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A Taste of Tufts: David Locke

Published: Monday, February 13, 2012

Updated: Monday, February 13, 2012 07:02

The Experimental College (Ex College)−sponsored "A Taste of Tufts: A Sampling of Faculty Research" lecture series continued last Friday, with Associate Professor of Music David Locke at bat. At the lecture, Locke presented his multimedia research on the drumming of the Dagomba, an ethnic group in Ghana.

Locke discussed his use of the Digital Collections and Archives (DCA), with the help of University Information Technology (UIT), to create an online database of instrumental recordings, staff notation and written history of the Dagomba.

Locke, who sported a traditional black Dagomba hat, is an ethnomusicologist specializing in traditional African music and dance. He began teaching at Tufts part−time as the director of the African Music Ensemble in 1979, eventually earning tenure in the early 1990s.

As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, Locke grew "smitten," he said, with African music and the field of ethnomusicology.

"I liked the way that the study of music … bridges the arts with the humanities and social sciences like cultural anthropology," he said. "It's an engrossing and varied field that's intellectually interesting. It's artistically interesting because you get to be involved with some really cool music, and … it fits very well with a lot of Tufts values. Most of us get involved in active citizenship and the values of giving back between the fortunate scene here and the disadvantaged around the world, so the ethics of ethnomusicology appealed to me a lot."

Locke emphasized his appreciation of music's ability to mitigate the potential pitfalls of cross−cultural studies.

"Music is a fail−safe against first−world arrogance because you have to humble yourself in relation to a music teacher," he said.

"Music tends to inculcate humility … because it represents an ideal of perfection. A life of music is always failing to achieve what you can imagine to be a perfect performance, and much more so if you're a novice in another culture's music and you're working with experts in that tradition … [and] you're dependent on their expertise. It sort of inverts the power relationship."

In 1975, while in Ghana performing his research for his doctoral dissertation, Locke met Alhaji Abubakari Lunna, who inaugurated him into the practice of Dagomba drumming.

"He was my mentor and instructor, friend, guide, informant and teacher," Locke said of Lunna, who died in 2009. Between 1980 and 2008, Lunna traveled annually to Tufts to serve as an artist−in−residence.

"Every year he would come, live in my house, teach me, teach groups I had started, work with students," he said. "He was an enormously erudite and learned expert in his musical traditions and the cultural history of his people, and gradually I learned about it … and we collaborated and developed documentary information about it."

To help Locke's students learn various Dagomba songs, Lunna recorded somewhat modified versions of each.

"[The songs weren't] simplified or easier; he essentialized [them], he stripped [them] down to the bare bones," Locke said, adding that Lunna sang in a surrogate language developed by the Dagomba to accompany the instrumental sounds.

Locke then interviewed Lunna about the meaning of each song, with Lunna giving narratives often relating to the history and culture of the Dagomba people.

Additionally, Locke and a graduate student recorded the individual components of each song, many of which have multiple drum parts layered and interspersed in a complex pattern.

"Staff notation [the commonly−used system of musical notation] is an alien visualization system for African music … and the music that I work on has never been written down before," Locke said. "I think audio technology is very important to use to let a reader or a user of publications hear the music."

The eventual collection of over 600 written and recorded files — including prose on Dagomba history and staff notation as visual representation — posed a publication challenge, given its size and the variety of documentation mediums. So Locke turned to the Internet, creating an online database through which the fruits of his research could be displayed.

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