Singing the unsayable

Dr Bonnie McConnell with a kutiro drum from the Gambia. Image: supplied.
Wednesday 6 May 2020

Dr Bonnie McConnell’s new book opens with the musician Fatou singing the unsayable.

“You know I am HIV positive and taking my treatment. Don’t worry, let’s join hands and fight the virus.”

It’s 2007 in the Gambia, and Dr McConnell was onstage playing keyboard next to Fatou. In the front row of the audience sat the Vice President of the Gambia, and the Minister of Health and Social Welfare. Dr McConnell had been performing with Fatou and the Allatentu Support Band since the previous year, and this event, launching Fatou’s album Teriyaa, was their biggest performance yet with a crowd of hundreds.

“The story of my friend Fatou was particularly formative in shaping the direction of my research, says Dr McConnell. “Fatou disclosed her HIV positive status through song, and had a significant impact in reducing the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in the Gambia.”

In her book, Dr McConnell describes what happened to Fatou after the authoritarian President Yahya Jammeh announced that he had discovered a cure for AIDS – among other things.

“When Fatou and her music got caught up in the politics of HIV treatment in the Gambia, this made me consider the question of power, particularly how musical performance can become a site of contestation over health and politics.”

Years before joining Fatou and her band, Dr McConnell was learning classical piano at the Oberlin Conservatory in the United States as an undergraduate student. After studying with Emeritus Professor of Ethnomusicology Roderic Knight, who did research in the Gambia, Dr McConnell fell in love with West African music. She turned away from her classical training and sought opportunities in West Africa: first studying abroad in Ghana, then living in Gambia and Tanzania while serving in the US Peace Corps. It was her chance to learn more about the music and culture of those places while doing community-based development work.

Her experiences as a musician and health worker, and the things she observed, became the inspiration for her book Music, Health, and Power: Singing the Unsayable in The Gambia.

“Working in international development/public health in the Gambia (and Tanzania), I was struck by the disconnect between the discourse of international programs, that seemed to emphasise deficits and failings, and the resourcefulness of the local communities I was working with,” Dr McConnell says.

“International health programs seemed to view local culture as a problem, whereas I was observing the ways in which people drew on local cultural practices such as music as a powerful tool to address the problems they were facing.”

To Dr McConnell, international development programs seem to be often unsuccessful because they fail to engage with local priorities, creativity, and knowledge. Consequently, she puts forward a “strengths-based approach” in her book, including highlighting how indigenous music healing practices such as kanyeleng fertility rituals have been adapted to respond to contemporary public health challenges.

“In my book, I wanted to illustrate the strength and creativity of female performers in responding to health disparities, she says. “Connected to this, I wanted to challenge one-dimensional representations of Muslim West African women, and to illustrate their agency and influence through musical performance.”

Dr McConnell’s personal experiences also gave public health in the Gambia a more cutting dimension. She lost close friends to AIDS at a time when life-saving medicine was available but unaffordable, and this made her more acutely aware of health disparities, and global inequality of lives.

These early experiences were the start of 13 years’ worth of research that inform Dr McConnell’s book. Her experiences and observations intertwine in Music, Health, and Power, which sheds light on the role that female performers, and their music, play in promoting health in the Gambia. They have multi-faceted effects, but their way in is by taking the stigma out of broaching confronting subjects.

“Health workers often explained that they worked with performers because they were able to address sensitive topics such as sex, death, or serious illness, in a culturally appropriate way that way less confronting for listeners,” Dr McConnell says.

“Performers and health workers emphasised the playful aspect of performance, that jokes, handclapping, singing, and dancing made people relaxed and willing to engage. They also suggested that couching new and unsettling information (such as Ebola prevention) in a familiar performance style made it less threatening.”

This idea of being able to sing about things that you can’t talk about kept coming up as Dr McConnell went about her research. And while music covering these sorts of themes is unusual in western culture, it’s commonplace in the Gambia and surrounding region.

“There are a lot of musicians in the Gambia who perform songs about health problems such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and now coronavirus,” says Dr McConnell. “I think this is due to a range of factors, including ideas about the roles and responsibilities of musicians, and a cultural preference for oral forms of communication in a context where almost half the population is illiterate.”

Even popular hip hop artist ST Brikama Boyo, or ST Gambian Dream, has a song about coronavirus. In the music video, the musician is dressed as a doctor, and people are seen coughing into their inner elbows and washing their hands. According to Dr McConnell, he’s seen as being “particularly effective in targeting young people who need to hear the messages about coronavirus.”

It’s one of many songs, in a range of styles, about coronavirus, which Dr McConnell says are an extension of what performers in the Gambia have long been doing. In response to the recent pandemic, The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare recruited influencers including musicians to help spread the message about social distancing and good hygiene practices.

ST Brikama Boyo was just one of 130 performers and health workers Dr McConnell interviewed for her book. She had a unique standpoint for a researcher as a musician in the Gambia. Across her time in the Gambia, she been part of the Talinding kanyeleng group (with whom she still performs whenever she returns), the Bolonkono Kafoo, and of course Fatou and the Allatentu Support Band. She’s performed with them at community celebrations such as weddings, naming ceremonies, and circumcision celebrations, as well as kanyeleng fertility ritual events and public health programs right across the country.

Dr McConnell describes her ethnographic interviews as having often moved seamlessly between speaking, singing and dancing – and approach she calls ‘performance interviewing’.

“I think that the topic of the book (music and health) is something that requires active involvement in order to go beyond assumptions and surface level meanings,” she says.

“There is a lot of musical knowledge that goes unspoken, so you can only access that understanding by actually playing music together with others. That can give insight into not only what the music sounds like, but what it feels like to sing, play, or dance with other people.”

Additionally, performing with her participants helped to foster social connection, trust, and responsibility, which she thinks was important in dealing with sensitive health topics involving issues of stigma and secrecy. Engaging with the performers musically, however, wasn’t merely a strategy. It was, after all, her love of the music of West Africa that drew her to this research.

“Playing music with others has resulted in enduring friendships as well as research insights,” she says.

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Updated:  6 May 2020/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications