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Telling the Story of the Music

Facing the Faculty

By Jeffrey N. Gell

Although Professor of Music Kay Kaufman Shelemay had aspirations of being a professional vocalist throughout her undergraduate and graduate career, she generally avoids performing when she delivers lectures.

"It's not that I don't like performance," she says. "I just generally don't sing when it's a tradition I can't sing."

Instead, Shelemay, who teaches courses on African music and the musical life of urban areas says she "will sing only when the recording does not work."

Shelemay specializes in ethnomusicology, which is the study of music in its broadest cultural and historical context. She has investigated the musical traditions of Ethiopian religious music--both Christian and Jewish--and is currently investigating the ritual music of Brooklyn's community of Syrian Jews.

A native of Texas, Shelemay began the switch from vocal performance to musicology as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the early '70s.

"I felt my head worked better than my voice," she says. "I love performance, but I also love trying to understand how and why other people perform."

In 1972, she traveled to Jerusalem to study the languages of Ethiopia in preparation for her analysis of Ethiopia music. After learning three languages--Geez, Amharic and Hebrew--Shelemay set off for Addis Ababa.

"This was before most people had heard of the people now known as the Ethiopian Jews or Beta Israel," she says.

Six months after her arrival in Ethiopia, a military revolution ousted Ethiopia's royal dictators. Although most academics were forced to leave the country, Shelemay says she, as a scholar of music, was able to stay because, "They didn't think I was much of a threat."

Despite working Ethiopia during a period of turmoil, Shelemay says she attempted to separate her studies from the political issues of the time. "That's a tricky business--to negotiate between scholarship and political activism," she says. "It brings up issues of ethics, politics and practicality."

Shelemay says it was in part these ethical issues that prompted her to write A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey, detailing her experiences as an academic during a revolution.

Notwithstanding her special interest in ethnomusicology, Shelemay says she has studied and currently listens to all types of music--from 19th century German vocal music to contemporary Arabic popular music to the Gamelan music of the Indonesian court.

Currently, she has little time for fieldwork. As chair of Harvard's music department, she is overseeing a department in transition--eight new faculty members have arrived in the past three years

"It's been a challenging transition," she says. "I have a remarkably active, interesting and collegial department to chair."

Shelemay says she hopes the department will again be able to offer a Core course on jazz music, which had been offered until the departure of former Associate Professor of Music Graeme M. Boone.

This semester, Shelemay is teaching an undergraduate seminar on urban ethnomusicology, focusing on the music of Boston.

"They're going to be doing presentations on musical ensembles at Harvard," she says. "We're going to discuss what these groups are about in the broader context of Boston life and house life."

Shelemay says she hopes to focus some of her own future research on the city's own musical traditions.

"The field at home is as interesting as any field abroad," she says. "I want to make a map of music in Boston--from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to early music to the music of ethnic communities."

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