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January 25, 2008

Music prof links dance and social issues

Ingrid Monson, the Quincy Jones professor of African-American music and music department chair at Harvard University, discussed the importance of mind and body in a speech entitled “Music, Politics, and Perception in Mali” last Friday.

In recent years she has researched Malian music and dance and their relevance to West African social issues. She presented a film clip of a Malian song entitled “Tchekisse” that featured two brothers who wiggled, jumped, and clapped to the accompaniment of traditional African instruments.

“That means shake your booty,” said Monson, translating the song.

Monson’s studies have focused on the influential Malian musician Neba Solo, who radically changed the balla, a traditional instrument, when he “added three bass notes to the traditional seventeen keys.” A balla player fingers with both right and left hands to play the notes and choreographed dancing sometimes accompanies the music, she explained.

Solo’s innovation enables two extended ballas to perform pieces normally played using three traditional ballas. Monson said that although many initially dismissed Solo’s contribution as a “donkey harness,” his technique spread quickly by word of mouth.

Monson also explored the intersection between current events and music in Mali in her speech.

“Sensitizing important issues of the day” motivates Solo to write his compositions, Monson said. She added that Solo sings about economic hardship and love in the same songs, and his topics range from patience to trees to the health crisis in Mali.

Solo illustrates the idea of perceptual agency: “the conscious focusing of sensory perception that leads to being able to play better,” Monson said. A balla player must coordinate hand movements with stomping, spinning, and singing. “Their aural perceptions coordinate their bodily motions and vice-versa,” she added.

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