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May 25 2022

Tone, Tune, and Textual Comprehensibility in Central Cameroonian Liturgical Music


Tone, Tune, and Textual Comprehensibility in Central Cameroonian Liturgical Music

Byron Dueck, The Open University
Essele Essele Kisito, Catholic University of Central Africa


Since the late 1950s, Cameroonian Catholic discourse on liturgical music has advocated correspondence between melodies and the tonal contours of the texts they set. (Most Cameroonian languages are tonal ones in which the pitch of a syllable relative to its neighbours helps determine meaning.) The Open University's project complements existing research on tone and tune in African musics (e.g., Jones 1959, Schneider 1961, Agawu 1984 and 1988, Waterman 1990, Fürniss and Guarisma 2004, Schellenberg 2009, Essele 2017) by considering a context where the relationship between the two appears to be guided by explicit ideology. Dueck and Essele Kisito begin by establishing the historical circumstances of the musical practices under consideration, then draw on Essele’s autoethnographic reflections to explore how musicians manage the relationship between tonal and melodic contour. They present the results of a study of pieces in the Eton and Ewondo languages that suggests broad similarities in how texts shape melodies and melodies shape texts—across a range of genres, sacred and secular. They close by considering the implications the insistence on tone-tune correspondence has had for musical life in central Cameroon, not only within the Catholic church but also more widely.

Byron Dueck is Professor of Music at the Open University and Chair of the Executive Committee of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology. He studies music and dance in central Cameroon and in North American Indigenous communities. He is the author of Musical Intimacies and Indigenous Imaginaries (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the co-editor, with Martin Clayton and Laura Leante, of Experience and Meaning in Musical Performance (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Essele Essele Kisito is an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist who specialises in Fang, Beti, and Bulu musics of Cameroun, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. He is Lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Management at the Catholic University of Central Africa, Yaoundé Catholic Institute (Cameroon); Research Fellow at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (France); and a member of the Diversity and Cultural Evolution team in the Eco-Anthropology Laboratory at the Musée de l’Homme (France).

Part of the Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy Colloquium Series, this event is sponsored by The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music Department of Ethnomusicology, with support from the Dean of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.