Winning PhD highlights African indigenous knowledge systems

19 February 2021 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Supplied. Voice Neliswa Sosibo. Read time 9 min.
Winning PhD thesis author Dr Cecilia Durojaye (back right) with the Ifesowapo Dùndún ensemble in Igbo-Ora, Nigeria, photographed as part of her field data (with the participants’ permission).
Winning PhD thesis author Dr Cecilia Durojaye (back right) with the Ifesowapo Dùndún ensemble in Igbo-Ora, Nigeria, photographed as part of her field data (with the participants’ permission).

University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD graduate Dr Cecilia Durojaye’s doctoral thesis has won the African Studies Review 2020 annual prize for the best Africa-based doctoral dissertation. Dr Durojaye’s study examines the ways music is processed across different cultures and individuals, specifically the Yorùbá dùndún drum ensembles in Nigeria. Her supervisor, Associate Professor Anri Herbst, said that the study highlighted the value of interdisciplinary research on the continent. Durojaye spoke with UCT News.

Helen Swingler (HS): When did you graduate and what is the title of your winning doctoral thesis?

Cecilia Durojaye (CD): I graduated in April 2019 through the South African College of Music (SACM). The thesis title is “Evoked emotional responses in the performances of selected Yorùbá dùndún ensembles”.

HS: It’s a fascinating thesis title. Please briefly describe what you set out to achieve?

CD: Thank you. At first, when my supervisor and I discussed the title, the main aim was to understand music processing as it varies across cultures and individuals. But eventually it was about emphasising the African indigenous knowledge systems and exploring how music affects our actions, behaviours, emotions and thoughts – and how such knowledge may be applicable in music healing, therapy, brain functioning, communication disorder treatment and so on. Music performance is just one aspect of how people engage with music. The dùndún ‘talking drum’, as one of Nigeria’s primary art forms, naturally lends itself as a suitable candidate and a cultural representative for getting a broader sense of these issues surrounding knowledge systems and the power of music.

HS: The dùndún drum apparently often serves as a speech surrogate, as the ‘talking drum’ description suggests. In what kinds of circumstances or occasions?

CD: Yes, the dùndún is the name given to a group of drums of different shapes and sizes, and as speech surrogates, each of these drums can be used in many situations. Although, when performed as an ensemble, only the one named mother drum (ìyá ìlù) does the talking; this speech surrogacy functions in the dissemination of Yorùbá oral history, recitation of various forms of Yorùbá poetry, saying proverbs and even informing a king about the arrival of guests. The drum texts can also be philosophical, humorous or they can be a form of advice, prayer or vilification. Therefore, whether it is a sacred or secular setting, naming ceremony or cultural festivals, the dùndún is used as a speech surrogate in these various settings.

HS: Is the drum played in tandem with the recitations or songs, as an accompaniment or accent?

CD: No, the drum recites the poetry as it would be done vocally. When the drum serves as an accompaniment to song or other vocal forms, it plays pure rhythmic patterns, thus staying in the musical realm. Basically, the dùndún has a foot in both speech (language) and music camps.

HS: What brought you all the way from Lagos in Nigeria to UCT for your PhD?

CD: A friend influenced my decision to study in South Africa. But I decided on UCT for various reasons, including the institution’s academic quality, the quality of the lecturers at the SACM, the profile of my supervisor … and my conviction that I would learn a great deal from her.

HS: I imagine your research involved some interesting fieldwork? How did you go about your research and where did this take you?

CD: Yes, you’re right. To better understand the problems the study set out to solve required an immersion into the communities of interest. Many thanks to the National Research Foundation (NRF) and other funding support from UCT and the SACM, which helped finance my research. I carried out eight months of fieldwork, which led me to six towns in Nigeria. I must add that it was my first time in these locations, so it was indeed fascinating to experience things in a different way to my personal background and to learn and relearn in the various settings.


“I’m also interested in research that will positively impact the community of interest rather than merely filling a literature gap.”

HS: What led you to this PhD topic?

CD: It started with my fascination with people’s experiences of music and other art forms – how these are communally, individually and culturally shaped and how they define us as humans. I’m also interested in research that will positively impact the community of interest rather than merely filling a literature gap. Luckily, this all came together and became my research core through the support of my supervisor … when she informed me of the NRF-funded research project in music cognition. So, choosing this topic represents one of those unique moments when interest and availability of resources function perfectly.

HS: What were the main challenges of conducting an interdisciplinary project, involving both music psychology and ethnomusicology?

CD: Conducting an interdisciplinary project requires time, during which one must engage with and understand the different disciplines: their worldviews and approach to research, the main problems being addressed, their theoretical stance and so forth. It is essential to ask various questions. For example, what is crucial to the music psychology field? What is the concern of ethnomusicology? How do I see my topic in these constellations? How would my research benefit the different disciplines? What are the areas of convergence or divergence in arguments? What are the gaps in these fields? How do I convince both sides that they are closer than imagined, hence justifying why they could be combined in the first place? How do I incorporate this information into practice? How do I cross the methodological and conceptual hurdles? How do I bring the methodological approach of both disciplines together? How do I present the report such that it reflects the canons of both sides while also maintaining my style and freedom but not betraying the communities my study represents? And how do I convince each of the disciplines that the research is of high quality?

Thinking about these things and answering some of these questions, I think, is a step towards justifying the importance of one’s research and successfully integrating various disciplines.

HS: You now have a research position at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics. What does this involve?

CD: I have just completed an 18-month postdoc there. During my stay, I started two new research projects that expanded my PhD research findings. The projects also involved using new methods, a mix of western and non-western participants, and the addition of language and speech science to the music aspect. The projects are ongoing, with my research teams comprising members from the institute in Frankfurt and the Arizona State University in United States.

HS: How are you enjoying life in Germany?

CD: Very much! First, it is great to finally be with my husband after being separated by thousands of miles. Also, working with fantastic team members and conducting exciting research is very inspiring. Besides, I enjoy meeting people from all over the world, and the challenge of learning the German language.


“Winning the prize made me proud that I made my family, my nation and my supervisor proud.”

HS: What does winning this prize mean to you?

CD: First, winning the prize made me proud that I made my family, my nation and my supervisor proud. It also makes me happy to see the quality of studies stemming from the continent and that these are beginning to have more appreciation worldwide. Besides, this award gives a strong indication that we are becoming more open to embracing interdisciplinary studies.

HS: Any other comments you’d like to add?

CD: Again, I want to thank my supervisor, the SACM and UCT for the support during my PhD studies. I am also grateful to the African Studies Review for recognising my work. More importantly, I would like to encourage young scholars to follow their interests and never give up on their quest for knowledge and achieving their goals. I hope I can inspire the next generation of students to ask questions always and seek answers that will help promote the richness of the African continent.

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