Reflexive Ethnography: An Ethnomusicologist's Experience as a Jazz Musician in Zimbabwe

By Williams, Linda F. | Black Music Research Journal, Spring-Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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Reflexive Ethnography: An Ethnomusicologist's Experience as a Jazz Musician in Zimbabwe


Williams, Linda F., Black Music Research Journal


As ethnomusicologists, we often bring our own history to the fieldwork experience, and we express ourselves through unions of the past and present. Although for the past twenty years I have worked extensively as a jazz saxophonist with musicians in the United States, I have always felt a need to study improvisation cross-culturally. As a female saxophonist undertaking jazz research in Harare from 1992 to 1994, I was a bit apprehensive about what my role would be in the context of the Zimbabwean music industry, particularly while conducting research in a country where previous studies and personal conversations had shown that women were not fully respected (Impey 1992; Makwenda 1992; Maravanyika 1993; Msoro 1994). Thus, my fear of being classified as a "novice female instrumentalist" caused me to observe musical performances critically by maintaining a low profile during the first month of my research.

At the end of my first month in Harare, I ventured out one evening to perform in one of the Harare clubs where jazz bands appear nightly. Upon entering, I was immediately overwhelmed by the large crowd, congenial outbursts of laughter, people dancing alone near their tables, and the overall exuberant energy throughout the club. I was surprised, in particular, to see people dancing to jazz rather than merely sitting and listening to it. Retreating to a corner near the rear of the club, I attempted to understand the subtle differences in a type of music very similar to American jazz. At this stage of my research, I perceived that every musical note appeared to constitute a unique response to the different shades of dance and movement.

After observing and listening to the band for more than twenty minutes, I felt confident that I could express myself on stage musically. So I unpacked my saxophone and spoke with the bandleader, Simangaliso Tutani. Soon, I was invited onto the platform to perform with the musicians. As I walked toward the bass player to get in tune, I noticed that most of the people in the club had their eyes fixed on me. My heart pounded rapidly as I walked toward the microphone to test the volume level. Unexpectedly, a young woman in the audience stood up and shouted, "Carry that cross, sister; show them what we can do!"

Despite the emotionally charged atmosphere, I found my fear dissipating, instantly being replaced with confidence. This unwavering sensation brought me into the larger social arena, causing me to be absent from that world but to be an active part of it. The reaction of members of the audience reassured me that I had their support, which later became an important element of the performance dynamic that I experienced in Zimbabwe.

During the early months of intense performances and discussing and formulating ideas with musicians, I began to notice that, although I was meeting with a variety of professional musicians, they were all men. (1) Most well-known singers and instrumentalists in the popular bands, the music promoters, and the band managers were men. This did not surprise me, because globally music has tended to be controlled by men, but I suspected that there were more women in the industry than I had initially been led to believe. Who were the female vocalists singing on the records that I had listened to and the women disc jockeys I often heard presenting music on Zimbabwean radio stations?

I began asking Zimbabwean musicians and university students about the participation of women instrumentalists. Their responses, oddly, were: "There aren't any that we are familiar with" or "Most women don't perform on stage except as dancers or singers." I then approached women that I had met at clubs in which I had performed, and they were able to recount a few names. Most of these women appeared to be associated with concert hall or popular entertainment settings during the 1940s through 1960s; however, all references to women musicians were vague. Later, through interviews with women who frequent jazz clubs throughout Harare, I learned of other female musicians, and slowly a list of names began to accumulate.

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