“Music connects” for Summer Institute students

Teacher Timothy Rommen wants all his students to stamp and knock on their desks. “Now don’t speed up,” he warns. “It’s actually a bit difficult not to accelerate, but to keep it here.”

While half the class keeps the rhythm steady, Rommen leads the other half in a different, syncopated rhythm, both complicating and confusing the rhythm. “It’s three in your hand and two in your foot,” he said. By tapping and clapping, Rommen teaches them to manage different rhythms at the same time, a skill frequently employed in the Caribbean, which Roman musical ethnography studies at School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s very much about feel, isn’t it? If you try to count it, you’re going to fail,” he says.

It’s harder than it looks. “We’re not going to take this on tour, I’ll tell you,” Rommen told the band as the students broke down in laughter.

Rommen’s class, A Caribbean without borders? : The Creole Geographies of Dominica’s Popular Musicis just one of the courses offered during the 2022 edition African Studies Center Summer Institute for Freshmen, now back in person and in full force. (The Institute was online in 2020 and offered at reduced capacity due to COVID restrictions in 2021.) Week-long intensive study experience exposes students to the Penn campus, college expectations, and major intellectual themes and cultural in African studies, all before their freshman year at Penn. All for free.

In A Borderless Caribbean, one of the Summer Institute’s many course offerings, students explore the idea of ​​”Creole” through music from Calypso to Soca.

The Institute was established 36 years ago, a fact noted by Vice Rector Beth Winkelstein during the Institute’s mid-week barbecue, held at the Koo Pavilion. Her and Camille Z. Charleswho has led the Summer Institute for the past 16 years, introduced Penn’s new president Liz Magillwho visited the students on his 20th day of work.

“It meant the world to me to be able to spend time with these incredibly motivated students,” Magill said, speaking after the event. “They will contribute greatly to Penn’s history for years to come, bringing their bright, authentic, and unique perspectives to campus. This summer program is just the beginning for them, and it makes me really excited for the future.

Four students pose with President Magill;  female student raises her phone to take the picture

President Liz Magill takes a selfie with students.

Back in the classroom, teaching assistant Stephanie Gibsondoctoral student in Department of Art Historyreads a draft of a student’s final work, trying to figure out the thesis.

“What are you saying that’s different from anybody else?” she advises the student. “Even if you associate it in your conclusion, signal that you will do so in your introduction.” Gibson says she likes the message of the last paragraph, but tells the student to state their point at the start of the review. “I had no idea where you were going,” Gibson says.

A solid thesis statement is what professors will be looking for, says Gibson. The student requests an estimated grade. Gibson hesitates. “You’re at a B-,” she said. “But you can do better.” The student nods and puts away his backpack.

“It’s amazing how much they grow in a week,” says Gibson. “Their thinking is so fresh; they look at texts that I have already read with a new insight. I love that this class gives them the tools to think about colonialism, gives them the tools to make their own decisions.

In the A Borderless Caribbean course, students explore the idea of ​​”Creole” through music from Calypso to Soca. The course asks What is Creole? Could it be referring to something broader than mixed race or language in the Caribbean? Who can claim this term? Where are its limits? In Rommen’s class, everything is fine.

Rommen breaks down a track for the students. Listening to each musical layer one line at a time, he calls out the bell pattern that originated in the Lapo kabwit musical style, the percussive shaker typical of Jing Ping accordion bands, and the additional hits often heard in Soca. “Put it all together, you have Bouyon,” he says, a musical tradition unique to Dominica.

An English-speaking island located between French-speaking Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south, Dominica is marked by its interior mountain peaks. Most of the settlements and limited infrastructure are on the coastal road that circles the island. For a nation of 72,000 people — for comparison, Philadelphia’s population exceeds 1.5 million — Dominica has a disproportionately vibrant and thriving music scene, Rommen says.

But Dominica’s musicians almost all have day jobs, students learn. They’re usually not connected to powerful studios or big-name producers in the way that musicians from Jamaica or Trinidad are, Rommen says. They don’t get the tides of tourists seen in Trinidad or Antigua during carnival season.

“This course showed me how music can really demonstrate historical, social and political developments in an area,” says Kaitlin Cruz, a freshman at the university. Wharton School of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. After listen with similar rhythms used by different artists, the course also made Cruz question appropriation and intellectual property. The music itself is almost recycled; many different bands have similar origin sounds, she says.

“What’s interesting is that there was a deliberate and very explicit decision on the part of these artists to claim the music of the region as their own type of work type palette,” Rommen says, this which differs from sampling Top 40 songs or using other people’s melodies without their consent.

Dominica artists are taking the basic musical layers that connect the region and reconfiguring them into something new in order to make a big, powerful statement about how Dominica is connected, Rommen says.

Omotola Ogundele, a freshman entering the College of Arts and Sciences from Orange, New Jersey, connected Creole music to what she sees in Nigeria. “We have traditional music that you don’t hear a lot,” she says. “There’s so much variety…there’s a lot of realism within. But it’s not really there. Why? Because they can’t afford it. »

“The colonial power matrix stops a lot of things,” says Ogundele. One, she concludes, is the flow of good music to a wider audience.

For Rommen, part of his motivation is “to participate in a larger conversation about the long history of colonialism and the violent legacies it left. And somehow do some repair work, if possible.

Rommen started out as a classical guitarist before realizing that much of the music he played and listened to was made possible, in part, by excess capital from free labor in the New World.

As a thinker, it became important for Rommen to acknowledge the past and reflect on its implications. “And so that’s what I’ve been committed to, my whole career,” he says.

For Rommen, even more important than the music are the connections that the music facilitates. “It’s the meaning that’s generated in the space between people that’s actually what fascinates me so much,” he says. It’s a motif throughout the class – how music and water connect the islands of the Caribbean.

Timothy Rommen addresses students

For musical ethnographer Timothy Rommen, the connections she facilitates are even more important than the music. “It’s the meaning that’s generated in the space between people that’s actually what fascinates me so much,” he says.

The class wonders if it is possible to have musical fusion or cultural exchange without the power dynamics of race, class and privilege. Joanna Raymond Ruiz, an incoming freshman from Mexico City who hopes to double her major in fine arts and philosophy, politics and economics at the college, says that “maybe if as a society we understand that cultures can work together without having borders between them, maybe innovation and progress will be easier.

From Swaziland, Nhlanhla Mavuso, who plans to major in electrical engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, says he also sees reason for optimism. These musicians, he says, “come together to form something new with love and passion… What can we do in this world if we can truly appreciate who we are and then come together to formulate our own creativity?” Culture is something that can change; culture can create unity, he says.

“So we have two expressions of real hope!” Romen said. “It’s a hope we need.” This expression of hope, combined with an awareness of the past, can propel alternative imaginings of a better future, he says.

Rommen is impressed with his students. “Really, really, really, really impressed,” he said. “I am convinced that you will make a difference in the world.”

Much like the Caribbean ocean, the space between these students from Swaziland and New Jersey, Florida and Mexico, may also be what connects them as people, what brings them together, what defines them as a whole, he said. The space gives way to a new kind of Creole, a mixture that creates something new.

Camille Z. Charles is the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology, African Studies and Education at School of Arts and Sciences to University of Pennsylvania.

Timothy Rommen is Davidson Kennedy Professor at the College Professor of Music and Africana Studies at the School of Arts & Sciences.