Returning from a Sabbatical of Research with Dr. Peter Dennee
By William Dowell ’22
Dr. Peter Dennee’s role as an educator and scholar has spanned far beyond Carthage’s campus. From his work with the children’s choir at the Oonte Center for Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Ondangwa, Namibia to the numerous study tours he conducts during Carthage’s J-Term, Dr. Dennee has regularly served as an educator to the global music community. Recently, Dr. Dennee has returned from a seven month research trip in Tanzania, where he worked as a Fullbright Scholar studying indigenous music. I sat down with Dr. Dennee to discuss his research and the challenges that come with studying someone else’s culture.
To get started, could you please give us a rundown of your research?
Yes. I was supposed to start in October 2020, but it was pushed off due to Covid. By late October/early November, they contacted me and said they were clearing us to go in January if we wanted to go. I know a lot of people said no, but I said yes and got into Tanzania Jan. 4th. One role as a Fullbright Scholar is to teach, which I did at Tumaini University Makumira. My other role was to do research which involved visiting multiple local indigenous groups in the Arusha region of Tanzania. I focused on the Meru, the Maasai, and the Chagga. The Massai are also in Kenya but the Meru and Chagga are very concentrated. The Meru are close to the part of Arusha surrounding Mt. Meru and the Chagga are east of Arusha near the town of Moshi which is by the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I went several times to different communities in each group and recorded their music. The Meru and the Chagga are smaller groups that are more integrated into modern society, so they are performing their music [for outsiders] while the music in the Massai still remains within their culture. I went to Massai events that had traditional music, but it was not performed for me. Now, I am editing the videos and have already started presenting my research. The goal is to create more teaching and learning resources to help schools teach the music of northern Tanzania.
How did you balance doing your research while not imposing on these groups as a Western outsider?
That is the challenge [laughs]. Seven months seems like a long time, but it really isn’t. I don’t consider myself an ethnomusicologist, but if I was conducting my research from that perspective, I would have spent some time just being in the culture so I would be less noticeable. There was one time that I did feel like an outsider and while I did not feel unsafe, I did feel unwelcome. I ended up having a retired teacher be my escort around the area. It wasn’t really for protection, but as a way to help legitimize my presence by being with a member of the group. During another experience, I was immediately welcomed by the community. Part of the issue with the other group was that I came with someone else who was a member of the Massai that had become a Christian pastor, so they felt like they were being judged by him and me by association. For the other group of Massai, the guy I was with was an active member of the Massai. He basically left me alone once we got there and I was able to wander around. Now I don’t speak the language and they don’t speak English, but it was very open. When the celebration began, I don’t think I affected the performance at all.
Based on both this experience and your other experiences in Tanzania, what would you recommend students to do to not impose while traveling out to places like Tanzania?
So I’ve traveled to Tanzania three times and Namibia eight times. I have only once brought students to Tanzania but I have brought students every time I went to Namibia, and one of the big things I encourage all my students to do on these international trips is to open up and let go of who you are in order to experience another’s culture. Don’t go expecting to stay in 4-star hotels and eat fine meals. Our goal is to understand another person’s culture which involves being uncomfortable at times, trying new things, and trying not to impose your thoughts about what Africa is supposed to be like versus the reality in front of you.
When taking the student groups, are there common misconceptions that are addressed on these trips?
I think a lot of people who have not traveled to places like Tanzania are excited to go but are also fearful to go. Almost every student I have brought leaves saying that it was a life changing experience. What I say to them towards the end is that many of the experiences you’ve had you won’t be able to articulate to people because you have to have been there to understand. A lot of it has to do with our understanding of poverty—how people live, how people eat, how people prepare their food—and the level of happiness of people you think shouldn’t be happy based on your pre-existing notions on what brings happiness. That is part of the understanding of culture, especially for cultures of developing countries.
What are some things you want to bring back from your teaching and research to Carthage?
One thing that was a big surprise to me and that showed me that I had some preconceived notions about education was that when I got to the university, most of them—all music majors—didn’t know how to read music. They have this incredible ear and were able to play back the music they heard. They were also very creative and could create music on the spot. These students had all of these abilities that students in the states struggle with such as improvisation, ear training, and creativity, but they struggled with reading sheet music. I still think that reading music is essential, but I want to figure out how to teach improvisation for my students, especially since that was something I was never taught.
Another goal I have is to put the recorded music into notation and have my choirs sing some of that music. I want to make it available to other choirs. I also brought back some instruments, such as a Massai conducting baton and a new drum. Most of the drumming I do in my classes is West African, but I would like to incorporate some more East African drumming.
Are you planning on publishing these transcriptions?
I think so. The person who came with me when I struggled with the Massai is interested in doing some things with me. He has a lot of unfinished projects and we were thinking of doing some things together to bring that music to the U.S. I also have some pieces recorded on my own that I would like to transcribe and publish. I have said in both my Fullbright and in all my visits that I am not here to make money, so if I do publish anything, all the money would go to the people where the music came from. A lot of it has to do with cultural appropriation and that was something I had to address to the governmental research body in Tanzania. They wanted to know how I would do it without appropriating cultures. My goal is to raise the music up and make it accessible to more people. For the Meru and Chagga, it is also a way to preserve it. Appropriating it would be taking the music and changing it to better suit a less experienced choir and to not include the history and culture this music comes from. To better showcase this culture, I also bought traditional attire for both Massai women and men, so if I’m able to perform this, four people will be able to be dressed in the traditional garb.