Ethnomusicologists in Concert: Paul Berliner and Others December 18, 1978

Ethnomusicologists, like music historians, usually spend their time studying relatively esoteric matters, and their influence on actual musical practice is generally quite indirect. In recent years, however, several graduates of the world music program at Wesleyan University, now in their thirties or early forties, have cropped up in these pages, and not because of studies they have conducted but because of concerts they have given. Among them are Bob Becker, who plays percussion instruments from all over the world; Barbara Benary, whose group frequently performs music by American and Indonesian composers on a tin-can gamelan; Ralph Samuelson, who plays classical Japanese music for shakuhachi; Steve Gorn, who plays jazz as well as ragas on his bansurai flute; and David Reck, who sometimes plays traditional Indian music on his veena, occasionally composes works derived from non-Western traditions, and wrote a fine book, The Music of the Whole Earth. These artists may not perform in non-Western styles as authentically or as proficiently as some native instrumentalists, but they have very good ideas about how non-Western music can and should be conveyed to modern American audiences, and are building some useful bridges between European-American traditions and the music of other continents, bridges that help us to hear the rest of the world more clearly and make us more receptive to native artists. While the specific talents and pursuits of these Wesleyan musicians are quite different, they have many mutual concerns, and collectively I think they are beginning to have a significant impact here. One might even go so far as to talk about a Wesleyan School.

Another important member of this group is Paul Berliner, whose music I heard for the first time when his group, Kudu, performed at the Alternative Center for International Art. The kudu is a tapered horn made from the antler of the kudu, a large African antelope. It curves along for about three feet and is played horizontally, by blowing into a hole near the small end. It is the most beguiling instrument I have come across in some time.

Berliner opened and closed this December 2 program with rich, mournful solos on the kudu, which has a sound somewhere between a conch horn and a French horn. There is one finger hole, at the very tip of the small end, and Berliner could flatten the pitch in slight increments by moving his other hand into the large end. Since there are only three or four overtones on the instrument, the kudu has a very limited scale, but this may be its greatest asset. With no notes in between to stop him, Berliner could slur across wide intervals with perfect ease, and since he had the vibrato control and general finesse of a good trumpet player, he could put it all together into seductive phrases.

The bulk of the concert was devoted to mbira music. Berliner plays the mbira dzavadzimu, a three-manual, 24-note mbira, which has been cultivated for many centuries by the Shona culture in Zimbabwe. Berliner studied the instrument with native musicians for some years and seemed quite at home as he thumped out the buzzy, polyrhythmic lines of its complex repertoire. Most of this music was strictly African, and Berliner was clearly treating his adopted idiom with high respect and great understanding. He also sang from time to time, and here too he used glottal stops and followed African traditions.

But some aspects of the performance were not so African. The back-up musicians, bassist Bill Harrison and drummer Jim Goodkind, gave the rhythms a distinctly jazzy sound. Berliner had written many of his own lyrics, in English, and a few times he even picked up his trumpet and drifted into a style that came closer to jazz than to African music. Throughout the evening, however, he maintained a delicate balance between Africa and the West, and it seemed to me that he mediated between the two cultures quite sensitively. There were numerous references to African nationalism and to the political significance of native African music, and there were points at which he invited the audience to sing, clap, and even dance along, thus simulating the more informal performance situations one normally finds in Africa.

I could follow much of what was going on, but I also found myself wishing that I knew more about the mbira and African music in general. So I obtained a review copy of Berliner’s brand new book, The Soul of Mbira (University of California Press), and spent most of the 1979/james-tenney-returns couple of days reading it and listening more closely to some of the related field recordings Berliner collected a couple of years ago on the album Shona Mbira Music. I found the book almost as rewarding as the concert. It goes into enough technical detail that one could almost learn how to play the mbira dzavadzimu solely from the information given in its pages. But at the same time, the language is nontechnical, and most of the book relates to broader cultural issues of African nationalism and the current situation in Zimbabwe.

I was particularly grateful to Berliner for clearing up one problem that has long confused me, not to mention a few generations of ethnomusicologists, namely, the absence of a consistent tuning system in Africa. It is absurd to think that Africans don’t hear pitch as precisely as people of other cultures do, but it seems equally absurd that in every village, and on every instrument, the African intervals come out a little different than in every other village and on every other instrument. Berliner clarifies that, for Africans, tuning is a variable, personal matter rather than an absolute, official, standardized sort of thing. He tells of one mbira player who has used five slightly different tuning systems in the course of his career. On one occasion the man was so touched by the precise intervals used by a visiting ensemble that he immediately commissioned an mbira maker to build him some new instruments tuned in that way. Most Western musicians, with their absolute, official, standardized ears, would have heard little or no difference.

The book provides much other information about how few pieces there are in the basic Shona mbira repertoire and how many variations can be played in each one, about Shona poetry and singing styles, about the younger mbira players who often irritate their elders by breaking the rules as they play, about the intense feelings mbira players have for their instruments, about how the mbira relates to Shona traditions of ancestral worship, about how Shona musicians sometimes learn musical variations in dreams, about how mbira music induces trance in religious ceremonies, and about the political significance of the music. In much of Africa the guitar has taken the place of native instruments, and I suppose that the guitar was preferred in the Rhodesia of Ian Smith. But in the Zimbabwe of the Shona, the mbira is very much alive.


This seemed like a necessary exception to our rule about not including any of many articles on ethnic music in this collection, since the subject is a kid from Chicago, and since the opening paragraphs outline the activities of the ethnomusicologists of this generation as a whole. Again, I must remind the reader that almost all of the composers discussed in this book had a keen interest in non-Western music, and that their interaction with ethnic music and ethnomusicologists was crucial in the evolution of this music at this time.