By: Donna Armstrong
Published:  September 30, 2013

Alumnus Brian Hogan (Ph.D. ’11 UCLA Ethnomusicology) was nominated for the 2013-2014 CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in the Humanities/Fine Arts, UCLA for his dissertation “Enemy Music: Blind Birifor Xylophonists of Northwest Ghana.” On July 31, 2013, staff member Donna Armstrong discussed Brian’s research with him.


"Enemy Music: Blind Birifor Xylophonists of Northwest 
Ghana, Online Companion"

A Great Man Has Gone Out: The Funeral of Ghanaian
Xylophonist Kakraba Lobi (A film by Brian Hogan)

Brian’s website:


Interview with Brian Hogan

ARMSTRONG: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. I’d like to start off with your concept of the “ethnography of the individual.”  Why and how is that important to your research paradigm?

HOGAN: Thank you, Donna.  Well, the concept of the ethnography of the individual was something that I was exposed to as an undergraduate. My B.A. is in anthropology, which I completed at UC Santa Cruz, and my emphasis was on a “person-centered” brand of cultural anthropology and ethnomusicology. It was through coursework with Dan Linger [Professor of Anthropology, UCSC] that I really began to understand the shortcomings of models of culture and cultural practice that are not centered in the lives and experiences of actual people.  The dissertation itself is an “ethnography of the individual” because of its focus on individual musicians through a multi-media representation of their lives and experiences over a period of many years.  I went to considerable length to evenly depict both musicians and the things that are most important to them.  It turns out that this is not just music and musical performance at funerals, but also agricultural activity, family and social issues, cultural continuity, and more.

“Enemy Music” also depicts and theorizes disability and ableism in rural West Africa, and I felt that the only way to really understand how the African “disabled” body is constructed was to ground my analysis in individuals operating within community.  It was through this person-centered approach that I came to realize that disability and ableism operate in a fundamentally different way in rural West Africa than in the U.S. because of the heavy emphasis on agricultural yield as a marker of social value, the deeply embedded spiritual systems of value that entrap and subordinate the blind African body, and the pivotal role that musicians play in Birifor cultural, cosmological, and religious systems.

In rural Birifor culture, spiritual systems of suoba (witchcraft) and til (juju) pervade daily life, filling objects and people with harmful and protective spiritual energy respectively.  Because of the long history of blindness in the region, due in part to the historically high incidence of onchocerciasis (river blindness), local interpretations for the cause of blindness often recourse to spiritual explanations that fault the individual, their family, and/or their ancestors.  In addition to the yoke of ability placed on disabled bodies on a global scale, in Birifor contexts there is an additional spiritual narrative of disability that casts it as a necessary and undesirable result of mystical forces.  This kind of spiritual causality renders the African disabled body in a way that is fundamentally different than the religious models of disability theorized in Western scholarship.  This is because of the multi-layered causality that operates in Birifor culture, which was theorized by Jack Goody [British social anthropologist], that allows conflicting narratives of cause and effect to be housed within an all-encompassing system of spiritual value and exchange.  In this system, the blind African body is reified as not only physically subordinate, but also spiritually grotesque.

ARMSTRONG: Your dissertation covers several different topics, including funeral xylophone music, musical change, speech surrogation, disability, documentary filmmaking, and the ethnography of the individual that you just spoke about. How do these all work together?

HOGAN: That’s a good question. I came into this study initially interested in musical change and the maintenance of tradition in communities of Birifor xylophonists in urban Accra and the rural Northwest of Ghana.  Funerals and festivals are the primary contexts of xylophone performance in Birifor culture, each with their own instrumentation and repertoire.  Funeral xylophone music, unlike festival music, also encodes tacit song texts into musical phrases in what is termed “speech surrogation,” both in the traditional canon of pieces and in new compositions.  What continues to fascinate me about speech surrogation is that it allows musical performance to become a medium of veiled resistance and subversion, or as Andrew Apter [Professor of History, UCLA] might say, a “location of transformative agency.”  It also communicates to both the community of the living and the dead, which makes music’s ability to inscribe and influence cultural value in Birifor communities even more subtle and complex.

Disability and blindness came into the study through my own experiences in the Southern Birifor community.  In 2007 I made a short film about the funeral of Kakraba Lobi, a world-renowned Birifor xylophonist.  One xylophonist at the funerary rites of Kakraba, Maal Yichiir, stood out to me for his exceptional performance, and when I expressed this to some Birifors, they dismissed his performance as amateur, and explained that because of his blindness he could not become a great xylophonist. I was discouraged and questioned at many subsequent points during my fieldwork for going to such lengths to interview and record blind xylophonists.  But despite this friction, there was a clear goal in my study to work with both elder masters and the ensuing generation of talented xylophonists in the area, and Yichiir was a clear choice.

Funeral xylophonists play a critical role in the maintenance of community amongst and between the living and the dead through ritual musical performance.   Because the xylophone and xylophonists are considered to be a kind of cosmological centerpiece, this draws them into the line of fire of malicious gossip and backbiting.  This is even worse for blind xylophonists who experience greater subordination because Birifor disability is manufactured as a negative identity through social, spiritual, historical, and ontological systems. These falsely represent the experience and ability of blind persons, which effectively dehumanizes the blind body through a system that has a dangerously circular logic, at least for me.  However, just as all xylophonists use their musical performance as a medium of veiled resistance, blind xylophonists also use musical performance to critique and contest the social and spiritual conception of their bodies and ability.

As for filmmaking, I see the camera, microphone, and computer as amazing tools that we have at our disposal as ethnomusicologists.  However, there is a certain responsibility, I think, to not only use them well technically, but also strategically to expand the representation of our subject. Because the technical aspects of filmmaking can be daunting, it is easy to overlook the seemingly plain-sight questions about how you actually want to portray your subject.  In order for me to distill my own representational style, I looked both to visual anthropology, cinema studies, and films on African music.  I’m also really inspired by well-known filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Stanley Kubrick, so I favored their approach to biography and the depiction of the self.  I also see film and new media as a way of strengthening and expanding the representational telling power of the written word, which was a big part of the reason I made the online companion.  I take Meki Nzewi and Kofi Agawu’s critiques of the shortcoming of textual representations of African music seriously, and have sought to model new modes of representation.

ARMSTRONG: Is the speech surrogation you’re writing about here similar to African talking drums?

HOGAN: Yes, similar to the Yoruba dundun talking drum, for example, the Birifor, Lobi, and Dagara peoples use xylophones as speech surrogates.  The idea of speech surrogation in African contexts has generally been studied either from a formal musical or linguistic perspective, and is often narrated as one of the “hidden gems” of African musical and linguistic practice.  For me the more interesting question is what about it as communication makes it a good choice strategically for musicians?  What is so special about speech surrogation that compels musicians to go through the complex and risky process of encoding song text in melody in order to voice their perspectives and needs?  The answer to these questions is complex, but I think the overarching reasons have to do with a transformative agency afforded by both the veiling and indirection of speech surrogation itself, and the power of musical performance in ritual context as re-inscribing and perhaps re-circumscribing the self, community, and ancestors.

ARMSTRONG: Could you tell me about your perspective on film? For example, I notice that you have a lot of wide-angle shots and show the entire body of the musicians.

HOGAN: Because I am interested in representing not just a music culture, but also the people that comprise it, and because I am interested in the social, cultural, and spiritual distortion of the African disabled body, I felt that I had to do as much as I could to convey the corporeality of the musicians with whom I worked.  Likewise, the context of their rural lifestyle is very important since both cultural activity and the history of blindness in the region are so closely tied to the landscape.  To me, what makes my depiction of music and disability in rural West Africa compelling is precisely that it is embedded in the bodies, minds, places, and concerns of blind Birifor musicians.  That limits the scope of my dissertation’s telling power, since my study didn’t survey thousands of xylophonists, but that’s just the point.  I’m trying to show a thoroughly subjective perspective on larger musical, cultural, social, and historical issues.

ARMSTRONG: I liked that you put your explanation of film at the beginning of your dissertation.  How normal is that?

HOGAN: That particular organization of the dissertation is a credit to Cheryl Keyes’ [Professor of Ethnomusicology, UCLA] excellent mentoring.  She really helped me pull the essential foregrounding discussions about disability and representation to the front of the dissertation.  My particular mixture of specializations that stretch the bounds of ethnomusicological practice meant that I had to include some foundational introductions to film, disability studies, and person-centered anthropology.  I see the integrated methods I use as part of a new standard of representation in ethnomusicology that utilizes documentary and new media technologies to communicate research to a truly global audience.  I think we have a responsibility to the music and people we study to represent them by synthesizing these methods into a cohesive scholarly representation that is widely available and compatible on the Internet, makes explicit the connections between each form of representation and analysis, and does so through a mature and planned aesthetic.


ARMSTRONG: Do you look at your research as a partnership between yourself and the people that you study?

HOGAN: Absolutely.  It’s a partnership on many levels, though I’m definitely the motivating, organizing, and analyzing force behind everything.  I involved my research participants in the authorship of the study through constantly consulting them about my research goals and analysis.  I showed and discussed videos and performances I had shot and/or edited with them during and on subsequent research trips, and provided them with hard copies as well.  But these specifics, to me, were not as important as maintaining a really positive rapport with Birifor musicians, and a strong reputation in the community.

ARMSTRONG: How does your experience as a musician inform your dissertation?

HOGAN: Everything is filtered through my background as a musician.  A drumming great, George Marsh [Lecturer in Music, UCSC], once said to me that everything he does relates somehow to his drumming, aside from his personal and family relationships.  For me, my creative, technical and intellectual drives all converge in the “doing” of ethnomusicology.  My musicianship as a percussionist helped because I was able to learn to play the Birifor kogyil, as well as the accompanying kuur [hoe blade idiophone] and gangaa [double-headed drum] parts with enough proficiency to convey the seriousness and sincerity of my research to the Birifor musicians with whom I worked.  As a tool of analysis, being able to play something gives you a perspective from within, as Mantle Hood’s legacy reminds us.

ARMSTRONG: Do you have any advice for Ph.D. students in the department?

HOGAN: My advice is to plan as much as possible before each research trip to accommodate the inevitable expansion or redirection of the study, and to stay committed.  To be an effective anthropologist or ethnomusicologist in the field, you really have to be prepared logistically, and also be very well read ahead of time.  Since there are already so many great studies out there, you have to carefully choose your topic so as to add something new to the literature as a whole.  Being organized and methodical allows for the kind of improvisation and spontaneity that I thrive off of as a musician.

ARMSTRONG: There’s a moment in your short film about Kakraba Lobi where children are dancing by the camera while xylophonists are playing. That showed context, and in just a few seconds, it demonstrated that children learn the music and dance at a young age.  Can you tell me about that moment?

HOGAN: Yes, that shot is a bogyil (festival xylophone) duet, which took place at Vuur Sandaar’s compound in Donye.  Sandaar and his brother Mwan are sons of El Vuur, the great xylophonist who passed on in the end of 2002.  Sandaar and Mwan’s sons and daughters can be seen in the shot lining up and dancing to music in the characteristic Birifor style found at festivals and funerals.  The context of the transmission of musical and kinesthetic knowledge is conveyed in that clip, as it is in a lot of the examples of Mwan’s playing in my dissertation.

When filming actors, directors go to great lengths to get the best performance out of their cast.  As ethnographic filmmakers, we’re interested in a more genuine reality, but we still want our subjects to be shown at their best.  I made it clear to my research participants that this was my goal, and I explained that I would leave the camera running at certain points and edit it later.  I conveyed my honest intention to create an educational resource about their music culture and personal life experiences, and I think that did a lot to clear the way for the subject to really shine through.

ARMSTRONG: My last question is, what projects and activities are you involved in now?

HOGAN: My current research projects span the post-production of the film “Birifor: Blind Xylophonists of Ghana,” the adaptation of my dissertation into book form, ongoing recordings and interviews of contemporary jazz and rock drummers in the U.S. as part of a comparative study of drum set performance, and a forthcoming article on ableism and music.  My long-term research plans include further study of contemporary African neo-traditional and popular music, history and trends in African American music, ableism and music, ethnomusicology and the drumset, and new media in theory and practice.  I also stay busy as a web developer and a practicing drummer and percussionist.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you very much, Brian.

HOGAN: Thank you, Donna.


Comments by Dr. Cheryl L. Keyes, Brian's dissertation chair:

"Dr. Hogan's dissertation "Enemy Music: Blind Birifor Xylophonists of Northwest Ghana" was one of the most innovative ones I, as well as the rest of the committee, have had the opportunity to be a part of. First, he ventured into an area of ethnomusicologymedical ethnomusicologywhich is still somewhat a nascent sub-field to the discipline. Because of the age of technology and the many advancements made with the internet, particularly web design, Dr. Hogan's dissertation interfaced neatly with technology, making the voices of the artists he'd interview and their music more tactile. Even abstract concepts often used in scholarly writing were made more concrete in Brian's dissertation, thus contributing to its unique accessibility for all readers. Dr. Hogan’s dissertation definitely raises the bar and sets a template for others to follow in the study of music and culture."    -- Dr. Cheryl L. Keyes