A Composer for Every Country: Australia

Australia - land of Steve Irwin and 1000 ways to die of poisonous critters. Fun fact. Australia has the second most venomous land snake in the world. It's called "the common brown snake." Can you guess why? That's right! Because it's brown, and it's common. As it happens, Australia also has the first most venomous land snake in the world, the inland taipan. Don't worry, though, because the inland taipan is not particularly aggressive. As opposed to the THIRD most venomous snake in the world, the coastal taipan, which is very aggressive and is ALSO IN AUSTRALIA. I didn't even get to the spiders, and I'm not gonna.

Australia is kind of odd in terms of population density. Clocking in at 3.3 people per square kilometre, it's one of the three least dense countries in the world. But, in the way that statistics don't always tell the whole story, almost everyone lives in a city on the East coast, with Melbourne having a density as high as 21,900 people per square kilometre. When Googling around about this, one of the more commonly asked questions is apparently "Why is Australia's population so low?" I didn't check the answers, but if one of the reasons isn't "all them snakes," well... I'll just pretend its because of all them snakes.

Culturally, Australia is split between the cities, founded mostly by British colonies, and Aboriginal tribes. The cities are among that group of countries, including the US, Canada, and Great Britain, which share enough words we can pretend we all speak the same language. It is common knowledge in the US that Australia was settled largely as a penal colony, but like most popular histories, this is only part of the story. One part that is often missing is, England settled Australia as a response to losing the American colonies after the Revolution. The implication is, the American colonies must have also been, at least in part, a place for England to dump their overcrowded prisons. This will give me some pause the next time I feel like ribbing Australia for their raison d'être.

Like a lot of indigenous peoples post-European contact, the Aboriginal tribes are in rough shape. Disease, warfare, and the arrival of various invasive species (dogs, cats, rats, and mice) proved disastrous culturally and environmentally. Lately, however, it seems like the Aboriginal and European peoples have reached something of an accord, if tenuous, and co-exist more or less peacefully. While Aboriginal peoples do speak English, native languages are also in use, although the diversity of languages is much reduced. Of the 250 or so languages recorded by the first European colonists, only 130ish are still in use, and only 13 of those are not considered endangered.

While the Aboriginal people are also somewhat present in US common knowledge, the Torres Strait Islanders are not. The Torres Strait Islands are located off the North coast between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Two main language groups are in use: Kalaw Lagaw Ya, and Meriam Mir, with a Torres Strait Creole used to facilitate trade. The tribes' cultures share an overlap with Papuan and Australian Aboriginal cultures. Song and dance is central to the Torres Straight Islander's sense of history, being the main storytelling medium.

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Because of the sharp division between the European and indigenous cultures in Australia, I wanted to write about a couple of different musicians. From the indigenous side is the Warumpi Band, an Aboriginal country group founded in 1980. Their debut single, "Jailanguru Pakarnu," was the first rock song to be written in an Aboriginal language, in this case, Luritja. Another hit of theirs, "My Island Home," achieved global reach during the 2000 Summer Olympics closing ceremony when it was sung by Christina Anu, a Torres Strait Islander.


From the European academic side, there are many to choose from, but I decided on Miriam Hyde (1913-2005). A pianist, teacher, and poet, she developed a professional solo career in London, 1933, with a recital at Holland Park. She went on to debut her Piano Concerto #1 with the London Philharmonic in 1934 and her Piano Concerto #2 in 1935. As a teacher, she worked with the Australian Music Examinations Board from 1945-82 giving workshops, exams, and teaching materials through that time. She continued performing right up to the end of her life, and gave a performance of her 2nd Concerto at the spry old age of 89 with the Strathfield Symphony. The video I've linked is from an interview she gave in 1991, when she was 78, and includes her performance of a solo piano composition she titled "The Fountain."



Composer for Every Country: Togo

Togo's pre-colonial history is not particularly well recorded, even compared to the countries I have written about so far. There have been some references to oral histories within the tribes that occupy Togo, but there are no strong griot traditions in the same way as, say, Senegal or Mauritania to help consolidate information. The country is also rather far from Islamic regions in Africa, so there was likely not a lot of travel to the area by the major literate centers of Medieval Africa. Nevertheless, it is clear from the archaeological record that tribes had entered what is now Togo by at least the 11th century, and that movement and trade was quite active along the coastal areas.

Not long after Europeans arrived, the coast earned the nickname "The Slave Coast," for reasons which should be obvious. My reading about the Ewe people, who constitute about 1/3rd of the population, states that the tribes were largely decentralized and had a resistance to consolidating power amongst shared ethnic lines. As such, the Ewe were as involved in the slave trade as they were victims of it due to internecine tribal warfare. I'm sure the European powers didn't complain about the arrangement. 

Somehow, for reasons I can't find, Togo didn't become a protectorate until 1884, when they signed a treaty with King Mlapa III of Germany. It occurs to me that this is around the time the Ashante finally fell in Ghana, so it could be that the main powers struggling for supremacy in the area, Britain, France, and Germany, had their hands full over to the West. The fall of the Ashante and the subsequent border drawings definitely played into the creation of German Togoland, but that doesn't explain why the area wasn't claimed earlier. *shrug* 

Togo eventually became a colony in 1905, being exploited for labor and taxes until World War I, when France and Britain invade and form a brief condominium of the area until after WWII, when the West chunk of Togoland went to the British and was incorporated into Ghana, and the East chunk stayed with France and became Togo as we know it today. Politics have since been a back and forth between various strongmen and coups, the longest running leader being Eyadema Gnassingbé who ruled under a one-party system from 1969 until his death in 2005.

Because African nation borders were drawn by European powers over pre-existing ethnic regions (I hesitate to say boundaries), they aren't very useful for grasping African cultures. With that in mind, I'll start spending more electrons on the tribes themselves, although there is no way I could possibly get to all of them. The Ewe, mentioned above, are a strongly patrilineal tribal culture. The chief of the tribe is always male, and his family is the "owner" of the land the tribe lives on. I put this in quotes because "ownership" doesn't do justice the the relationship between the family and their land, which is considered an ancestral gift that be neither bought nor sold.

Their religion is Voodoo. Yes, that Voodoo, the same one that shows up in Haiti, and let me tell you, the cosmology of Voodoo's gods, goddesses, and spirits is intense. Like most Americans, my only contact with Voodoo was through Hollywood which, uh, lets say... Doesn't do justice to source material even when the authors are present. That said, Christianity and Islam are present, although in the minority. Now that I think about it, this is the first country where the indigenous religion outnumbers the two major religions. Curious.

Artistically, the Ewe are known for their kente cloth, a style of striped patterns made from interwoven cotton strips. Most music centers around drumming, and it is thought that good drummers inherited the spirit of an ancestor who was good at drumming. They also have several styles of dancing, from Agbadza, a traditional war dance which has since transformed into a dance to celebrate peace, to Bobobo, a very recent tradition based on 1940's and 50's Highlife songs, and danced for political rallies and important events like funerals.

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Today's composer is King Menseh (b.1971). Known as "The Golden Voice of Togo," King Menseh has developed a strong international career based largely out of Paris. His music is strongly influenced by Ewe and Kabye drumming, which is mixed with reggae, funk, and Afropop. Besides being a singer-songwriter, he has also acted with the Ki-Yi M'Bock Theater, a professional troupe of musicians, dancers, actors, and puppeteers based in Côte d'Ivoire. King Menseh also founded a philanthropic group, Foundation King Menseh, devoted to the care and education of orphans in Togo. I can't seem to find the lyrics to the song I've posted, but he tends to sing about the orphaned and the oppressed.


A Composer for Every Country: Ghana

The name "Ghana" translates from the Soninke language to "Warrior King." That name seems apt, considering local kingdoms fought off the British for about a hundred years. There were two kingdoms which had substantial power in the area when the Europeans arrived: the Kingdom of Dagbon, located in the Northern area of what is now Ghana, and the Kingdom of Ashanti, which covered much of the south and central parts of the region. 

The kingdoms have roots in two different ethnic groups. The Kingdom of Dagbon was first founded in the 11th-century by the Dagomba peoples. Their history is divided into two kingdoms, with the first being known only through oral histories told through drum chant. The Second Kingdom of Dagbon started around 1700 when the capital was moved from Yendi Dabari to Yendi due to conflicts with another tribe, the Gonja. This kingdom lasted until 1888, when they agreed to become a neutral zone between British and German controlled areas, and then were decisively defeated by the Germans in a massacre known as the Battle of Abido.

The Kingdom of Ashanti was descended from an ethnic group called the Akan, settling along the coast between the 10th and 12th centuries. The kingdom itself coalesced in the 17th century when King Osei Kofi Tutu I consolidated a confederation of Ashanti city-states against a nation called Denkyira, defeating them in 1701. Following their victory, King Tutu began expansion through military strength and diplomacy. Apparently, the Ashanti peoples have attracted a great deal of study, particularly by British authors. I have to suspect some of this interest sprouts from the Ashanti giving the British army a run for their money for the better part of a century, but that's none of my business.

There were other, smaller kingdoms in the area, as well as a number of loosely organized tribes. Thus, like other African countries I've looked at so far, it makes less sense to say "Ghana culture" than it does "cultures." One cultural element which is fairly common are adinkra symbols, a collection of icons which are used on fabrics, pottery, walls, and architecture. These symbols make reference to a number of ideas, proverbs, and aphorisms which, when combined, create a wealth of communications. It seems adinkra cloths were traditionally worn by spiritual leaders during funerals and other religious services. 

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Our composer for today is Dr. Ephraim Amu (1899-1995). He received his early musical training from Karl Theordore Ntem, getting organ lessons in exchange for farm work on Saturdays. In 1916, he left for college, travelling 150 miles on foot to get to Abetifi. Graduating in 1919 and taking up a teaching position at a middle school in 1920, Dr. Amu was immensely dedicated to giving his students the best possible education. One story tells of him buying a 5-octave organ in the city of Koforidua, about 18 miles from his school. While he was able to transport the organ by train most of the way back, he ended up having to carry the organ on his head for a whole night to get the organ back to the school.

Musically, his primary focus was writing for chorus, typically setting scriptural passages in the Twi and Ewe languages. He also strove to incorporate local styles, rhythms, and instruments in his music. This occasionally got him in a bit of hot water with some people, as one minister, Rev. Peter Hall, found it unacceptable to see Dr. Amu preach a sermon while in traditional African dress.

The work I am sharing is Alegbegbe, a setting of John 3:16. 



Composer for Every Country: New Zealand

I've decided to drop the Smelting Pot articles for now, because... well, because if I only do one country a week for this series, I'm going to be writing it forever. This left me with some choices about where to pick up for a second article a week, and I decided to go to New Zealand and work West towards Asia. The Polynesian and South-East Asian cultures tend to get left out of music discourse (with the exception of Disney's Moana, I guess) so it seems a good pairing with Africa.

New Zealand! Land of the Maori, the British, and Peter Jackson's hobbits. I was surprised to learn that the settling of the islands is recent. Like, Medieval Times recent. Current evidence points to Polynesian settling in the late 13th century. To put this into context for my Anglophone readers, the first settlers in New Zealand didn't show up until AFTER Notre Dame Cathedral was finished. This makes New Zealand the last of the large islands to be settled by humans.

The indigenous culture, the Maori, might be somewhat familiar because their distinctive tattooing, called moko, attracted many American and European artists and writers, making the Maori a prime target of the noble savage trope. Despite suppression of the Maori culture during the early 20th century, the people hung tough and now look to stay. The Maori language has made a come back, as well (we'll look at that more with my composer of the day) and is now an official language of New Zealand. Somewhat curiously, the Maori took to writing very quickly once it was introduced, and most of their previously oral traditions have been preserved in book form.

Europeans arrived only slightly later than the Maori. Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer, sighted the islands in 1642, and the UK signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori in 1840, making the islands a colony a year later. There's not too much to add about the European side of things, so instead, here is a list of flightless birds native to the islands: the kiwi, the kakapo, the weka, and the takahe. These are all birds that lost the ability to fly, largely because of the lack of humans; specifically, the lack of animals that like to follow humans around and eat birds and bird eggs, like rats, cats, and dogs. Well, jokes on them, I guess. The kakapo, at least, got their revenge when one of the few remaining birds, in a pique of evolutionary frustration, proceeded to mate with the back of Mark Carwardine's head

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Our composer of the day is Te Kumeroa Pewhairangi (1921-1985). While she was a composer of songs, Te Kumeroa lived a life that extended far beyond music. She was also a teacher of the Maori language, tutoring the Maori club at Gisborne Girls' High School and then teaching Maori studies at Gisborne's University of Waikito. She also spearheaded the Tu Tangata program in cooperation with the Department of Maori Affairs, which helped reconnect urban at-risk Maori youths with their family tribes, and she was a key leader in the kohanga reo movement, which aims to revive and revitalize that Maori language in schools.

Two of Te Kumeroa's songs topped the New Zealand charts: Poi E and E Ipo. Poi E stands out for a number of reasons. Scored by Dalvanius Prime, a Maori entertainer and mentor, Poi E's style is a blend of hip-hop, gospel, funk, and show-band elements. Unable to receive backing from the major New Zealand labels, Dalvanius Prime produced the song himself on his own label, Maui Records. Its popularity was achieved kind of by accident. The song had no radio or television marketing, but received a brief new story on a local network. It suddenly shot to the number one spot on the charts, and remains something of a cult classic in New Zealand culture. The group which sang the song, Patea Maori Club, was made a one hit wonder on the back of this tune.


A Composer for Every Country: Côte d'Ivoire

Côte d'Ivoire is last of a number of names given to the region over the course of history. Others include Côte de Dents, or Coast of Teeth in reference to the ivory export, Côte de Quaqua, after the Dutch transliteration of a local tribal name, and Côte du Vent, the Coast of Wind. Eventually, Côte d'Ivoire stuck, although English speaking countries tend to refer to it as the Ivory Coast in spite of the the local governments preference for the French name.

As the name implies, the area has a long history with France, being a French protectorate in 1843, then a French colony in 1893. Independence was achieved in 1960 under the leadership of Félix Houphouët-Boigny. His rule continued until 1993, and the government remains a republic with a strong executive authority. Houphouët-Boigny himself was an extremely interesting individual, working as a medical aide, union leader, and planter before his election to the French Parliament. Even after independence, he maintained close ties with France with a policy known as Françafrique. I haven't double checked dates, but I do wonder if the French treatment of Guinea's referendum for independence from France might have had something to do with Houphouët-Boigny's diplomatic decisions. Probably so.

One thing about Africa I am becoming increasingly less surprised by is the staggering number of languages and ethnicities that can be found within relatively small regions. Côte d'Ivoire is home to no fewer than 78 (!) languages within its borders. French is the official language, and acts as a lingua franca (ha!) alongside the African language, Dyula. Aside from local tribal groups, people from Liberia, Burkina Faso, and Guinea often immigrate to Côte d'Ivoire due to the country's relative political stability and economic prosperity. 

Music in the area has strong ties to the region's tribal cultures. Compared to other West African countries I've visited in this blog so far, it is also distinctly not influenced by the Mali empire. I have not found any reference to a griot tradition, and the music is more strongly centered around vocal and percussion music. Reggae is quite popular, as is hip-hop and jazz. Genres originating from Côte d'Ivoire include Coupé-décalézouglou, and zoblazo. Each of them draw upon different elements of local drum rhythms and traditions, and tend to feature voice and drums with limited, or even a total lack, of pitched instruments.

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Speaking of zoblazo! Today's composer is Frederic Desire Ehui (b.1962), known by his stage name, Meiway. An ethnic N'Zema (one of the larger tribal groups in Côte d'Ivoire), Meiway started recording in 1989, releasing the album Ayibebou with his group, Zo Gang. He is one of the driving forces behind zoblazo's popularity, becoming second only to reggae singer Alpha Blondy in fame and sales. Unfortunately, his bio (in English) is sparse. In the videos I've watched of him, his stage presence is energetic, playful, even kind of goofy. Here he is in his song Tu dis que quoi. I haven't found an English translation of the lyrics, but he's apparently singing about how great Cameroon is.