February 1, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 25
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Berklee ready to launch Africana Studies curriculum

Dr. William Banfield can finally take a break.

After having spent two years galvanizing the Berklee College of Music community around the development of curricula and programming that would provide students with a unified vision of black music and its impact on society, Banfield’s efforts will bear fruit this spring when the new Africana Studies/Music and Society curriculum goes into full effect.

The program, which Banfield designed, allows students to take a myriad of courses, some of which cross over into other areas within the college’s liberal arts curriculum.

To help launch this exciting endeavor, renowned scholar Cornel West and international African American female singing ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock will come together for this evening’s “Black Music Matters” concert-talk at the Berklee Performance Center. West will talk about the significance of black music, while the soul-stirring sextet will demonstrate the various aspects of the African American vocal repertoire, a first of its kind pairing that Banfield acknowledged is unprecedented for Berklee.

“I invited Dr. Cornel West and Sweet Honey to Berklee to do this because the school is at an interesting and wonderful crossroads,” said Banfield, who will serve as director of the Africana Studies/Music and Society program. “They are bringing together their music tradition with the notion of a liberal arts education. Also, ‘Black Music Matters’ is about the relevance and historical scope of black music traditions. This historical record will show the power of black music and its meaning through the talk and the performance, and from the spirit that the combination will bring.”

Currently, the school offers three three-credit liberal arts courses as the program’s foundational classes — “Africana Studies: The Sociology of Black Music in American Culture”; “Africana Studies: The Theology of American Popular Music”; and “Africana Studies: Biographies in Black (Music, Lives and Meanings).” Berklee students can take any one of the three classes and substitute it for one of their core liberal arts history and culture requirements. This marks the first time a black course has been allowed to count toward the matriculation of graduation from the college.

“In Berklee’s past, they have focused on training a musician how to play his/her instrument and how to be successful as a business performer,” said Banfield. “Now, the culture has shifted and there is a greater impact and importance [placed] on education — and the diversity of young people being able to bring different sets of tools to the table is an equal pairing of arts education and a liberal arts education.”

Through the lens of Africana Studies/Society and Culture, Berklee wants its students to look at the presence and impact of black music traditions through the African Diaspora and train them to see this as a model for how they want to use their music to transform a world in need.

African American student Rajdulari Barnes, a Berklee freshman majoring in vocal arts, took Banfield’s “Sociology of Black Music in American Popular Culture” last semester, and found it to be an eye-opening experience.

“It was incredible to be able to track the evolution of black music from America’s early years to the present,” said Barnes. “Observing how and why black music acted as a tool to help shape the social mindset around slavery, war and politics was extremely inspiring. It is easier for me to be hopeful about the state of our world now and the uncertainty of my generations’ future after attending a class like that.”

Composer/songwriter and Sweet Honey in the Rock vocalist Ysaye Barnwell spoke positively about the college’s initiative.

“It is my understanding that until now, students have learned quite a bit about how to perform black music or have studied black music forms, quite expertly but they have not been immersed in the culture of African and African American people,” said Barnwell. “I think that it is through Bill Banfield’s vision, heading up this new department, that students will now gain some deep understanding of the culture that has produced the music of African and African Americans.”

It is that understanding, Barnwell says, that is sorely lacking in contemporary society.

“Most people don’t even understand that music and art are, at their most basic, functional for documenting who we are at any given point in time, describing our lives, and how we are living our lives — for transmitting knowledge and skill and values from generation to generation,” Barnwell said.

“It is a survival tool in helping us to encourage and inspire each other. It provides information that may be forbidden to speak, as in during slavery when many of the songs actually served as road maps for how we would move on the Underground Railroad, or would describe a period or a person who might be coming to assist in the movement of people from slavery into freedom,” he said.

While this is the first time in Berklee’s 60-year history that the college has focused on the relevance of black music traditions, Banfield said he was sure that the founders were aware of their importance — but that throughout the course of Berklee’s growth as an institution, they simply did not get enough attention.

“So now, the institution is being very smart to recognize that the foundation of culture is what the foundation of music is. Music is not a theory, it is not a scale — it is the way people live and breathe in the world,” Banfield said.

“And if you’re going to talk about music, if you’re going to train people how to be musicians, you have to train them first, and equally, about being musical citizens who understand the role of culture and history, the role it plays as part of the development of that music.”

Banfield’s wish list for the next five to 10 years includes an evolving curriculum that reflects more of a balance of the scholarship side to liberal arts and in the history and culture of the music. He also hopes this initiative will eventually include a minor, a major, a department and perhaps even a division of black music studies.

“Can you imagine a popular musical world with Berklee graduates, like a John Mayer, who would know both the skills set of his instruments and the singing, and would also know the history of blues and jazz?” Banfield inquired.

“Can you imagine a rapper who would know how to write music, produce music and would know the history of a griot [a West African poet and musician], so that a rapper wouldn’t be grabbing his crotch and putting gold in his teeth, and acting like a clown? Can you imagine what rap music would be if Berklee graduates began to be rappers?”

“It would transform the entire music industry.”

Banfield also directs the college’s black music programming, which facilitates a calendar of programming that brings in artists and lecturers to talk about the relevance of black culture and music not only for Black History Month, but throughout the calendar year.

“We would also like to go into the greater Boston community and do more lectures so that people can see Berklee in their neighborhood, as opposed to seeing us as this highbrow music institution located in downtown Boston,” said Banfield,

“This is that natural linkage that Berklee wants to continue to have with the community.” he added.

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