UNT ethnomusicologist awarded NEH grant for book about music, ritual in Africa

Funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant and UNT faculty development leave, a College of Music professor is working on the last book in a trilogy about music and ritual in Africa while spending this year in Ghana.

University Distinguished Research Professor of Ethnomusicology Steven Friedson received an NEH grant for $29,400, plus faculty leave for the spring and fall 2013 semesters so that he can spend time writing the follow up to Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing (1996) and Remains of Ritual: Northern Gods in a Southern Land (2009). The first book looks at Tumbuka healers who use music and dance in their medical practice in northern Malawi, in southeast Africa. Remains of Ritual, which won the 2010 Alan P. Merriam Prize for Outstanding Book in Ethnomusicology, concentrates on the medical and religious music rituals in Ghana, in West Africa.

Steven Friedson, University Distinguished Research Professor of Ethnomusicology

Friedson got the idea for his books about 25 years ago when he was invited to teach classical piano at the University of Malawi and heard about the Tumbuka healers in the northern part of the country. For the past 15 years, he has been working in the Volta region of Ghana and established a research center on the Guinea Coast.

The third book continues the study of musical being – of “music as ritual and ritual as music” and of how music in various African indigenous populations is inextricably linked with medical and religious practices. These ties go beyond the popular Western interpretation of music as simply entertainment, Friedson said. With this series of books, Friedson aims to depict the role of music in African culture from an African perspective, rather than a Western point of view.

“I’m trying to keep them who they are, something that can be difficult for those in the West to understand when it involves sacrifices and spirit possession,” Friedson said.

Much of Friedson’s research has to do with peak musical experiences often resulting in trance. He has seen people who sing and dance, ending up possessed by their deities or in a state he describes as “being-away.”

Music and dance are part of everyday life and learned from an early age. A proverb found throughout Africa sums up this approach to participation in musical experience: “If you walk, you can dance. If you talk, you can sing.”

Friedson’s work has been cited in a wide range of publications, from introductions to anthropology for undergraduates, to medieval studies on ritual; from experimental phenomenology to ritual in ancient Israel. 

Friedson also enjoys taking students to Africa through a study abroad program at UNT.

“It’s great, seeing their eyes open to these experiences,” he said.

Friedson will be back at UNT for the spring 2014 semester and will submit his book to the University of Chicago Press, the publisher of his two previous monographs. The projected release date for his third book is 2015.

— Margarita Venegas, UNT News Service