Amongst the Luvale peoples of northwestern Zambia, ancestors and natural spirits return to the living world through “makishi” masquerade theatre. When embodied by Luvale performers, makishi frequently dance to the complex sounds of powerful drum ensembles. Vital to both the internal organization of this drumming and the greater music-mask relationship is timbre: the sonic parameter denoting sound quality. My research investigates how timbre is manipulated and responded to by drummers and makishi.
Amongst the Luvale peoples of northwestern Zambia, ancestors and natural spirits return to the living world through “makishi” masquerade theatre. When embodied by Luvale performers, makishi frequently dance to the complex sounds of powerful drum ensembles. Vital to both the internal organization of this drumming and the greater music-mask relationship is timbre: the sonic parameter denoting sound quality. My research investigates how timbre is manipulated and responded to by drummers and makishi. A few questions guide my work. What does makishi performance sound like? How do individual musicians utilize timbre to operate within the cultural boundaries set by tradition while simultaneously expressing personal identity? How can our understanding of auditory cognition explicate musicians’ choices in timbre? How do musicians, dancers, and spectators work together to successfully realize a mask’s character? Through interdisciplinary, continued ethnographic field research based on participant-observation and applied musical study, I will address these questions. This will hopefully explicate the cultural consequences of drum timbre.
What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?
To me, public scholarship involves responding to community needs through academic work. It also means escaping the university bubble by making research available to the broader public. Accomplishing this requires experimentation with creative and diverse mediums of presentation. In my case, this involves a website with audio-visual material. After all, not every audience prefers to intake information through a 400-page dissertation saturated with academic jargon.
In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?
The PSI valorizes alternative formats to the classic dissertation model. It recognizes that knowledge and information dissemination come in a variety of shapes. It also pushes students to make a public impact through the PhD experience. The focus of our work is shifted away from insular and exclusionary circles, instead reoriented towards larger communities – near and far. This initiative legitimizes and supports creativity at the highest level of scholarship, all while encouraging the researcher to apply this experience to problems affecting the non-academic world.
How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?
Musical performance and scholarship exist in my life as a sort of feedback loop where both inform and are influenced by each other. In this way, my PhD work prepares me for professional musical performance as well as a career within academia. My fieldwork methodologies and the multimedia components of my dissertation develop skills that could be utilized in record production, video editing, and web development. Ultimately, I hope that my professional life is one in which the lines between these various trajectories blur. If I can dedicate my work to uplifting musicians and protecting culture while employing a wide variety of tools, then I will consider myself successful.
How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?
My research involves close collaboration with various Zambian partners. I study with, perform alongside, interview, and document various Luvale music and dance troupes (such as the Lenga Navo, Chota, and Likumbi lya Mize Chibolya culture groups). My work is an attempt to help the Likumbi lya Mize Cultural Association meet their goals of preservation, promotion, and protection of Luvale cultural heritage. By aligning my project with their priorities, I am hoping to amplify and legitimize the tireless efforts of these guardians of tradition. I will partially accomplish this by depositing audio-visual data I collect into the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation’s publicly accessible Luvale Archives. The website portion of my dissertation will further increase visibility. Together, these two components make my research available to those it affects most. I also engage with the community at home by teaching items of Luvale repertoire to several North American-based groups, such as the UBC African Drum and Dance Ensemble. Finally, my work extends into the local music community through performance. I incorporate Luvale musicianship, timbral aesthetics, and musical vocabulary into my own style. When possible, I also try to culturally contextualize these influences – turning moments of performance into additional sites to display my research.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
The pursuit of knowledge challenges and excites me. I am deeply passionate about what I study and feel a need to approach it from as many angles as possible. I respect music and those who create it too much to settle for anything less. After years working as a musician, I realized that performance alone left gaps in my understanding. The university has an inherent set of resources that are useful in this quest to fill the lacunae. It also provides opportunities to disseminate my work and spread Luvale culture to places and communities it has not yet reached. Furthermore, a graduate degree allows me to develop skills I value while creating better prospects for my future.
Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?
I decided to study at UBC for a few reasons. Firstly, it felt hypocritical to conduct research revolving around cultural understanding in Trump’s USA. Leaving my home and pursuing knowledge elsewhere were small forms of protest. Secondly, the UBC School of Music (and the Ethnomusicology sect, in particular) has a rare department-wide strength in analysis – a methodology that aligns with my work. My advisor has been one of the scholars leading this recent analytical resurgence in our field. UBC seemed genuinely interested in my ideas and supportive of the directions I wanted to take them in. Finally, Vancouver looked like a lovely place to live. A PhD takes a long time and it is vital to have a life beyond academic pursuits; I wanted to move somewhere I would enjoy. It has been great to have a city to explore and music scene to perform in. The seemingly endless supply of incredible ramen joints doesn’t hurt, either.
Public scholarship involves responding to community needs through academic work. It also means escaping the university bubble by making research available to the broader public.