From Marley to Ken Saro-Wiwa: celebrating music and art

Burmese harp, ethnomusicology

Bob Marley once lived at 34 Ridgmount Gardens, Bloomsbury.   A blue plaque erected by the Nubian Jak Community Trust, marks where ‘Robert Nesta Marley – singer, lyricist and Rastafarian Icon’ lived in 1972.  Residential flats, in red brick with painted white surrounds, line the quiet side street, where birdsong floats into the air; spiked railings guard a thin strip of private garden running opposite. Number 34, in a road parallel with Tottenham Court road behind and Gower Street and Malet Street in front, is not much further than a stone’s throw from SOAS.  It is tempting to imagine the musician strolling across the campus, stopping to chat to students in the sunshine.

Bob Marley, musicBob Marley’s inspirational presence filters through still, sometimes in unexpected ways.  Before SOAS library was refurbished and the printers upgraded, one wag stuck up a sign:  ‘This printer is dedicated to the memory of Bob Marley … because it is always jamming.’

Musically, Marley appealed to a disaffected generation.  Caspar Melville, Lecturer in Global Creative and Cultural Industries, writes:

By the 1980s, when the “second generation”, the British-born children of Caribbean migrants, were reaching adulthood, a sense of widespread dissatisfaction at discrimination, police brutality, and inequality created a mood of militancy among black British youth.  This mood found an appropriate soundtrack initially in the rebellious sounds of Jamaican roots reggae, Bob Marley in particular, which then inspired a new British scene – 2 Tone – where racially mixed bands such as The Specials blended Jamaican ska with punk into a distinctively multiracial British genre.

This extract is taken from Pieces of the Musical World:  Sounds and Cultures (Routledge, 2015), edited by Rachel Harris and Rowan Pease, a collaborative venture by staff and research associates of the Department of Music.

Described as ‘remarkable’ by one reviewer and ‘a new kind of world music textbook’ by another, this fieldwork-based ethnomusicology book is divided into three parts: Music and Place; Music and Spirituality; and Music and Movement. Each chapter has as its starting point a single ‘piece’ – musical sound or object, placed in its geographic region, explored through the cultures, traditions of performance, ‘the journeys it has travelled, and its changed meanings’.

Timed listening guides linked to an interactive website of video and audio recordings.  Traditions such as rāga and tāla in classical Indian music (Richard Widdess – Chapter 6), or Yorùbá drumming rhythms in Nigeria (Amanda Villepastour – Chapter 10) aim to show ‘how people in different parts of the word listen to musical sound in different ways’.

Music and Movement (Part 3) ‘explores music that has been in one way or another uprooted and set on the move across the world’.  Angela Impey discusses song-making of the Dinka nomadic, pastoralist people of South Sudan in the context of civil war and forced migration, and the global circulation of songs ‘in the form of cassette audio-letters which pass between South Sudan and the global Dinka diaspora’.

Ilana Webster-Kogen writes about ‘Tezeta’ – ‘a song that evokes feelings of sadness and affection for country, friends and relations’, a changing practice ‘as Ethiopian musicians moved from countryside to the city, and eventually abroad’.

Geoffrey Baker, explores digital cumbia in Argentina/Bolivia.  He quotes lyrics by rapper MC Boogat:

                       My art is sharp, raw like ceviche.

 This remarkable book conveys music’s intense power to trigger emotions, even induce altered states.  Rachel Harris, in ‘Listening and Weeping in a Dhikr ceremony’  (Chapter 7) describes:

Sixty voices overlapped, reciting the same phrase slightly out of sync and slightly off pitch, forming a wash of sound.

The book shows how flexible the parameters of music have become.  Abigail Wood in “Soundscapes of the Old City”:  Listening to Jerusalem’s Old City (Chapter 1) discusses the relatively recent interest in studying ambient sounds.  Her timed listening guide opens with ‘the sounds of everyday life’:

Entering the Old City through the Damascus gate, we come to a lively Palestinian marketing street.  A vendor calls out the price of his wares in Arabic.

The writers recount how they first became interested in different forms of music.  Nicholas Gray (Chapter 9), for example, describes the impact of his first encounter with a Balinese gamelan, as a young boy of about 12:

I felt blown away by the look of the instruments, the strangeness of the tuning, and the ringing quality of the sound’

kora, music, ethnomusicology, Lucy Duran

Lucy Durán (Song and Memory in Mande Music – Chapter 2) writes:  My initial purpose was to study the kora, a 21-string harp, very much a male instrument, and, as a foreigner, I was permitted to cross this particular gender barrier.



Pieces of the Musical World:  Sounds and Cultures includes Abigail Wood’s description of the tools of an ethnomusicologist, which have changed over time:

On my first field trip, when I was still a teenager in the mid-1990s, I carried a huge four-track tape recorder with a large microphone around the Solomon Islands, hoping to record some local music, and returned with a shoebox full of cassette tapes. (Chapter 1, p. 21).

Analysis of musical genres and traditions is accompanied by fact boxes, and illustrations, for example, musicians performing in a Capoeira Angola batería (Zoë Marriage – Chapter 4).  One photograph is of the Kazakh Qobyz, discussed by Saida Daukeyeva in Chapter 3, or the Japanese shakuhachi, the subject of Kiku Day’s research in Chapter 8.  In Chapter 5, Rowan Pease reproduces a photo of or the T’ungso, a flute-like instrument belonging to Kim Ch’angnyong, a musician she met in northeast China, home to China’s Korean minority.  She writes that it was handmade:

… using a long, thick piece of bamboo, bound with thread (he said it was made from human hair for its strength) with a notch cut into the top as a mouthpiece.

Fresh from dipping into this vibrant collaborative work, the latest Brunei Gallery exhibition: Celebrating Art and Music:  The SOAS Collections, curated by Professor Anna Contadini reinforces the sense of ‘the full richness of visual and sound arts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East’.

The exhibition ranges from the transmission of Sufism into Central Asia in the sixteenth century to present-day African music and sculpture.   Reflecting the diverse interests and expertise of SOAS scholars, it illuminates the global relationships between art and music through photographs, films, paintings, books, objects and sound.

A whistle stop visit leaves a blur of giant, brilliantly-coloured steel figures with headdresses (one sticking out its metal tongue) by Sokari Douglas Camp.  Traditional griots from Mali overlook two glass cases, one containing a balafon (Mande xylophone), another a kora (calabash harp) ‘made for Lucy Durán by master kora maker Alieu Suso in Gambia’.

Chants emerge from the Sounding Islam in China Project;  illuminations leap out of Ghazal poems; Mevlevi Sufis (the ‘whirling dervishes of the European imagination’) twirl across a page.  Facing a 20th century Egyptian Ud (lute) made in Cairo, is a mid-17th century parade of musicians from Japan.

Downstairs, a Gambang (wooden xylophone) is one amongst a lavish ensemble of instruments from Thailand.

Ink rubbings of apsaras, dated from the early 1960s, show the celestial dancers ‘created out of the churning of the Milk Ocean’.

A koto (Japanese zither) is in one glass case, in another a shamisen ‘popular in the Edo Period (1603-1868)’, which was ‘played by blind minstrels, street musicians, fashionable courtesans and educated townswomen alike’.

The shakuhachi (flute) is described as an attribute of wandering monks and masterless samurai (ronin).

There are record covers of folk instrument music produced in 1977 in Beijing; ritual music and dance recordings from Tibetan Buddhism; early sound recording equipment – with a metal horn, or plastic film that wore and diminished the quality of the recording.

Film taken by Arnold Black, ‘probably the first Western scholar allowed to film and record in Nepal’, depicts tiered wooden buildings later destroyed in earthquakes in 1934 and 2015.  One of the recordings he made using a cylinder phonograph in 17 November 1933 in Kerala is of the women of the Mannan tribal community.

Entering and leaving the exhibition, the words of Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995) leap out from the wall:

            Dance Your Anger and Your Joys

            Dance the Military Guns to Silence

            Dance Oppression and Injustice to Death.

From Marley to Ken Saro-Wiwa; from Pieces of the Musical World:  Sounds and Cultures to Celebrating Art and Music countless links – and echoes – occur between book and exhibition.  Whether inspired by gamelan, kora or shakuhachi, Pieces of the Musical World has been described as ‘radiating outward, spinning rich narratives of place, spirituality, and movement’. With its tangible and intangible exhibits, Celebrating Art and Music also achieves this, and offers the opportunity to look, hear and appreciate at first hand many of the musical instruments, sounds, and cultural or art traditions, which have originated in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and which SOAS academics now teach and research.

Find out more:

School of Arts degree programmes

Pieces of the Musical World:  Sound and Cultures

Celebrating Art and Music:  The SOAS Collections

Sounding Islam in China Project


Share this post