Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje
Emeritus Professor

Fiddling in West Africa: A Musical and Social History

Bowed instruments that many in the West call the fiddle (or violin) have existed in many regions of Africa for centuries. Due to differences in migration patterns, physical environments, belief systems, as well as social and political structures, the musical and social history of fiddling in various parts of West Africa is distinct from others on the continent. In this presentation, I will discuss fiddling in West Africa with emphasis placed on the diversity of traditions that exist. Combined with audio and video examples, I will provide information about distribution, instrument making, playing techniques, performance role and explain how these factors have impacted composition, improvisation, and aesthetics. Finally, I will suggest reasons why fiddling has survived in some areas but is no longer performed in others.


Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje is Professor Emeritus, former Chair of the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology, and former Director of the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive. DjeDje is author and editor of several articles and books on African-American and African music. Her monograph, Fiddling in West Africa, won both the Alan Merriam Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology for the best book in 2009, and the Kwabena Nketia Book Prize (the inaugural award) from the Society for Ethnomusicology African Music Section for the most distinguished book published on African music in 2010.

Mark Slobin
Emeritus professor
Wesleyan University

The Rise, Decline, and Return of Klezmer Violin

From the shadows of European music history, the violin and the cimbalom moved into the spotlight as the leaders of professional, hereditary, guild-organized bands of musicians called klezmer that animated the celebratory events of the eastern European Jews by the nineteenth century. Transmitted by the males of musician families, the style, repertoire, and deeply felt aesthetic of the violin became the hallmark of the wedding, from soulful free-rhythm improvisations to sparkling dance tunes played by an ensemble with at least two fiddlers in front.

The age of recording penalized the violin for its weak acoustic projection, and in the many 78 rpm recordings, done mostly in New York studios, clarinet virtuosos defined the modern sound of dance music for the massive wave of immigrants to North America (1880s-1920s). As interest in traditional dance forms succumbed to acculturation and the rise of the American dance band sound, the violin receded from the community’s consciousness. Abroad, remaining pockets of tradition were liquidated by the Nazis and suppressed by Stalinism, deepening the shadows around the violin.

The “klezmer revival” of the 1970s-80s brought a re-evaluation of resources. Gifted violinists, often and ground-breakingly female, introduced new inventiveness to the once-classic sound of the fiddler. Two generations of post-revivalist creativity have broadened the violin’s contribution to a style and genre that slipped under the world music umbrella. The instrument now asserts its strong role as “heritage” and provides a medium for stylistic evolution, crossover, and cultural significance within and beyond the Jewish world..


Mark Slobin is the Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music Emeritus at Wesleyan University and the author or editor of books on Afghanistan and Central Asia, eastern European Jewish music, film music, and ethnomusicology theory, two of which have received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award: "Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World" and "Tenement Songs: Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants. His forthcoming book is “Motor City Music: A Detroiter Looks Back.” He has been President of the Society for Ethnomusicology and the Society for Asian Music and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Maurice Henderson
Shetland Islands

In Search of Willafjord: Shetland fiddle music connected with the days of the Greenland whaling.

Maurice Henderson presents music from the Shetland fiddle tradition, once played by Shetland Arctic whalers during the 18th and 19th centuries. Those tunes surviving in the Shetland fiddle repertoire are still referred to as the Greenland tunes. Maurice will illustrate with stories, tunes, archive photos and recordings, as well as recounting his recent search for Willafjord in the far north - a place remembered in the well known Shetland reel.


Maurice Henderson is a Shetland Fiddler, best-known outside of his island home for playing with internationally acclaimed group Fiddlers’ Bid and more recently the Shetland band Haltadans. Maurice is also a noted story teller and avid researcher of Shetland fiddle - the wider history and stories behind the music. His recent work includes a book published ‘In Search of Willafjord’ that delves into the story behind the famous Shetland fiddle tune; in 2017 he produced an award winning short film and interactive tutorial ‘The Shetland Reel’ aimed at raising the profile of Shetland’s Indigenous dance. It was recently nominated for a Celtic Media Festival award and won Shetland ForWirds award for best use of Shetland dialect in a film at Shetland Screenplay.



Heather Sparling
Cape Breton University

Silence, Absence, and Forgetting in the Traditional Music and Dance of Gaelic Cape Breton

The Cape Breton Gaelic community (i.e., people of Scottish descent) prides itself on its maintenance of cultural expressions brought by Scottish settlers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Changes, while inevitable, are generally resisted and debated vociferously. Does the Cape Breton fiddle style require players to speak Gaelic? Are jazz chords acceptable within the piano accompaniment tradition? Should Highland dancing in Cape Breton be deemed traditional or a cultural import? What can be done about the declining number of young people involved with traditional music and dance? But there are also examples of unmarked changes, changes that occur with little commentary. Some changes are so little discussed that they quickly become part of “the tradition,” unrecognized as recent developments. In this paper, I will share examples of such unmarked changes – particularly those affecting Cape Breton vernacular dance and traditional music and dance competitions – to assess how historical research (particularly historical ethnography) can reveal some of the many processes by which cultural changes are received and accepted within a given community. I argue that silence, absence, and forgetting allow needed and desired changes to enter the tradition without threatening a valued sense of cultural conservatism. The silences surrounding such modifications, the absence of commentary, and the forgetting of how musical and dance expressions used to be, allow differences to be integrated seamlessly into the tradition, accepted as traditional rather than as contemporary changes.


Heather Sparling is the Canada Research Chair in Musical Traditions and an Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at Cape Breton University, where she researches vernacular dance of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia Gaelic song, and Atlantic Canadian disaster songs. She is interested in how disaster songs function as intangible vernacular memorials and how music can be used to support threatened languages. She is the author of Reeling Roosters and Dancing Ducks: Celtic Mouth Music (2014) and is the editor of the scholarly journal, MUSICultures. She is learning to play Cape Breton fiddle, she’s a fluent Gaelic learner, and she plays flute with the Cape Breton Orchestra.
24-28 June 2020