April 20, 2003 - Shaebia: Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin: Ethnomusicologist and Former Peace Corps Volunteer in Eritrea

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Eritrea: The Peace Corps in Eritrea: April 20, 2003 - Shaebia: Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin: Ethnomusicologist and Former Peace Corps Volunteer in Eritrea

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Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin: Ethnomusicologist and Former Peace Corps Volunteer in Eritrea

Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin: Ethnomusicologist and Former Peace Corps Volunteer in Eritrea

Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin: Ethnomusicologist and Former Peace Corps Volunteer in Eritrea
By Shaebia Staff
Feb 10, 2003, 5:42pm

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Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin was the first American female of Chinese ancestry to serve in the US Peace Corps in 1962. She taught in Mendefera, and later in Asmara, Eritrea, from 1962 to1964. Dr. Kimberlin also participated as an observer in Sahel region in Eritrea?s historical Referendum of 1993. She has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin is the Executive Director of MIRI (Music Research Institute) of Point Richmond, California, and is the founding member of ICMAD (International Consortium for the Music of Africa and its Diaspora). Shaebia.org?s contributing writer Issayas Tesfamariam conducted the following interview at Dr. Cynthia Kimberlin?s home in Point Richmond, California on January 11, 2003.

Issayas: First of all, thank you for your time and for a wonderful lunch. What is ethnomusicology? What does an ethnomusicologist do?

Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin: Ethnomusicology is the study of music in culture. Many people think it is non-Western music. But it could be any music in the world. It could be the ethnomusicology of Beethoven, it could be the ethnomusicology of the Beetles, and the essential thing is, it is the study of music in culture. In other words, ethnomusicology is the study of any culture through its music. But music is the focal point.

Issayas: How about the work of an ethnomusicologist?

Dr. Kimberlin: There is a joke that says; an ethnomusicologist is what an ethnomusicologist does. The reason why the meaning is so difficult to understand sometimes, is that it is not of a particular music rather it is an approach to the study of music. There are certain criteria that various scholars follow. One of the criteria is, in order to write about music it is good to be bilingual musically. Not only to know your own music, if you are from the west, but to understand and if you can perform the music that you study. That is one of the things that I did. I learned to play ?chira wata? (or ?masinko? as it is known in Ethiopia) when I went there on a Fulbright in 1972. That is an example of what an ethnomusicologist does.

Issayas: So you are saying that the terminology of ethnomusicology applies to countries such as Eritrea, for example, with its nine ethnic groups?

Dr. Kimberlin: Any country in the world. And it could be music of the past, present and I say of the future. But the critical thing is it is the study of music in its cultural context. So when you talk about Tigrigna music, Tigrigna music of where? Tigrigna music of San Jose, or Tigrigna music of Mendefera? There is a big difference.

Issayas: You were the first Asian (Chinese) American female Peace Corps volunteer in 1962. You then went to Mendefera for your volunteer work. Can you tell me exactly when in 1962 you went to Mendefera and how and why you went to Mendefera?

Dr. Kimberlin: When I was growing up in California, I had never been anywhere outside of California. So I knew nothing about the rest of the world. I used to read the National Geographic and Life magazines and that experience used to entice me to learn and know about other cultures. Because of a challenge from a friend of mine, I applied for the Peace Corps when I was finishing up my undergraduate at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley. Right before I finished my studies I received a telegram informing me that I was going to Ethiopia. I did not know where Ethiopia was at that time.

Issayas: Sorry to interrupt. Can you tell me exactly when you went in 1962? The reason I am asking is that in 1962, Ethiopia officially annexed Eritrea on Nov. 14th as its fourteenth province. I would like to know the time frame and the mood at that time.

Dr. Kimberlin: I think it was when it was being annexed. We were invited by the Ethiopian government. Therefore, I was told only of the official perspective; I did not know of any other perspective. In fact, when we were all invited to Ethiopia we were not even told which town we were going to be assigned until the time we were to leave. Five of us were assigned to Mendefera. After I got there I was surprised that nobody spoke Amharic. And then I began to learn why. When I started living and teaching there, little by little, I began to learn about the history of Eritrea. Even in 1962, I had students who were politically active in the struggle for the independence of Eritrea. To answer your question, we arrived in Ethiopia sometime in June/July 1962 and we were in Mendefera around September/October, 1962.

Issayas: Where did you teach in Mendefera?

Dr. Kimberlin: There was only one middle school in Mendefera at that time and that was St. George.

Issayas: What did you teach there?

Dr. Kimberlin: I taught at the seventh grade level. My colleagues chose subjects first, and what was left was science and history. Unfortunately, it was European history. On my own I started music class. The other thing I did was that in order to teach the students about America and in return to learn more about Eritrean music, three other people and I started a folk music group. We traveled throughout the town singing American folk songs and in exchange we learned Tigrigna songs.

Issayas: I am interested in the musical aspect of your experience in Eritrea. I read your article, which by the way, is the catchiest title that I had ever read. ?How Bruce Lee Almost Met Chou En-Lai: Another view from a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea 1962-64.? First, where did you present the article? And second, for the benefit of our readers, could you explain what the title means?

Dr. Kimberlin: I presented it twice actually. The first time I presented it was to the Chinese American Senior Center in Berkeley, California. One of the reasons I did that is that I am the first Asian (Chinese) American woman to join the Peace Corps. I wanted them to know how Eritreans and Ethiopians perceived me as a Chinese American. Because, from the propaganda you get oversees, Africans seemed to see Americans in the white and black dichotomy. They don?t know necessarily about the American Indians, or the Hispanics or the Asian Americans. Of the five of us who were in Mendefera, I was the only Asian American. And we all looked fairly different. Bill Keresky, for example, had red hair with freckles. So they called him Mr. Bill with hair on fire because they never saw red hair in their lives. The second time, I presented it to was the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

About the title, well, I believe a lot of people have heard of the Peace Corps but again from a black and white dichotomy. Mine is a perspective from a woman Chinese (Asian) American. When I was in Eritrea in 1963, at that time I was teaching in Asmara, and Ethiopia was trying to normalize relations with China. Ethiopia had invited Chou En- Lai in 1963/64. Chou En-Lai was walking by himself in Asmara and he happened to be across the street from me and I wanted to shake his hands. Somebody from the American Embassy immediately stopped me and said don?t you dare shake his hands because they are going to read into it something that may not be true.

The Bruce Lee connection came many years later in 1991, when I was an election observer in Tigrai, Ethiopia. I was selected to travel through Tigrai for two weeks. And the people were looking at me and were not sure from where I came from. Since there were restrictions on them not to travel, especially for the youngsters the only thing they saw about Asians were through the kung-fu movies they were watching. And all these Bruce Lee movies were being shown. They thought maybe I was Bruce Lee; that?s how I got the title. However, later because I was female they tried to rationalize and renamed me Rose Lee. After this experience, I gave a report to the Peace Corps office suggesting that in the future that all the consulates and embassies of the United States have information on all the various ethnic groups in America.

Issayas: So you were actually never called Bruce Lee in Eritrea?

Dr. Kimberlin: In Eritrea, they gave me an Eritrean name, Tsehai ? meaning ?The Sun? in Tigringa. They thought I was from China, Korea or Japan but not from America. Yes, I was never called Bruce Lee in Eritrea.

Issayas: In the article we just discussed you wrote: ?While in Eritrea, in 1962-3 I recorded 23 Tigrigna songs which I transcribed in written notation so that I could study them?? In this case, is written notation different than musical notation?

Dr. Kimberlin: Notation in its most general sense is a symbolic representation of music including the sound. Notation is any music written down on paper. Music transcription could be something that is described on a tape recorder. So a transcription could be in a number of formats including notation. As you know, there are many different notation systems in the world. There are hundreds may be thousands. The Western notation is only one of many. Because I was a Westerner and never grew up learning Eritrean music, I wanted some way to remember it. I wanted to write it down so I did notation of the music on paper using the Western notation system. But later I adapted it for Tigrigna music. I changed the notation; in a way, I took out the clefs since Tigrigna and western music have two different music systems. The scales are different. I wrote it down not so Eritreans could learn it, because the oral tradition is the most prevalent tradition that people learn things. I wrote it down so that I can freeze the sound because if I kept listening to it on tape I could not stop it and study it. So it was an analytical tool I used for studying Tigrigna music.

Issayas: Could you tell me the name of some of the songs?

Dr. Kimberlin: ?Asmara,? ?Negussie,??Alga,? ?Nesanet,? ?Gize,? ?Yefkereki? and others. All the songs were recorded in Mendefera in 1962 except for ?Yefkereki.?

?Yefkereki? was not recorded by me but by a friend of mine in Addis Abeba. In that song Haile Gebremedhin accompanied himself on the guitar. ?Yefkereki? means I love you. It is interesting to note about Haile Gebremedhin, also I notice it by Eritreans today, that they sort of Africanize Western instruments. Meaning, they will take a Western musical instrument like the guitar and play it as if it were a kirar. Meaning, they play a guitar using techniques of the kirar. In a way they make a guitar their own.

Issayas: Who sang the songs that you recorded in Mendefera? Were they your students?

Dr. Kimberlin: They were all students of mine. I had a music class and wanted to know their songs. We met informally. In one or two sessions in 1962 and beginning of 1963 I recorded them in a borrowed Phillips portable tape recording using 3-inch reel. They were very shy and tentative in the beginning. That is why for the study I am doing I am going to do it in a chronological order rather than a thematic order because you can see them start very shyly and by the end they were so relaxed that you can tell the difference.

Issayas: Who were the musicians? And do you have any contact with the musicians now?

Dr. Kimberlin: I have contact with some of them. Kidane Issac is in Germany. Ghirmai Gebreselassie who is a wonderful kirar player (whose picture is at the Special Collection of Green Library, Stanford University, along with the article) is said to be in Germany. Melake Gebre is in Washington, DC, that is just to name some of them.

Issayas: Again, going back to the article, you wrote: ?It was then that I decided to make the Tigrigna songs that I recorded in Mendefera in 1962/3 accessible through a work I am preparing titled: ?No One Dared: Twenty-Three Tigrigna Songs From Mendefera And Beyond.?? What do you mean by ?beyond??

Dr. Kimberlin: Beyond means that Tigrigna music in no longer confined to Eritrea or Mendefera. As for ?The No One Dared,? part of the title, I understand that Mendefera means ?No One Dared.? Some people say it got its name in remembrance of the wars they fought against the Italians. Others say, it implies that the physical terrain, which is hard to navigate, thus helping the people as a protection from their enemies. Hence, the name ?Mendefera.?

Issayas: When, how and in what format are you going to publish ?No One Dared.? And can a musician in the United States understand and play the songs by reading the notations?

Dr. Kimberlin: I hope from the study that it is going to be written in such a way that you can learn the music from a number of perspectives. If you are a Westerner you can read the notation. But half of it is missing because the notation in itself is only a guide. It does not capture everything. Notation leaves out the cultural context. With the notation there will be the text in Tigrigna script, Tigrigna transliteration and English translation. In addition, hopefully, with the text the original recordings are going to be used -- remember I recorded with what was available for me then, technology was different then, 3-inch Phillips tape recorder, only 3 hours of electricity in Mendefera, etc. -- as a historical document of an oral tradition. Musicians who would want to compare new songs based on the structure and forms of these songs could also use it.

I have also gone to graduate school and learned more methodology since my days in Mendefera. I wanted to be able to capture on paper the intricate rhythms that very few people could capture. The syncopation, the rubato that is so prevalent in Eritrean music. If you took out the syncopation it would sound like a church hymn. It just does not sound right and so I refined it within the last 2 years. In addition, I used a software computer program called finale, which prints out notation. I had to alter the program to accommodate Tigrigna idiosyncrasies. For example, in Tigrigna music if you call it a meter it changes quite often. And often it could be seven forg. It would be odd number so I had to change the meters to accommodate those kinds of changes in rhythmic structure, which is very different from Western music. Another thing I had to change was the meaning of the staff line. In Western music, the first line means E. Well, I have to erase the whole thing. The staff line in some respects corresponded to a Tigrigna scale rather than a Western scale. So you have to use a Western staff notation in a different way. I took out the treble and bass clef and a lot of other things.

Issayas: Have you been back to Mendefera since your Peace Crops days?

Dr. Kimberlin: I went back to Eritrea in 1993 as a referendum observer to Sahel. I had to go back to Mendefera. Of course, there were more people. The saddest thing that I saw was the school. It was worst than when I first went there. The Ethiopian rulers had destroyed everything. That is why, I would like to make ?No One Dared? into a book -- along with commentary and analysis -- that anybody could buy and a big part of the proceed after the expenses, I would like to give back to the school where I first recorded the songs 40 years ago. It is my way of returning their songs to the students, who first gave to me in hopes that the next generation will learn, enjoy and pass them on.

Issayas: Again, thank you very much for your time.

Dr. Kimberlin: You are quite welcome.

Interviewer?s Note: Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin?s husband, Jerry, who is a chemist and an anthropologist was also a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea. He was very helpful in describing Eritrea of the 1960?s. Thank you, Jerry.

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Story Source: Shaebia

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