The Department of Ethnomusicology in the Herb Alpert School of Music now produces more ethnomusicology graduates than any program of its kind and houses an important collection of international musical instruments.
Like many bold movements in the history of this country, this one began with a simple flyer.
The invitation to all students didn't seem momentous at the time. Music Professor Mantle Hood wanted students to come to his home for a demonstration of the gamelan, an ensemble of string and percussion instruments from Indonesia that produces an unfamiliar, but intriguing sound to the Western ear.
The musical evening, however, represented a watershed moment. Encouraged by students' enthusiasm for the gamelan, Hood and his colleague, UCLA music faculty member Boris Kremenliev, wrote a proposal that would eventually lead to the creation of the UCLA Institute of Ethnomusicology in 1960, elevating the study of world music academically by housing it in a department that offered B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees.
Department chair Jacqueline DjeDje learned to play the African fiddle in northern Ghana. Becoming bimusical is an important skill that ethnomusicology students develop.
Now celebrating its 50th year, the Department of Ethnomusicology in the Herb Alpert School of Music has expanded considerably since then. The program now produces more ethnomusicology graduates than any such program in the world. It offers two concentrations for undergraduate majors: jazz studies with emphases on composition and performance, and world music with emphases on performance and composition, scholarly research and public ethnomusicology. There are currently 80 to 90 undergraduate majors and 30 to 50 graduate students.
And the department can boast of something else: Thanks to the dedication of its faculty, the department owns an impressive collection of musical instruments from around the world. The collection has become one of the pillars of the UCLA ethnomusicology program.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary and honor the visionary leadership of its founders, the department is hosting a series of concerts, lectures and conferences this year, a highlight of which is a gala concert on Saturday, Nov. 13, in Schoenberg Hall.
UCLA's impact on the field is felt by listeners everywhere although few may realize it. If you have been stirred by "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the disadvantaged and oppressed, or enjoyed the music from James Cameron's groundbreaking film, "Avatar," or from television's "Xena: the Warrior Princess," then you have benefitted from "the research, influence and contributions of individuals who studied ethnomusicology at UCLA," said Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, chair of ethnomusicology.
Ethnomusicology's Music of Japan ensemble performs in 1966.
Even the generic term, "world music," adopted by the music industry, was coined in the early 1960s by Robert Brown, a UCLA Ph.D. graduate.
Hood's philosophy was simple. He believed that ethnomusicologists should practice "bimusicality." Hood felt that ethnomusicologists should master their own music first, in many cases, Western classical music, before learning to perform the music associated with their fieldwork. Music and culture were equally important to ethnomusicology, he maintained.
"Hood believed that it was important to learn how to perform the music by studying with master musicians from the culture," said DjeDje. "Just as students focusing on Western music were expected to take lessons from university teachers who were outstanding performers on piano, violin, bassoon and other instruments, Hood argued that instructor of musical traditions from Indonesia, Greece, India, China, Japan, Ghana, Persia, Korea and other world areas should be made available to teach students in ethnomusicology."
Thanks to UCLA's emphasis on bimusicality, audiences have been able to enjoy performances of music from around the world by campus ensembles for nearly half a century. Many of these groups, featuring African-American, bluegrass, Indian, Chinese and Mexican artists, have given concerts over the past year in honor of the anniversary celebration.
Charles Seeger, research musicologist at the institute, invented a machine to analyze the pitch and timbre of music that couldn't be accurately captured by Western musical notation.
After Hood retired in 1974, the institute was disestablished but remained alive as the Program in Ethnomusicology within the Department of Music. Finally, it was decided that the rules governing music majors were not appropriate for ethnomusicology majors. So the program became an independent department in 1989 under founding chair Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy.
DjeDje , who will serve as master of ceremonies for the anniversary gala, participated actively in the department for many years, first as a graduate student, then as a faculty member, and now as chair.
Like many ethnomusicologists, she came to the field as a musician. "We all enter the field as performers. As a youngster, I played piano, excelled, won competitions. I wanted to be a concert pianist. At the time, I thought that if the music wasn't classical then it wasn't worthy of me."
Then she went to Fisk University, a historically black college where there was ironically little black music. After a visit by activist Stokely Carmichael, however, students — DjeDje among them — began agitating for a black music curriculum. The university eventually hired a specialist in African and African American music who encouraged DjeDje to pursue an advanced degree in ethnomusicology at the best university in the field: UCLA.
Classically trained, DjeDje became bimusical herself by learning to play African fiddle music in northern Ghana.
The UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive includes substantial holdings from DjeDje's work in West Africa. The archive serves as a "repository of non-Western music for students who brought back recordings and instruments from their fieldwork," explained archivist Aaron Bittel. "Archives are about preservation and access and can help students get their feet wet in a new musical tradition." Recently, several collections of Anglo American music that many would identify as "roots music" have been added to the archive.
DjeDje and staff member Donna Armstrong are also working on preserving the department's history. They found some old boxes in the basement of the department and were preparing to throw them away when they discovered papers documenting the acquisition of the department's first gamelan, imported by Hood.
As part of Hood's lasting legacy, Bittel said, people now understand and appreciate the importance of "approaching the music of other cultures on an equal footing."
To see a schedule of 50th anniversary events, look here. For a timeline, historical summary, photo gallery and list of key figures in the department's history, go here.