Music professor's range spans genres and disciplines

By Patricia Allen

Princeton NJ -- Kofi Agawu sways and snaps his fingers as he leads his undergraduate students in singing an infectiously rhythmic West African call-and-response play song during a Monday morning class in the Wool-worth Music Center.

Kofi Agawu

Kofi Agawu demonstrates complex rhythms to students in his “Music of Africa” class through song and dance. He also teaches courses in classical music.

The next day, Agawu hunkers over a score of Beethoven's String Quartet in F, Op. 59 No. 1, moderating a laborious, measure-by-measure, note-by-note analysis of the sonata by graduate students in a seminar at a conference table in the music library.

A music professor with expertise in two disparate genres, Agawu is some-thing of an anomaly in his field.

"It is extremely rare to have a scholar who is absolutely fluent in classical and Western music and fluent in an area of world music. It's very astonishing," said Scott Burnham, professor and chair of the Department of Music. According to Burnham, scholars who study African, Asian and other world music tend to disassociate themselves academically from Western music altogether.

Although the two forms of music are radically different, Agawu's interest in classical European music and African music are fused and have equal significance for him as a scholar, a listener and a one-time aspiring composer.

"I have always had trouble separating these things out," Agawu said, "because they have always been meshed with one another, they have always been intertwined."

When asked to classify himself under a specific field the general study of music known as musicology, the study of composition called music theory or the study of non-Western music that falls under ethnomusi-cology Agawu will not commit to a single discipline.

"I don't consider myself to be any one of those things. They are institutional labels. The things that I write about in academic and music journals may contribute to all three fields," said Agawu, who came to Princeton in 1998 from Yale and also taught at Cornell.

Burnham agrees that it is difficult to capture Agawu's scholarship under one specialty. "Kofi possesses an almost unheard of range, which encompasses the fields of music theory, musicology and ethnomusicology," he said.

Understanding structure and context

Born in Ghana, Agawu grew up immersed in West African music, but also enjoyed classical. When he left Ghana to begin his undergraduate education in England, he studied classical music.

"All along I thought I was going to be a composer in my high school days," Agawu recalled of his early music education. "In college, I was writing sonatas for various combinations of instruments and I was writing choral pieces."

However, he realized there was something unusual about his musical compositions. "I was writing classical music, but with very strong African rhythmic elements," he said. After professors convinced him that his music was not adventurous enough to launch a successful career, Agawu decided to pursue an academic track in classical music. He earned a bachelor's degree in music at Reading University in England in 1977 and a master's degree in music analysis at King's College in London in 1978. He came to the United States and earned his doctorate in historical musicology at Stanford in 1982.

During the early years of his postgraduate education, Agawu was entrenched in teaching and writing about classical music. But the rhythms of West Africa continued to echo in his head and fueled his intellectual curiosity.

"I was still thinking about African music. I couldn't reduce my interest," he said.

He published one of his first articles on African music in 1982 while an assistant professor at Haverford College. By 1984, he was publishing nearly an equal number of articles on West African music as he was on the works of Chopin, Schubert, Haydn and Mahler.

In both genres, he seeks to understand the structure of a composition as well as its social and historical contexts.

"Whether it's a West African children's play song or a Beethoven sonata, I am trying to figure out how the music works and what it means," Agawu said. "That is the heart of my interest and what I try to convey to my students."

Different approaches, common goals

Although there is a wide gulf in his approach to teaching a graduate seminar and the undergraduate class on African music, Agawu encourages both groups of students to dissect the music to understand the patterns and elements.

During the Tuesday graduate seminar, students deconstruct the works of Beethoven in exacting mathematical and formulaic detail, analyzing the compositional patterns, including harmonic modulations, notation and rhythm structures.

"In his discussions, Kofi makes countless brilliant analytical observations, which also make perfect musical sense. I really can relate to that," said Ruth Ochs, a musicology graduate student in the Beethoven seminar. A conductor of Sinfonia and assistant conductor of the University Orchestra, Ochs said, "He also listens very carefully to what we say he is even ready to have us change his mind and he patiently guides each of us in articulating our own insights about Beethoven. Kofi is a special part of our department."

The professor said the class discussions stimulate his scholarly work. "When a good musician is talking about music in this way, I find these discussions absolutely fascinating," said Agawu, who has been a visiting professor at Harvard and Indiana universities and the University of Hong Kong. "What really gets me going is understanding music in all of its mysteries, whether it's the structural aspects or the affective aspects."

His books and articles on classical music offer detailed analysis of the composing methods of artists and the organizational content of their work. Agawu has written on Mahler, Schubert, Brahms and Stravinsky, among several other composers. He also has published critical essays on general topics of music theory, analysis and interpretation.

In the "Music of Africa" class, Agawu leads the undergraduates who are equally divided between music majors and other majors in song and sometimes dance to demonstrate the complexities of the rhythms.

The students followed his musical direction with great enthusiasm. As he led the class in a dirge, he playfully reproached the students, "This is a funeral song, you sound too happy."

"It is so much fun," said Caroline Carter, a senior in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "The dancing and singing at the same time really does help us in understanding the different aspects of the music and rhythms."

Carter said she selected the course because she felt the class would deepen her understanding of Africa. She is enrolled in the African studies program and studied abroad last year at the University of Cape Town. There, she said, she became involved in community service projects in South Africa and grew close with its people.

Agawu agrees that experiencing African music is fundamental to understanding key aspects of the continent's diverse people, culture and history. African music is community-based, participatory and collaborative in performance and composition, Agawu said. "Music is made as part of daily life. It's a part of social life and ritual. The relationship between language and music is very strong in Africa."

Yet there are influences of Western music in some traditional African music, particularly in parts of the continent where European colonists and Western missionaries established a presence. By the 19th century, many elements of the music brought by colonists and missionaries made their way into West African music, said Agawu, who has written on the phenomenon in a book published last year by Routledge, "Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions."

The West's influence on African music and the influence of African rhythms on contemporary Western popular music demonstrate the aesthetic power of all music, according to Agawu. "A four-three suspension, for example, common in classical Western music, particularly in Christian hymns, causes goose pimples in African people too," he said. At the same time, he noted that today's contemporary popular music, such as rock and jazz, can find their origins in the elaborate drumming and rhythmic patterns brought by Africans enslaved in America.

Challenging conventional thinking

That particular point resonates with James Shin, a music major in the class of 2005 and a violinist who plays in the University Orchestra. Although classi-cally trained, Shin is experimenting with and writing popular music. He sought out Agawu's class because he felt it would help him understand the composition of contemporary music.

"I always knew that African rhythms were the basis of a lot of the popular music and a lot of what I listened to today. It has fed into jazz and blues, which fed into rock and hip hop," Shin said. "It's amazing how this indigenous music really spread throughout the world."

One of Agawu's greatest gifts, said Burnham, the music department chair, is his ability to challenge students' conventional thinking. His faculty colleagues also find inspiration in his distinctive academic approach.

"His scholarly work is provocative in the best sense," Burnham said. "It encourages the rest of us to think hard about what we are up to when we engage with music."


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