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A Fiddle's Deep Roots

A Fiddle's Deep Roots

Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje is an international expert on things she once snubbed, with articles on gospel and spirituals and a new book on fiddling, "Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures."

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

When I came back here, I began to see many more connections, many more reasons why African Americans do what they do.

This article was first published by UCLA Today Online.

When Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje (pronounced "J-J") was a child in Jesup, Ga., she thrived on the pride that her family took in their aspiring classical European pianist.

"I snubbed my nose up," said DjeDje, laughing, "at anything that had to do with Africa and African-American culture, even though I played for church ... gospel and spirituals."

Now she's an international expert on the things she once snubbed, with articles on gospel and spirituals and a new book on fiddling, "Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures." She earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at UCLA and now chairs the department.

The most memorable moments of reversal for DjeDje came in her senior year at Fisk University in Nashville, where she signed up for a class on African music and the African diaspora taught by Darius Thieme, a scholar of the Yoruba music of Nigeria.

"I was just flabbergasted," said DjeDje. "I said, 'You can actually study this? Is this something legitimate? Where?'"

Subsequently, at UCLA and on African trips, DjeDje set out to demonstrate links between African and African-American music, above all within the global realm of the fiddle.

Scholars have often seen the fiddle as something imposed upon blacks in 18th-century America by slave owners who wanted to enjoy European-style entertainment. What routinely gets left out of the story is that Africa had its own fiddling tradition every bit as old and rich as Europe's, dating from roughly the 12th century in Senegal. It moved eastward across the continent with Fulbe migrants.

"When I came back here, I began to see many more connections, many more reasons why African Americans do what they do," she said.

Among the Dagbamba of northern Ghana — where DjeDje learned to play the one-stringed fiddle, or bowed lute, from a master — fiddlers enjoy an exalted status as guardians of culture. Legend has it that an 18th-century king brought one from Burkina Faso and took on the title of "Yamba Naa," chief of fiddlers.

Today, in ensembles of 10 to 20 performers from 3 to 60 years old, the Yamba Naa and other inheritors of the tradition recount Dagbamba history and the genealogy of the king. DjeDje's late teacher, Salisu Mahama, encouraged her to spread the story, as he observed younger members of musical families turning away from fiddling.

Across the region that DjeDje studies, fiddlers have uneasy relationships with Islamic authorities. Among the Hausa of northern Nigeria, women, practitioners of the indigenous Bori religion, and others on the social margins have embraced the instrument, she found. There are songs of praise for rich businessmen and songs of protest, by solo artists and groups.

A selection of DjeDje's recordings from West Africa is available on a double CD that accompanies her book. The "slurs and slides" and "moans and groans" of some recordings will satisfy fans of blues.

In Hausaland, she said, "What's fascinating is that the fiddler rarely sings. The fiddler plays the instrument so that it talks ... and makes sounds that are just so clear that the singers can articulate in words what he has performed on the fiddle."

African Studies Center