Ethnomusicology in South Africa
In 2001, UVA Assistant Music Professor Noel Lobley traveled to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, and fell in love. Then making his living largely as a DJ and performer, Lobley returned with a full-fledged passion for the culture and the sounds he heard throughout his travels and especially those heard in the streets and villages he visited, sounds he called “snapshots into music in its lived local form.”
The journey would be the beginning of an artistic journey that now propels him into near constant artistic exploration and has UVA positioned as an important cross-cultural facilitator. Upon his return from that first trip, Lobley was encouraged to find an ethnomusicologist who could work with and train him. That process led him to search snippets of African music online and then to the recordings collected across sub-Saharan Africa between the 1920s and 1970s by Englishman Hugh Tracey, who had set up the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in 1954. “I heard these fragments of mind blowing sounds,” Lobley said. “I was actually hearing the sounds I was trying to create electronically, and this was in acoustic music made by shepherds in Lesotho.” He wanted to dive deeper. “I realized I was responding purely to sound, and I didn’t know anything about the reasons for making the sounds, and the music as a whole. That is where the ethnomusicology, and getting to know the community came in.” Whereas we often come into contact with global music through highly-produced records, the rawness and urgency of these field recordings suggested their deep and rich roots. “The more you pay attention to them, the more you realize they are in fact deep knowledge systems that are often about the whole of life.”
Lobley’s passion for the new sounds led him to work with the Beating Heart Project, which featured a wide mix of musicians, ranging from the obscure to the internationally-celebrated, on remixes of the original recordings for an album in 2016 (Malawi) and a follow up in 2017 (South Africa). The most important thing for Lobley remains that any acclaim and funding that might come out of these projects goes back to the source, supporting the local musicians and sounds that continue to inspire him and that are gaining an increasingly strong foothold in global and popular culture. Ludwig Göransson, the composer for Black Panther, drew heavily from the music and recordings housed at ILAM and collaborations with a range of West African musicians.
Exposure like this, in the biggest selling movie of the year, can only help the music and musicians of the region, and while Lobley is thrilled to see it happen, he is continuing to focus his collaborative efforts on the local level. “I like to focus on the local engagements with local artists who are quite often under the radar for various reasons that have nothing to do with lack of skill, but are more about opportunity and connectivity of platforms. “ Lobley is carving out a fascinating and potentially important role for UVA in the connectivity process. Through the African Urbanism Humanities Lab he recently brought longtime friend Dr. Lee Watkins, Director of the International Library of African Music, to Grounds for a series of collaborative events, and is also reaching out to groundbreaking arts visionaries such as Nyakonzima Tsana and Xolile Madinda who have created dynamic local and regional festival events aimed at increased cultural awareness, while spreading important social messages about improving life in their home regions. “Our music department is very progressive,” he said, “and not focused on the boundaries between areas of music study. These kinds of efforts and studies I have been involved with go beyond sound composition and analysis to actually plug into things like equitable development and sharing of resources and ideas, and I think UVA is a very interesting and charged place to explore that.”