Seeing with Music: the Lives of Three Blind African Musicians

    -- Simon Ottenberg, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. 230 pages.

Ottenberg, a social anthropologist, focuses on three blind musicians in Sierra Leone. The focus is on their place in society as kututeng players and not on the music. The kututeng is the Limba term for a metal-boxed lamellaphone. The instruments that these musicians played had 9 or 11 tongues.

The author strives to portray the cultural context of kututeng music as he interprets it. Ottenberg’s research was carried out in the rural town of Bafodea among the Limba people in northern Sierra Leone in the 1970s.

All three musicians play the kututeng; and their position in society, compared to both sighted men and blind non-instrumentalists, is explored. None of the three subjects has a very high status, but their musical ability gives each more status than they would have had otherwise. Although they are still dependent on others for their livelihood, they have at least gained some respect as musicians. They have taken on a role that helps to give them meaning, comfort, and function in a society that does not do much to take care of the down-and-out. This study is the first major attempt to document a few rather obscure musicians at a book level, rather than a superstar of African worldbeat music. The three men are now all deceased, and were never recorded apart from the author’s field recordings. (Sadly, no CD is included with the book— a grave oversight.)

Ottenberg states at the outset that he is a social anthropologist, not an ethnomusicologist, and that his research was not musically technical in nature. However, Ottenberg definitely did his homework. He has thoroughly reviewed the literature and cites such figures as John Blacking, Alan Merriam, and Ruth Stone. He also elicited the help of Peter Davenport, an ethnomusicologist who analyzed Ottenberg’s kututeng recordings.

The content is nicely organized. First, Ottenberg lays down his approach to ethnographic research. He explains that he is working from the macro-level of study and has focused on the concept of music performance and behavior. As he puts it, “There is much to be said for a style of analysis which is grounded in exploring the past experiences of musical persons in a culture and which then looks at their musical performances through that frame, rather than starting with the instrument and its music” (p. 5).

Ottenberg provides an overview of the musicians’ environment and cultural context, and then dedicates a chapter to each musician. He eloquently captures each one’s emotions and reality. We learn in turn the life stories of Sayo, Muctaru, and Marehu and how they came to be kututeng players. Their performance practices, including samples of song texts and their own interpretation of these, reveal that each has a unique approach to kututeng music. These approaches cover the spectrum from traditional to adaptive to innovative.

The book concludes with a succinct synthesis of what Ottenberg has learned, tying it all together by a comparative analysis of all three musicians who live on the margins yet experience social communitas through musical events. In the course of this he also makes broader inferences about music in the area as a whole and the society in general. I was personally interested in the insightful conjectures of the kututeng’s history: Where did it come from? Who first introduced it? Did it evolve from a previous wooden box version or was it brought in by other people groups?

Enjoyable to read, I recommend this book to those looking for a study of musicians in West African society and to those interested in learning more about the history and performance practices of the “thumb piano.” Ottenberg points out commonalities, but concentrates on the uniqueness of the three musicians and their individual approaches to kututeng music.

    --reviewed by Kedra Larsen, working in Sierra Leone and other countries with Lutheran Bible Translators

Published in Vol.2, No.1 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony