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An experimental approach to developing music literacy in central Zaire

by Peter Jorgensen

Reprinted from Notes on Anthropology and Intercultural Community Work 16:15–22
© 1994 Summer Institute of Linguistics


The introduction of music literacy can be a great encouragement to a local community. However, like language literacy, it requires specialized skills in analysis and a considerable investment of time in developing the notation system and pedagogical materials.

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The preconference symposium at the 1992 annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology raised some profound questions concerning the purpose of ethnomusicology. Issues discussed included the alleged irrelevance of ethnomusicology to anyone outside of academia and the perceived lack of any benefit from our work to the people whose music we study. These are serious questions which deserve careful consideration, for they reach to the very core of what we do and why we do it.

Much is also made within ethnomusicology of the issue of preserving music, usually through sound recordings. In a few cases, steps have been taken to enable people to do their own collection and documentation of their own traditional music. One way that ethnomusicology may be of more direct benefit to the people whose music we study is to continue to explore these kinds of locally empowering fieldwork options. Indeed, the latest issue of our journal was entirely devoted to these kinds of projects.

This paper describes one such possible fieldwork model which takes the idea of preserving local music one step further: the introduction of music literacy into a previously orally transmitted idiom. Such a project was conducted by the author among (and at the request of) the Bena Lulua people in the city of Kananga of the Republic of Zaire in central Africa. Fieldwork was conducted from June 1990 to September 1991. This experimental project was modeled loosely on programs that have been used successfully to develop language literacy among preliterate minority language groups.

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