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America

Published on October 22nd, 2013 | by Mariam Baldeh - The Ubyssey

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A conversation about race and music with Gage Averill

College dropout and proud father Gage Averill — when he’s not busy as dean of the Arts faculty at UBC — is a world-renowned ethnomusicologist. To find out exactly what that means, and how music comes into play in race relations, The Ubyssey sat down for a conversation with Averill last week.

The Ubyssey: First off, what exactly is an ethnomusicologist?

Gage Averill: The easiest description is an anthropologist of music. Ethnomusicologists have anthropological training, but many come out of musicology. Ethnomusicologists have an understanding of the music structure and music sound, so it’s someone who bridges that.

U: And your forte is Haitian music?

GA: Yes, my initial research was in Haiti, and I still work in and out of Haiti. I’ve also worked in North America on kora music, or barbershop music — African-American music that became nostalgic sounds.

U: So what got you started in ethnomusicology?

GA: I was a college dropout playing music and doing community organizing, and I was playing Irish music in an Irish band. I was running festivals, doing world music radio programmes, and I was a tractor driver for a while until I hurt my back. At that point, I decided to try to go back to school and there was this category, ethnomusicology, as an undergraduate general studies major. It was as though all the things I was interested in, you could just roll them up and label it — so it piqued my interest.

U: And in addition to studying music, you play a lot of cool instruments, like the Trinidadian steel pan. What exactly is that?

GA: [Laughing] You take a 55-gallon oil drum — imagine that — and cut off a little bit of the rim, and you pound down the surface so it’s concave. Then you pound up and down so that it forms notes, and you tune it, and then make whole orchestras of up to 150 people. It’s the world’s most sophisticated 20th century orchestra. It’s the first major orchestral instrument developed in the 20th century in Trinidad during and after World War II.

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