Arts & Culture

Study abroad program sings

3 min read

… and dances as five undergrads work with Mali’s impresario

This summer, five Harvard College students exchanged dorm life for West African village life to investigate the role of music and dance in Malian culture. As participants in Harvard’s summer study-abroad program “Music and Dance in Mali — Ethnography in Practice,” the students had the opportunity to live among and learn from some of the most talented artists in Mali.

Daniella Allam ’09, Rares Pamfil ’10, Bianca Stifani ’09, Cristiana Strava ’09, and Tatiana Wilson ’09 spent a month in the village of Nebadugu conducting ethnographic research on Malian music and dance traditions. The program was led by Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music, and Deborah Foster, senior lecturer on folklore and mythology.

Nebadugu is home to famed balafonist Souleymane Traoré, known professionally as Neba Solo. Solo and his dance ensemble were in residence at Harvard in 2005 with sponsorship from the Office for the Arts, the Department of Music, and the Committee on African Studies. This time around, Solo was the host and the lucky guests were able to record performances, conduct interviews, and discuss the politics of ethnography.

“Music is an ideal subject for the practice of ethnography because it is so embedded in daily Malian life,” Monson said.

As part of their fieldwork, the students learned to play the Senufo balafon (a wooden xylophone) and dance in the style of Bocary and Ibrahim Dembele, Neba Solo’s dancers. In addition to giving balafon lessons Solo demonstrated how to build the instrument.

“We hoped to offer not only the actual practice of music and dance forms,” Foster said, “but also the challenge of trying to understand the meaning of those forms in their cultural context.”

Solo’s dancers took pains to instruct students in the sometimes quite complicated Senufo dance routines.

“It was challenging at first because there are a lot of quick steps, turns, and jumps,” Wilson said. By the end of their stay, however, the students were proficient enough to perform a concert for the villagers.

Learning in Nebadugu extended beyond musical performance. According to Monson, staying in the village brought the students closer to the Malian people and opened their eyes to the difficulties of daily life in West Africa. The group lived as the villagers did: in simple buildings with no running water and limited electricity. Despite the economic challenges Malians face daily, the students found them to be profoundly generous.

“However difficult life may be materially, the Malians have a cultural richness that is remarkable,” Foster noted.

During concerts or on social occasions, the students were often pulled from the sidelines to join the community in dance.

“They embraced our group and truly celebrated our presence,” said Monson.

To return the generosity of their hosts in Nebadugu, the professors and students plan to create an archive of audio and visual materials compiled during the trip, and eventually donate the trove to Solo.

This week, the students returned to the comforts of Harvard. Foster and Monson hope, however, that their time in Mali will have a lasting impact.

“As they step back into the land of plenty,” Foster said, “I hope they never lose sight of how privileged we are — physically, materially, educationally.”

It doesn’t look as though they will. The students have already made plans to send toys and gifts to the children of Nebadugu. Additionally, with Foster and Monson’s help they hope to pursue a project that will improve access to maternal health care in the village.

“The leader of the women’s organization said they need a clinic more than anything else,” Allam said. “We’re staying involved and taking on the issue.”