January 7, 2003 - Afropop Worldwide: Musical Tales from the Peace Corps

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Musical Tales from the Peace Corps

Read and comment on this story from Afropop as they talk with returned Peace Corps volunteers celebrating the institution's 40th anniversary and borrow the precious recordings and cassettes they collected in Nigeria, Kenya, the Gambia, St. Vincent, Togo and elsewhere at:

Musical Tales from the Peace Corps*

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Musical Tales from the Peace Corps
on Afropop Worldwide

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be an American in Africa, the Caribbean or Latin America with the Peace Corps? What musical experiences and cultural initiations happen? We'll find out as we talk with returned Peace Corps volunteers celebrating this grand American institution's 40th anniversary and borrow the precious recordings and cassettes they collected in Nigeria, Kenya, the Gambia, St. Vincent, Togo and elsewhere.

Musical Tales from the Peace Corps

Musical Tales from the Peace Corps, as heard on Afropop Worldwide

Opening Collage:

"The very first night in Lagos, a group of us went out to a local highlife dancing club, and I had no idea what highlife was …And in addition to the highlife band they had an ensemble of dundun drummers, and when I heard that music, the polyrhythms, I nearly fell off my chair. I couldn't believe the music I was listening to!" --Max Brandt, Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, 1963-65

The Most memorable musical moment?
"I think for me, after we would learn a song, and then we'd be in a situation where we could sing that song in their language and connect, we'd have this wonderful connection, they were so pleased. It immediately created a wonderful bond." --Anne Moore, Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, 1962-64

"It was a dream come true and I learned much more than I ever gave."
--Sarah Johnston, Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia and the Gambia, 1990s

Stories told by returned Peace Corps volunteers to Georges Collinet for broadcast on AFROPOP WORLDWIDE

"My story is just having grown up, and sort of come of age listening to music that was very different than Cameroonian music, I arrived in Cameroon and loved the music, but wasn't really a very good dancer. The music was so vibrant I always felt like I was off beat when I would dance it. So I was discussing this problem with a fellow volunteer who told me that he'd come up with the perfect solution for always dancing to the beat when you hear makossa music. And his solution was to spell things with your hips,… you could spell your name, his name is Buddy, I haven't seen him in a long time, but I always think of him when I hear makossa music. He taught me how to write my name with my hips, you could send messages to the people you are dancing with. If you like them a lot, you could tell them that,…you could say I love you with your hips or if it's someone who you don't particularly like much, you could tell them you are annoying me or I hate you or something, and they wouldn't know it because you have a big smile on your face! You're writing things with your hips. And it works!"
--Anna Ruth, Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, early 1990s


One of the things that was sort of profound to me as a Peace Corps volunteer, as a person, was how people could accept you with disabilities. I had hurt my foot and I was not able to do much walking or dancing at the time. But they had all see me dance before, so when we would often get together for naming ceremonies when a baby was born, seven days after, we would have a big party or for a wedding, there was always an opportunity to dance and drum and gather together. But in this particular situation there was a circle dance and the women were getting in the middle and dancing and the way you respect a woman for dancing is to throw down your head scarf to her, to show your respect that she's a good dancer. Well, I was watching everyone and thinking, "Oh I wish I could dance but I can't" and the women were all saying "Sajoh," they called me sajoh, "You must dance now." And I'm like, "Hani, Hani, I can't do it, my defato, they're not good right now." And so my mother, the mother in the compound we were living in she brought me out, threw her teko, her head scarf on the ground and kneeled me down, and we started dancing together. Aad the women came in and were dancing, and the drummers were drumming and I was dancing with my arms and with every other part of my body but my foot. And it was incredible, and from then on, while I was healing, whenever there was a dance, they put a stool in the center so I could take part. That's what I miss about my village."
--Sarah Johnston, Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia and the Gambia, 1990s

"I went to Nigeria in 1963, I was there for 2 years and my background was that of a music teacher. I had hoped to teach music in Nigeria, but of course they taught me much more than I could ever begin to teach them. One of my jobs, an unusual job as a Peace Corps volunteer, was to do a survey of music education in the primary schools of Ibadan. At that time Ibadan was the largest city in black Africa. And the task was to try and determine how much traditional African music was being taught in the elementary schools. It was very little--it was mostly British marching songs. So in a discussion of this interesting problem with an Irish priest, who had been in Nigeria for a long time, who was very into Yoruba culture, he could speak Yoruba, and he was very interested in Yoruba music. He said you should come with me to a region of Yoruba land called Ekete, where the children on the moonlight nights sing special songs. He said we'd have to find one of the villages that does not have electricity yet because once they have electricity and television and what not, they don't tend to play in the moonlight as they used to. So he took me to this village and the moon was shining so that I created a playground of light into the night where they could stay. I was told that they were allowed to stay up later on the nights when it was a full moon, this didn't happen throughout the month, it was only the 2 or 3 nights of the month when there was a full moon. Also larger children were out dancing and making music. It was very beautiful."
--Max Brandt, Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, 1963-65

"My music story has to do with weddings, because weddings were big celebrations at the coast. Where I was, the tribe of the coast was Swahili, which of course is where the Arabic world met the African world and became its own culture over the years. So I was lucky enough to have some friends in the Swahili community and be able to attend Swahili weddings, which of coarse were not simple affairs. They were affairs that went for days. There were different events of the wedding and music took place in all of these different pieces. One is when, before the wedding women would get together and the bride would have her hands and feet hennaed. And that would be a big party, a big luncheon party, and everybody came. There'd be food, and there'd be music, women would sing, they would stand up and sing and do the ululation with the back of their throat which I had never learned to do when I was in Kenya! (laughs) So that was one piece of the ceremony. Then that night, there would be a time when the women would all get together and dance chakacha, which is a big circle dance. They tie pieces of fabric around their hips and do, I guess it's not exactly a belly dance but it's a very undulating hips kind of dance. Women would dance to each other, and then next in the circle would be another couple, and they'd go around this big circle. Often that was to live music, which were some of the bands that we'd listen to which were Maulidi and some other group. Most of the tunes were actually, I think, Hindi movie tunes that the Swahili would take and put different Swahili words to. So these events, the chakacha dance, was only supposed to be for the women, but every once and a while you'd look up and over the fences, all the guys would be standing watching all the women dance. So, then the next night would be the wedding. The groom would come from the mosque and the bride would be brought, and they would come in the same room, and would be sitting on what I guess was going to be their wedding bed. But the groom would be there, the bride would be there, and everybody would come in and greet them, and then it was a big party; lots of dancing and lots of music."
--Phyllis Barney, Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, 1975-79

"I brought the music of Becket, Austin Becket Cyrus. The ABC of Vincy Mas, they call him. Now, his songs that year that were popular were called "Small Pin" and "Don Eat and Lie down." So both of them were somewhat rude if you could understand what they're talking about. But like most calypsos, you could listen to them and think they were just a nice happy song. If you don't know the local lingo, you won't know exactly what's going on in the song. In "Don Eat and Lie Down," he sings about not eating a big dinner and then going to sleep, and I have the T shirts actually, which would more graphically represent the song. In "don Eat and Lie Down" there is a big fat man who has gorged himself with all this Caribbean food and has passed out, and his girl friend is crying and is bored watching him lie there sleeping. And then "Small Pin" has a girl with a big back side sitting down in a chair and a big pin is pricking her in her behind and she is jumping up screaming. (laughs)"
--Rahiel Houssey, Peace Corps volunteer in St. Vincent, late 1990s


"I was teaching in Togo, and I remember arriving and introducing myself to the proviseur and I said, "yes, I am the Peace Corps volunteer here to teach English," He said "well that's fine, what else can you teach?" So one thing led to another and I organized a chorus in the school that hadn't been on anybody's agenda. Soon we had a chorus and they would teach us African songs, and we would teach them all kinds of American, and French and German folk songs. So there was wonderful exchange there. Then in all of our travels, we were constantly collecting songs or musical instruments. And of coarse, as you know, music transcends, languages, cultures, everything. It's just fabulous."
--Mike Moore, Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, 1962-64

The drumming when we arrived was just incredible. On the street corners on Saturday nights, five or six drummers drumming different rhythms but all together, it was just amazing. We never could figure it out mathematically how it all worked; it was so complicated!"
--Anne Moore, Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, 1962-1964



I lived in Ndele, Central African Republic. Ndele has an amazing history. The town was founded in the 1890s by Mohammed as-Sanusi, the last great slave-raider to fight the Europeans. Thanks to that history, it continues to have a Sultan (when I lived there from 1976-78, the Sultan was a grandson of Sanusi who came from Sudan to serve) and thus a court that can support a musician. Sometime in 1978, Amara came to town from up north in Tchad. He supported himself by playing for the Sultan and around town. What money he made was generally recycled via the douma (honey-beer) servers, as Amara did little besides make music and drink.

Although we did not share much common language, Amara and I became close friends through music (and, to a much lesser extent, drinking). I had a soprano clarinet with me, and Amara was willing to let me try to play with him, though "with" is a vast exaggeration. His instrument, which he loved to show and explain to me in great detail (again, without much linguistic input), was a keita, or safarah. This is a common instrument in the region, with variants found all over the world, a double reed horn that is often referred to as a musette, among other names. His keita was a conical wooden horn with 3 holes and a hammered coin between the reed and the body which Amara was particularly proud of. The sound obtained from Amara and his horn could bring down the walls when he played indoors (so he usually played outside, where 95% of everything happens anyways). My clarinet could be heard only rarely when we played together, and only when I played way high in the upper register. So my lack of ability relative to his was hidden.

His playing consisted almost entirely of continuous, repetitive riffs, circular breathing for hours at a time. I once asked him to hold a tone, which he did for about 30 minutes. He had a partner, Ali, who played a side drum in accompaniment. Their playing reminded me a bit of John Coltrane with Rashied Ali, brilliant high energy transcendental music. It's one of my greatest joys that I was given the opportunity to know a master musician like Amara so far from my home.
--Alan Saul, Peace Corps volunteer in Central African Republic, 1976-78


This is a story of returning. Every peace Corps Volunteer wonders whether the well they dug, the field they plowed, the clinic they built is still in service. For teachers the results are less tangible.

In 1999, Friends of Liberia, a group started by Peace Corps alumns of that country created a program that would send former volunteers--career teachers--back to the country to do an in-service training for primary school teachers who had survived a brutal 8-year civil war. For the five returning volunteers, it was a chance to give back and yes maybe to see whether there was any evidence that the Peace Corps had spent 30 years in that country, most of them teaching. The returning five teachers had left the country between 23 and 28 years before.

For 3 of them is was possible to go to their "towns" and look up people they had known or hear about those they had known who were "dead in the war." At least for them there was some sense of closure. For another, whose town had been razed in an area where war was still raging, there were former students, refugees to meet him in the capital. But all the team members felt sorry for the one teacher whose town was also gone, whose whole area was inaccessible, still embroiled in the northern guerilla war. Dr. Joan Safran Hamilton was back but not "home" and could never go back to Wozi, Lofa County. She could only extrapolate from others' stories what had happened in her town, which had been burned and razed in the war.

Our in-service workshop was based at Cuttington College, one of the oldest in West Africa. The teachers came from schools in four southern counties. The selection had been somewhat random. Two weeks into the training, Joan was teaching a silly song "Your Rooster's Dead" to her classes in early childhood education. The day after introducing the song, one of her teacher trainees returned to class to say that her husband knew the song. It turned out that he was from Wozi, younger by years than any student Joan had taught, but when he went to school in Wozi, they were still teaching that silly American song "Your Rooster's Dead." It's not a lot to go on thirty years later, but as sure as a still-pumping well, it proved that she had had some effect on the life of her town--and that some from her town had survived to pass it on.
--Joan Hamilton


I was in the Peace Corps in Nigeria in 1966 and 1967, stationed in the town of Ughelli in the Niger Delta, in what was then called the "Midwest Region." My job was teaching English at the A.G.G.S. (Anglican Girls' Grammar School.) Because the Niger Delta is populated by many minority tribal groups, the students at A.G.G.S. spoke seven different languages, and had to use English to communicate with one another.

In Spring of 1966, the principal of A.G.G.S. left to return to India. The students organized a grand send-off for her. Many parents had traveled to attend this event, which was held in the school dining hall. Tables and benches were pushed to the side, leaving room in the center of the room for the dancers. Parents and other guests sat around the wall, holding pots and pans and spoons from the kitchen. Students from three different tribal groups performed -- Urhobo, Igbo, and Isoko. The Urhobo girls stood up and began to sing and dance music from their own villages, while their Urhobo parents provided percussion using the kitchen implements. These parents really came alive, singing and shouting and moving their seated bodies with great energy and joy while their daughters danced in the center of the room. I noticed, however, that not all parents were so moved. Those parents who were not Urhobo sat silent and still, as though deaf to the joyous rhythms in the hall.

Next came the Isoko dancers. The pots and pans and spoons were passed from the Urhobo parents to the Isoko parents. Now the Isoko parents became vigorously involved in the music, while the previously animated Urhobo parents sat still as stones, the rhythms of the different tribe seemingly not recognized as music. The same thing was repeated when the third group of girls rose to perform.

I don't know why these people could not seem to hear a different drummer's beat. Was it that rhythm and tune were very culturally specific, deeply ingrained in cultural identity? Was something else going on?

I recorded this music on a battery-operated Phillips tape recorder, reel-to-reel, at a speed which is not available today on U.S. tape recorders. If anyone has the technology to transfer this music into a format which can readily be played here, I'd be much obliged.
--Phyllis Noble ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I was one of the luckier volunteers. Keeping track of the national music scene was part of my job; rubbing elbows with celebrity musicians a fringe benefit. As a consultant for Club NTG (New Teen Generation), a youth radio program broadcast twice weekly from Lusaka, Zambia, it was imperative that I keep up on what was hot with youth. Club NTG's selling point was that we played the hottest music first, whether it was from local musicians or whoever was climbing the R&B and dance charts in England. Sure, our main purpose was to get out HIV prevention messages, but we knew that they'd only be heard in between rounds of the hottest beats.

When I first arrived on the job my co-workers, Kalenga "Crazy Kalez" Mubanga, Jabu "The Radio Assassin" Chiwaula and Jeff Kawana (a producer without need of a nickname) made it clear that I'd never be able to connect with the youth of Zambia until I tuned into what they were listening to, concealed my personal preference for folk music and ditched the ugly yet comfortable shoes I preferred wearing.

Musicians were often in our studio promoting their music and responsible decision making, and Club NTG was often backstage at their concerts or out amongst the audience handing out condoms and promoting safer sex. Very quickly I learned all about the burgeoning Zambian music scene. Very quickly I became a starstruck groupie. By the way I melted in the presence of these musicians, you never would have guessed I'd just turned thirty.

The hottest musical act in Zambia last year was a young duo called Black Muntu. Mwembe Chulu and Leo Bweupe, with platinum dyed hair and hip street-wear fashions, swept the nation with an exceedingly catchy song called "Chi Beibe", an ode to a beautiful woman. I never really knew the words, but I learned to sing along. Faking it by mouthing what I thought were the words always got me an audience. Who was this American woman who could sing in Nyanja, the kids all wondered.

Chi Beibe was followed up by "Chani Gwila", a song about a young man who catches an STD. The song came with its own dance movements, including crotch gabbing ala Michael Jackson during the chorus which, roughly translated, meant "It bit me. Ouch!" This song provided the perfect opportunity to hand out condoms. Whether at a concert or disco, when the song was played I grabbed my box of condoms and made the rounds with the audience, singing along, grabbing my crotch at the appropriate moments, and passing out condoms. Whether I appeared hip or just plain goofy, I'm not quite sure. I was, however, able to break the ice with the youth and make it safe and comfortable for them to take condoms.

Keeping up with the hottest British R&B and dance tunes was also important to our popularity. Jabu "The Radio Assassin" regularly downloaded music from the internet and took particular pride in being the first DJ in Zambia to spin the tunes. I once had to make the unpopular decision of prescreening the selections after his particularly regretful choice of playing Craig David's "Seven Days" during a show themed on abstinence. Our earnest guest, a well-spoken young man from a Catholic youth group had his abstinence message upstaged by the song's lyrics, "I met this girl on Monday, took her for a drink on Tuesday. We were making love by Wednesday and on Thursday and Friday and Saturday. We chilled on Sunday."

The legendary Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi was also quite popular in Zambia, and performed several concerts in the country while I was there. Club NTG set up a booth at a few of his concerts, always at close range of the stage. I developed a crush worthy of any 12 year old on Oliver's percussionist. It became important to me that we place our booth on the left side, always as close to the percussionist as possible. My flirting paid off that first concert. The percussionist took me backstage to get my cd signed by Oliver after the show.

A year later, my volunteer assignment complete and living half a world away in a small northern California town, I am still connected to Zambia through music. I listen to R&B stations on the radio and turn up every Craig David song played. I have an impressive cd collection of Zambian musicians which get constant play. Last month I tuned into an NPR segment on Oliver Mtukudzi that informed me he was currently touring the US. I quickly discovered from his website that that evening he'd be playing in San Francisco, a three hour drive away. I purchased my ticket over the internet, worked through lunch to take off early and made it to the City just in time for the opening act. I found my seat up front, left side. A few songs into Oliver's act I was front row, flashing my best smile at the percussionist and singing along. After the show the percussionist signed my CD and asked what I was doing so far from Zambia.
--Melissa Mendonca

* Crisis Corps is a short-term assignment program for people who have completed a two-year assignment as Peace Corps volunteers.


Tygrinya Songs from Mendefera (Adi Ugri), Eritrea by Cynthia Tse Kimberlin (PCV Ethiopia 1962-64)

My service commenced in 1962 as a member of the first group of around 350 volunteers to go to Ethiopia. I served in that capacity in Hamisien and Seraye regions, both located in what became part of Eritrea in 1993. I began my two-year tenure first as a teacher of science and history at St. George Middle School in Mendefera (pop 11, 500 in 1962, 17,000 in 2001) 30 miles south of Asmara (listed on maps as Adi Ugri). After school I taught music as it was my academic major in college. In addition, I also taught English to working adults. #1school grounds - #2 music students - I spent my second year teaching English and Music at Haile Selassie High School #3 Choir I started at the Haile Selassie High school, Asmara 1963].

It was under these circumstances I began a lifelong interest in African music and which prompted me to become an ethnomusicologist. Although music was not an official assignment, on my own initiative, I learned their songs and dances and we reciprocated by performing music we knew including American folksongs and square dances. Although I have since studied other musics, none has had greater impact than that first experience of hearing Ethiopian and Eritrean music in Africa.

One of the most common questions I am asked is what did you do and how did it help them. What one gives and receives may not be known even to the volunteer and its impact may not be realized for a long time as exemplified by the following example which had to do with Tygrinya songs I recorded in 1962-63. I transcribed twenty-three of them in written notation so I could study them. Then I essentially put them away for thirty-seven years. But during that time, I returned to Ethiopia in 1972 to conduct a yearlong study. Using over 140 reels of 7- and 5-inch tape, I recorded music of the Amhara, Oromo, Tigre, and Tygrinya as well as other musics and genres including Adari music from Harrar, the capital of the Sunni Moslems and Somali music from Jigjiga. Two years later in 1974, Emperor Haile Sellassie was overthrown by a military coup that marked the beginning of a 17-year Revolution lasting until 1991. During that period, love songs, songs of a religious nature, and indigenous musical instruments associated with religion were banned in public and in the media, including many songs I recorded -- giving priority to songs of propaganda containing the virtues of the Mengistu regime.

A friend of mine who played the baganna (10-string plucked lyre) wrote in a letter to me lamenting the fact no one heard his music any longer as he was forbidden to teach it at the music school and it could not be heard in the public domain. His comment coupled with the ban on music compelled me to publish a selection of my 1972 field recordings, which resulted in the UNESCO LP, disc Ethiopia III: Three Chordophone Traditions, published in Germany in 1986 by Musicaphon. If people in Ethiopia could not hear this music, then I wanted the rest of the world to be aware of it. After 1991, the ban on music was lifted. This recording was reissued in France as a CD in 1996 by Auvidis. Since 1992, Alemu Aga has performed in his own country again but also in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and England.

The impact of the Revolution, technological advances, and the influx of foreign music agents representing multi-national corporations looking for new musical talent in which to invest, changed the face and nature of music in Ethiopia. These ramifications made me think about those twenty-three Tygrinya songs again, reminding me how great the chasm had become between the music I witnessed decades earlier and much of the music I hear now. On a visit to Ethiopia in November 2000, I took a tape of these Tygrinya songs to Addis Ababa and played them to some young people I met and discovered they did not know anything about these songs but some of their parents and grand parents did. A major reason the songs were not familiar was due, in part, to political conflicts and war.

It was then that I decided to make these Tygrinya songs accessible through a study I'm preparing titled "No One Dared": Twenty-Three Tygrinya Songs from Mendefera, Eritrea and Beyond. Along with commentary and analysis, these songs will serve as an historical document of an oral tradition of a certain place and time. One could say I am returning these songs to the people who first gave them to me in hopes that the next generation will learn and enjoy them, and pass them on.
--Cynthia Tse Kimberlin Thanks to all the Peace Corps volunteers for sharing your stories!If you served in the Peace Corps, and would like to email us your musical story, go for it! We'll post another round. Send to: info@afropop.org

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Special Interests - Music



By Anonymous (ml82.128.2.177.multilinks.com - on Saturday, January 28, 2006 - 2:48 am: Edit Post

I am currently producing A stage drama entitlied ;oil wealth.
cultivating peace through the use of african traditional theater the niger delta crisis as case study. this production is design to capture all the key conflict analysis and management stlyes and is intented to educate the audiences while yet bringing about a lasting solution to the nigerdelta issues tranformation, stakeholders transformation and sustenable peace. THE PRODUCTION IS IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF MY MASTERS DEGREE PROJECT . IF YOU ARE INTERESTED PLEASE CONTACT ME .


By Mustapha ( on Monday, April 07, 2008 - 9:42 am: Edit Post


My name is Mustapha Alifa,i am from chad,i am looking for two persons,the one is my friend from Peace Corps,he has worked as a volunteer in teaching english at Abeche in Chad,his name is Micheal Hobson.
The other's one name is Sarah,i just want to know if she works as a volunteer at Mao in Chad or. my phone number is +235 6271830.
Please contact me if you have some informations about them.

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