Curtis is a performing scholar, who continues to perform and study drumming from Southern India, music and dance from Ghana/Togo/Benin, Zimbabwean mbira dzavadzimu, and popular North American music styles. His academic pursuits follow all of the above, specializing in the socio-musical spheres of southern Ewe ritual music (vodu), rhythmic theory and practice of Carnatic music, and innovations in mbira dzavadzimu performance and construction. Curtis is the co-curator of an exhibition on West African Vodu at the Surrey Museum. The exhibition runs from Nov. 13 to Dec. 23.

Faculty of Arts
Michael Tenzer
UBC Public Scholars Award
Research Description

Music and spirituality are inextricably connected. My research focuses on this connection as found in rural Ghana (West Africa) where an amazing system of worship, ritual, and performance exists - loosely called vodu in local languages. At the shrine of the deity Torgbui Apetorku in the Ewe village of Dagbamete, I explore the nexus of vodu, socio-political forces, and music. Though highly misunderstood and maligned in local and international consciousness, my hypothesis is that vodu plays an integral role in the preservation, continuation and progression of traditional belief systems and musical practice in Ghana, despite efforts of denigration, conversion, and repression from the forces of globalization and Western-driven cultural imperialism. It is hoped lessons from this study can be applied to wider discourses about the colonial encounter and how peoples affected by it can navigate current geo-political waters, and the role music and culture play in that discussion.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

A chance to bring the passion I have for my research topics  to a broader audience, utilizing diverse methods of delivery. In my own small way, an opportunity to change the role a scholar can play in society.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

The totality of a scholar's skill, knowledge, and experience should be used in the PhD journey. It should not be limited by the solitary (and narrow) act of writing a dissertation, to be read by a select few. Rather, it can take a myriad of forms, dependent on the student's own vision, experience, and connections to others. It has the potential to be a holistic rather than disconnected.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

That remains to be seen, but the more I learn about the academic world, the less enamored I am with it. Teaching at an institution (i.e. university, college) is on my radar, but I am open to working in applied contexts with NGOs, governmental bodies, arts councils, and other contexts where my knowledge may be used to affect some change.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

My own project brings multimedia (audio, visual, textual, material) aspects of my research into a very public sphere, that of the museum, to paint a more complete picture of what research can look like. I hope to also involve some aspect of performance, bringing the subject matter to 'life' as it were. The experience should go beyond mere thought.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

As scholars ('public' or not), we should all aim to make our work useful to society in some manner, no matter how small. Personally, I hope to challenge assumptions, inspire wonder, and widen discourses about the topics in my research. At its root, it is about diversity, tolerance, and empathy.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

To pursue existing scholarly interests informed by my musical interests, and to create a foundation for future personal economic security (that is, a job). The former is going well. The latter may be an illusion.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

Quite simply, out of convenience. I live in Vancouver (since 2009) and did not entertain the prospect of moving somewhere else to go to school. Only after meeting other students did I realize people actually research that choice with much more rigor than I did!


As scholars ('public' or not), we should all aim to make our work useful to society in some manner, no matter how small ... At its root, it is about diversity, tolerance, and empathy.