vermont. Edited by Kenneth S. Rothwell. Burlington, VT: Cathedral Church of St. Paul, 1973.

But what is a fitting space for religious or spiritual practice on the campus of a public university? This is a complicated question, one that I will explore in greater depth in a future blog entry. But the opening ceremony in which I participated hints at some possible answers. A structure that began its life in the early 1960s as an Episcopal chapel, and then served as the home of the Christ Church Presbyterian community for thirty-five years, took on a new institutional identity at the end of 2013 when the university administration decided not to renew the church’s lease. The Christ Church Presbyterian community vacated the building and found at least a temporary home in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. The space they left behind was emptied of its Christian symbols and furnishings, and during this past summer the structure underwent a basic renovation, which included asbestos abatement and the addition of links to the university infrastructure. A large abstract painting by the artist Peter Heller that covers the north wall of what had been the chapel, which he donated to St. Anselm’s in 1963, was covered over with white muslin. It was within this pleasant but largely empty space that the opening ceremony took place.

Apart from the formal speeches, delivered from a lectern located in the middle of the low raised platform in the center of the main gathering space (which in an earlier incarnation served to define the chancel upon which the altar stood in St. Anselm’s), the opening celebration had the character of an extended and largely unstructured reception during which participants were free to come and go, mingle with one another and chat, and enjoy the food and drink that was provided. Two bunches of multi-colored balloons were anchored at either side of the raised platform. Music was provided by a harpist stationed on the right side of the platform. In keeping with the speakers’ frequent references to “religion and spirituality” and “religion or spirituality,” a pairing that implicitly contrasts institutionally organized forms of religion characterized by collective rituals and socially imposed belief systems, and highly individualized and idiosyncratic forms of personal spiritual exploration, there was very little orchestrated movement required of the participants. There was no collective recitation, no singing, no coordinated gestures. After years of schooling, everyone knew how to stand and listen attentively while the various speakers offered reflections from the lectern.

There were, however, two opportunities for coordinated practice. Large blank sheets of poster board were fastened to the walls in the various parts of the complex (the main gathering space, a small room that will eventually include a sink for ritual ablutions, a room designated for meditation with a collection of religious symbols among which individuals can select as their focus of choice, a lounge area with a couch and chairs and a kitchenette), and participants were invited to write in their ideas about how the spaces could be used or what they needed. A large mesh basket was also placed on a table in the main gathering space. Participants were invited to select from a collection of multi-colored ribbons, to write out their hopes and prayers for the future of the center, and then to thread their ribbons into the basket, with the expectation that the completed basket would be placed on display, a multi-colored weaving together of the participants’ materialized sentiments.

PHOTOS ABOVE FROM THE UVM INTERFAITH CENTER FACEBOOK PAGE

A few days after the ceremony, I met with Laura and we talked about the ceremony and how she understands her role as interfaith coordinator. Her plan is that anyone in the community with a UVM ID card will have free access to the center throughout the day. I asked if there would be a set of rules posted, and how center practitioners would address possible conflicts in their shared use of the space. She plans to impose as few restrictions as possible, and hopes that practitioners will learn through practice how to respectfully share the space to their mutual benefit. If conflicts occur, she will help the participants negotiate an appropriate resolution. If this seems optimistic, it is nevertheless clear that Laura is highly attuned to the ways in which religious differences, improperly addressed, can result in conflict. This is apparent from her adoption of a plastic blowfish as a kind of informal mascot for the Interfaith Center. The blowfish, or fugu in Japanese, is a highly prized culinary delicacy in Japan. Because the flesh of the fugu is highly poisonous if not properly prepared, it must be approached with knowledge and careful attention. Properly handled, it is a delight, but carelessly consumed, it is deadly. Given the poisonous discourse of religious difference that has recently dominated our public life, I believe we have good reason to celebrate the university’s new commitment to creating a safe and supportive space for members of the community to openly explore and engage their religious and spiritual commitments.

Pan-Indigenous Pipeline Religion

By Professor Todne Thomas Chipumuro

In my introductory Religion and Globalization course, our final unit explores what anthropologist Thomas Csordas terms “pan-indigenous religion” or “the surprising juxtapositions…[that] take place at the initiative of those…whose agency and ability to give voice the dominant society is still reluctant to acknowledge” (2007, 263).[1] Our intellectual journey has included a discussion of how pan-indigenous religion and the (anti-globalization) protest religion of Rastafarianism facilitate the formation of ecumenical solidarities that are built upon shared experiences of colonialism, racialization, and ethnocide and similar struggles against impoverishment and marginalization that are precipitated by neocolonialism. In class on Thursday, December 1, in student group presentations about indigenous reggae, students made their own connections between our discussions of global indigenous struggles and the contemporary events surrounding the Dakota access pipeline. In particular, they noticed the paradoxical ways in which globalization fuels the global capitalism and inequalities that make the pipeline appear a feasible economic development strategy while simultaneously underlining the shared terrain in which pan-indigenous solidarities can be expressed and performed in and around the activist at Standing Rock. To provide a contemporary example of how pan-indigenous solidarities are being expressed, I screened a short video that depicts Kereame Te Ua and Maori women performing haka—a Maori life-cycle and war ritual—on the front lines of the Standing Rock camp on Thanksgiving Day. It is my hope that we will all continue to use the classroom, informal, and undercommons spaces to learn, teach, and converse about our contemporary moment and birth emergent solidarities for our collective liberation.

[1] Csordas, Thomas. Introduction: Modalities of Transnational Transcendence. Anthropological Theory (2007): 259-272.

What now? Scholarly Work in the Wake of Trump’s Election

By Professor Vicki L. Brennan

In the days following the election I felt as though I were in a fog, upset about what seemed to be a validation of the role that misogyny and racism had played in the election, anxious about what a Trump presidency would mean for the United States and the world more generally, and unsure about what I could or even should do to respond to and act on any of this. I joined the ranks of many who made donations to nonprofit organizations. I vowed to make my own political commitments more clear and also to avoid the insularity and negativity found on social media sites. But still, I wondered (and still do): What now? What role do we as scholars have to play in Trump’s America? These questions seem especially vital given both the nature of our expertise (see my colleagues comments above for evidence of that) but also due to the fact that our expertise seems less valued and respected than ever before in a supposedly “post-fact” world.

Scholars of religion are responding in a number of ways. What follows are links to statements, op-eds, and analyses that have appeared in the weeks since the election that provide some answers to the question: “What now?”

Disciplinary Resolutions and Statements: The annual meetings of scholarly organizations most relevant to my own research and teaching interests took place soon after the election; the American Anthropological Association meeting from November 16-20; the American Academy of Religion from November 19-22; and the African Studies Association from December 1-3. I decided to stay home this year, so I viewed the meetings from a distance, via text messages from friends, live-tweeting feeds, and blog posts made by those in attendance. Based on these observations, it seems that for many these meetings were sites for the building of solidarity and plans for action.

A number of the scholarly associations with which members of our department are associated issued resolutions or statements in response to the election:

Op-Eds, Blog posts, and other Analyses: Scholars of religion have also been publishing their takes on the election in a variety of venues. These are just a few of the things I have found useful for understanding the role that religion played in the election, the impact that a Trump presidency might have on religious communities in the United States, as well as possible answers to the question: What do we do now?

Omid Safi writes about how to respond to hatred with love at On Being, and uses the iconic film Star Wars as a potential guide to our action:

Somehow our means and our ends have to be consistent. We can’t hate our way out of Trump. There is still the need for love, for love to move into the public spaces. There is still the need for that love to be called justice when it is public, and for that same love to be tenderness when it moves inward. In confronting the Dark Side, let us never turn to the Dark Side. Let us not become the very quality we so despise.

In the days since the election, various lines from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon have been echoing in my mind–certainly his observation that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, the second time as farce”–but more crucially his reminder that we live in a world that has already been shaped by historical forces:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Historians have much to offer to our understanding of our own time, how we got here, and how we might move forward. For an example of how historians of religion are responding to Trump’s election see: Kelly J. Baker in the NY Times on the alt-right, the KKK, and white-collar Supremacy. The bloggers at Religion in American History have also made a number of posts on the election, including one by Elesha Coffman on conservatism in the 1980s and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the current moment and another by Janine Giordano Drake on the Federalist papers and the electoral college.

With the nod to Marx we might also note the need to fully comprehend the role that economics–and particularly the rise of inequality globally–played in the US election. Cornel West writes on the end of American neoliberalism:

What is to be done? First we must try to tell the truth and a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. For 40 years, neoliberals lived in a world of denial and indifference to the suffering of poor and working people and obsessed with the spectacle of success. Second we must bear witness to justice. We must ground our truth-telling in a willingness to suffer and sacrifice as we resist domination. Third we must remember courageous exemplars like Martin Luther King Jr, who provide moral and spiritual inspiration as we build multiracial alliances to combat poverty and xenophobia, Wall Street crimes and war crimes, global warming and police abuse – and to protect precious rights and liberties.

For those of us who want to integrate these historical lessons into our classes, Savage Minds includes a link to the Trump 2.0 syllabus in their round-up of materials on how to teach the current moment.

As scholars we need to be able to speak to the questions of truth, facts, and reason that have emerged in the wake of Trump’s rise. I hope to write about this issue in more depth in the future, since questions of religious “truth” and cultural forms of knowledge lie at the center of my research and teaching. For now, here are links to two articles that I find thought-provoking at this time: First, Biella Coleman discusses politics, performativity, truth, and lies in a post that offers a possible role that scholars who analyze religion might play in addressing our current crisis

Fake is only fake if you’ve bought into a notion of the real. And the question of what is real is even more urgent and vexed today. But theory and scholarship won’t get us out of this predicament. What we need is a pragmatic practice that recognizes the centrality of fantasy, emotions, fiction, performance, and myth for politics and political messaging.

And finally, Chimamanda Adichie reminds us that “Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about” on the website for the New Yorker:

Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion. Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. It does not have to be like this.

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.

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.”