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Morphing Object, Process, and Person During Two Decades of Research with Musical Life in Centrafrique

Michelle Kisliuk

Key words: music and politics, recordings, performance theory, morphing process.

Desde un punto de vista académico, toda investigación debería mantenerse al margen de tendencias o intereses políticos, pero esto nunca sucede así. Este es, si más no, el punto de vista a partir del cual Michelle Kisiluk desarrolla el siguiente artículo. Kisiluk reflexiona sobre el uso de sus grabaciones en el campo desde distintos puntos de vista. El primero de ellos es elpunto de vista político, tratando el tema de cómo el uso de las grabaciones por parte de investigadores occidentales ha reproducido, en muchos casos, las relaciones de explotación norte-sur. Otra campo de reflexión es el proceso de grabación y las distintas problemáticas que este puede encerrar, ya sean técnicas, burocráticas o culturales. Finalmente, Kisiluk reflexiona sobre el uso académico de sus grabaciones, poniendo el émfasis en su valor como documento formativo y etnográfico, pero sobretodo destacando su capacidad de hacernos recordar.

Palabras clave: música y politica, grabaciones,  teoría de la performance, “morphing process”.

I’ll begin with what —in the context of this symposium— might be a provocative (if not particularly original) statement: All research positions and methods are political. This is especially true in this post-colonial moment, and in the specific context of research and writing about African musics. The act of research is political whatever the ethnic or national background of the researcher, or where the research action takes place, whether in a sound laboratory or classroom in Paris, Princeton, or Accra, in a city dance club or recording studio in Kinshasa, Dakar, or New York, or in a rural village in Centrafrique (Central African Republic).

Flash back with me to a hot day in Centrafrique in 1986. Traveling south from Bangui, the capital to the rainforest region. I’m accompanied by a new acquaintance, Justin, who lives in the region where I hope to learn about BaAka “pygmy” music. The mini-van, packed with people leaving the city, labors along the road, finally slowing to a stop at the shoulder. Passengers climb out to find some shade, hoping the repair won’t take too long. As we settle at the roadside in the course grass, I catch one of the passengers asking Justin something, while glancing at me, at that point I have yet to learn Sango, the lingua franca of the region. Justin switches to French, explaining that I am not a “tourist” (a term locally applied to any foreigner with a backpack) but a researcher. What kind of research am I planning to do? (most “research” here is about mining or forestry or something obviously exploitable). Justin answers that I am an ethnomusicologist, and after a moment the man flashes a sudden recognition, “Oh, I know! You are going to record our music, change it, and then sell it for lots of money when you get home!”

This telling response reinforced my intention to counteract such expectations and stereotypes, to use my recording equipment, if at all, only after coming to know people well, and not to let the goal of recording supercede or exploit human relationships and interaction Idealistic? Yes. But I was gambling on my own perception that the integrity of my research hinged on the possibility that someone like me could learn about music in a place like this without re-inscribing exploitive relationships —and instead could cultivate vulnerability, exchange, and interaction. This meant thinking as carefully as I could about the politics involved in any instance of making a recording —and any instance of using a recording— a task that continues almost twenty years after that little exchange on the roadside.

Morphing Object

Let’s think more about recordings. Prior to an invitation last Spring to discuss recordings at a Symposium in London (CHAR M) [1] , I had not theorized or analyzed my own relationship to recordings in any overarching way, despite having written some reviews about popularized field recordings, such as those by Ellipsis Arts, which I have likened to virtual tourism (Kisliuk 1997a) . This meeting has offered me another opportunity to begin to think more comprehensively as well as critically about how my choices about recording reflect key aspects of my approach to research, and about the multi-faceted role of making and using recordings in the kind of emergent performance ethnography that I am interested in. This developing type of ethnography of performance evokes experience, continually positions and re-positions the writer/researcher/performer —thereby qualifying description and representation with the partiality of any circumstance (see Kisliuk 1997b, 1998). And one of the most difficult as well as most important tasks for the ethnography of musical performance is the close reading of the somatic and sonic details of music, dance, interaction, execution, and experience in relation to both micro and macro socioaesthetic and political realities. So from the outset there are numerous challenges to using recordings in ways consonant with those goals.

Morphing Process

In this paper, I am moving toward a detailed case-in-point, focused on one particular song, highlighting certain performance-theory issues in relation to some recordings and performances of that song, and to begin to move toward some overriding issues that the varied, morphing manifestations of one song might suggest.

First, some background regarding the role of recording during my field research: During the earliest phase of research I taped some BaAka legends in informal exchanges for the purposes of language study (I had a little Sony Walkman Pro cassette recorder and an external microphone, which I used at first mostly to listen to my own pop music from home, as a culturestress reliever). But I did not make any music recordings until six months after beginning my initial two-years of field research in Centrafrique. This despite feeling an irritating imaginary pressure in my role as a student and as researcher-on-a-grant to gather recorded evidence to show for my work —which in conventional thinking would have given material proof and justification of my labor. The first recordings that I made were at night, among some people who knew me, during big BaAka dances, such bustling events that my recorder was of little notice or interest. In the preceding months I had tried to explain to BaAka I knew that I would record in order to study and learn their songs and language, and that I would share what I learned with people back where I come from, so that my friends and eventually maybe my students (in ecolie, from French, école) could appreciate how sweet BaAka music is.

One of the songs I learned best, and have taught extensively, is “Makala,” from a BaAka hunting dance genre called Mabo, which at one point I recorded while several young women sang directly into the microphone. I had set the recorder on the ground in the middle of the fray of a dance. The girls, Mbouya, Ndami, and Ndoko, gathered around the microphone, playing with their vocal variations as the red level indicator lights moved in response to their voices. They knew, from previous experience with my taping, that they would probably be able to hear themselves on the recording the next day, if they were to stop by my tent (as long as my solar power pack would hold out, that is), and this made them all the more eager to sing near the machine. The clearly recorded, spontaneously sung variations helped me to learn the details of potential variation in this song, and in BaAka singing style more generally [2] .

My placing of the recorder where I did was not planned, in fact I had moved the recorder away from where I was sitting because a fellow next to me, a healer named Sambala, was chattering on to such an extent in a loud, alcohol-sodden voice, that his voice would have covered up what I judged to be the wonderful singing at that moment. I did not intend to shush him for the sake of the recorder, or imply that a machine should take precedence over what he wanted to say (even though in this instance it did), so I just moved it away and, happily, this gave the girls a chance to take the recording into their own hands for a moment, before they moved off to dance and have fun elsewhere.

Of the most significant recordings I made was one of my first, during a funeral commemoration several nights after I had arrived at a BaAka forest camp, made up of an extended family with whom I would come to live with for the longest period, and to know best. This funeral dance marked the death of a little girl for whom Justin and I had, to no avail, offered worm medicine, re-hydration salts, and aspirin in the days preceding her death. It was also the night I discovered the existence of two BaAka women’s dances I had not yet heard of, one of them called Elamba. The women performed an Elamba song I call Mawa na Mwe (I never noticed BaAka actually titling their songs, but Mawa na Mwe is the most prominent phrase in the song), meaning “My Pitypain.” Here is my recording of Mawa na Mwe from that night. Perhaps you can sense the plaintive quality in the singing, given the sorrowful circumstances of this performance [3] .

I recorded the “same” song four years later at an encampment called Massilako, while on a several-days’ journey through the forest to the Republic of the Congo. I was on my way to see a woman named Bongoi, whom I had once traveled to meet years earlier, as she was known as the “mother” of the Elamba women’s dance. On my way back from that first journey I went via riverboat, and local Congolese police at one of the village stops decided to confiscate my audio tapes and film, drunkenly accusing me of being a spy…. One of the officers listened to a tape, exclaiming “Oh! This is only “eeya eeya!” but he did not return it, despite our pleas and offers of payment. Since I had recorded some new songs and some explicit instruction – women singing variations and themes into my ear, which is something that people never thought to do in my home camp – even now, over ten years later, I sometimes regret the loss of those tapes. I had no other way to learn these particular songs during my short stay in the Congo. I felt especially keenly in this case the significance of the loss of the recorded object, especially since the “mother of the dance” from that area, Bongoi, since died.

We traveled the forest route this second time to avoid running into any police. About two-thirds of the way to our destination in Congo I got quite sick, and we stopped for several days at the encampment called Massilako, where it so happened to be one of Bongoi’s sisters residence. Although I managed to record the women singing and dancing Elamba at Massilako, I was in such a fog of fever that I did not even realize that they were singing Mawa na Mwe until compiling the CD s to accompany my book (Kisliuk, 1998) a year later, in Virginia [4] . This speaks to, among other things, the emotional energy it can take to review field tapes, to re-experience difficult events as well as be re-confronted directly by how much one has NOT come to understand…. The more I think about it the more I realize that, with the exception of close listening for the purposes of the transcriptions in my book, I have periodically avoided listening to my recordings for this particular, if unarticulated reason.

As the juxtaposition of the two versions [5] of Mawa na Mwe will begin to illustrate, a BaAka song can sound quite different from one performance to another, depending on the individuals who are singing, the circumstance of the performance (one was a funeral, the other was recreational), and also depending on how familiar the singers are with the song… elaborations develop over time and differently among different groups.

Given this kind of variation (such as between the two iterations of Mawa na Mwe that you’ve heard so far), the task of “teaching” students in America “how” to sing a given song can get quite complicated. How does one balance teaching a particular singing style with teaching that an inherent aspect of that style is to adapt and respond to the individuals and immediate circumstances of the singing? My first response to this task of teaching students how to find their own voices within BaAka song style was to stay clear of my field recordings so as not to end up slavishly imitating a given moment from another place, but rather to teach from my own aural memory and see what the results might be with a given group at a given moment. Mawa na Mwe went through a particularly striking process of alteration under these circumstances. Here is a recording of my Ensemble at the University of Virginia performing Mawa na Mwe in 2001 [6] .

Mawa na Mwe, in this version, was hands down the favorite song of many members of the Ensemble, from year to year. But I knew that they had altered the melody, and I myself had begun to forget the “original” melody, until this year I listened again to those two BaAka versions of Mwaw na Mwe, one next to the other. I remembered my initial surprise when I had realized that the second version was actually Mawa na Mwe, and now had an additional shock of realization that we had also changed the character of the song rather drastically. I never much liked the hymn style harmonies that my students loved to add to this song, but I was hesitant to legislate change until I was directly confronted with the stark difference. So this semester, despite initial protests from my returning students, I reintroduced the theme as I hear it on the field recordings [7] .

A more recent story brings together several themes of sound and social life that teaching this music engenders: During the first week of class this September (2005), we had our usual introductory dinner, during which each student tells the others something about him or herself. This semester we have about 12 returning students and 25 new students. As we went around the circle, one of the returning students, named Malaika, began to tell us that she lost her mother this past summer. Her mother was Congo (DRC ). She was unable to continue speaking and began to cry. The only thing to do at that moment was to gather together and sing. I know that Malaika especially likes the song Mawa na Mwe, and understands the funeral context of the song, and, even though many of the students were new and therefore strangers to the social and the musical context that we develop each semester, I began to sing, inviting those who knew the song to join, and inviting the new students to join in as they might. Without thinking though, I called the song with the older opening, and immediately students began the hymn like harmonies, so the second cycle around I switched to the call which encourages more BaAkalike harmonies. We sang, and sounded as we felt, sad, a bit awkward among strangers but acting as we needed to in the moment to support Malaika. There have been moments almost every semester, where some aspect of the music we learn and perform, both from west and central Africa, is directly related to the mourning of someone in the group.

I have been thinking, as I have prepared this presentation, about the difference between adding variations I now hear on recordings, after having lived with BaAka song style —both in Centrafrique and in America— for almost twenty years now, as opposed perhaps to having tried to imitate recordings all along as best I could. It feels much more appropriate, now that I have a deeper foundation “in my ear” in BaAka song style, to go back and listen now, adding what I like to my own singing and teaching of a song, and changing what I do add depending on what I have recently listened to, and what I hear other singers near me doing at a given moment.

In sum, then, my field recordings —objects in some sense— are best used for initial learning, for revisiting and examining for the purposes of ethnographic narrative detail, sometimes for “transcribing,” but especially for remembering; and this at strategic points over a time of living invested in a genre, and in the individuals whom I have learned from and whom I have taught, and back again in a morphing circle of performative meanings and evolving moments of shared life.


  • [1] CHARM Symposium (Center for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music). Royal Holloway University, London. Spring 2005.
  • [2] Cfr. CD.II.18
  • [3] Cfr. CD.II.19.
  • [4] Cfr. CD.II.20.
  • [5] Cfr. CD.II.21 & 22.
  • [6] Cfr. CD.II.23: UVA Mawa Hymn Style. As you listen, focus for comparison on the harmonies that the students choose at the end of the cyclic melody See also Kisliuk and Gross 2004.
  • [7] Cfr. CD II.24.


  • Kisliuk, Michelle. 1997a. “Review of compact disc and booklet Echoes of the Rainforest (recordings and notes by Turnbull, Hallet, and Sarno) and review of compact disc and book Bayaka: the extraordinary music of the babenzélé pygmies by Louis Sarno". Ethnomusicology 41(1): 165-174.
  • ____ “(Un) Doing Fieldwork: Sharing Songs, Sharing Lives”. In Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology ed. by Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 45-62.
  • ____1998. Seize the Dance!’: BaAka Musical Life and the Ethnography of Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kisliuk, Michelle and Kelly Gross. 2004. “What’s the ‘it’ That we Learn to Perform? Teaching BaAka Music and Dance”. In Performing Ethnomusicology: World Music Ensembles ed. by Ted Solis. University of California Press, Press: 249-260.

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