Seeing with Music: The Lives of Three Blind African Musicians

By Charry, Eric | African Studies Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Seeing with Music: The Lives of Three Blind African Musicians


Charry, Eric, African Studies Review


Simon Ottenberg. seeing with Music The Lives of Three Blind African Musicians. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. 216 pp. Maps. Photos. Table. Bibliography. Discography. Index. $35.00. Cloth.

This is a gem of a book. The author, an emeritus professor of anthropology who has published extensively since the 1960s on Igbo society in Nigeria and since the 1980s on the Limba in Sierra Leone, here presents novel material from two years of fieldwork among the latter in the late 1970s. Based in Bafodea Town, capital of a small Limba chiefdom in northern Sierra Leone, Ottenberg focuses on the lives of three blind musicians he befriended, producing a tightly focused, unpretentious, readable, and viable account of a semiprofessional genre of music-making in a small town. I describe this account as viable because the author, who is old enough to have been (as he was) a student of Herskovits, effectively reconciles old-school extended fieldwork in a remote village with recent debates in anthropology that have called into question major aspects of such projects.

The book centers on an mbira-like musical instrument called kututengwhich consists of a dozen or so metal lamellae or rods attached to a wooden soundboard which in turn is attached to a one-gallon can resonator-as well as on the genre of music (called Kututeng) played on the instrument and the lives of three blind kututeng players in Bafodea Town. The organization of the book is clear. Two opening chapters ("Concepts," "The Setting") lay out the author's methodology and the ethnographic background of music and life in the chiefdom and village. Three chapters follow, each devoted to a blind musician in Bafodea (Sayo Kamara, Muctaru Mansaray, and Marehu Mansaray). In the concluding chapter the author confronts the information presented in the book with his methods of representation.

Without preaching or proselytizing, Ottenberg lays out his methodological stance in a nonargumentative and humble fashion in the opening chapter. As an "anthropologist unskilled in the technical aspects of musical analysis," a confession that recurs occasionally, Ottenberg relies on his "lifetime of experience in sociocultural anthropology" (4), distinguishing his work from others by "bringing to the surface the kinds of knowledge of individuals that research scholars often acquire in their fieldwork but suppress or bury in their analysis" (6). …

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