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  • Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures
  • Amanda Villepastour
Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures. By Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje. Bloomington: Indian University Press, 2008. [ix, 337 p. ISBN 9780253349248 (hardcover), $65; ISBN 9780253219299 (paperback), $25.95.] Illustrations, discography, bibliography, music transcriptions, index. [End Page 284]

Fiddling in West Africa is a multi-sited ethnography comparing fiddling in three major West African regions and culture clusters: Senegambia (home to the Fulbe), northern Nigeria (home to the Hausa), and northern Ghana (home to the Dagbamba). Beyond examining fiddling in “discrete units,” DjeDje presents these and other West African fiddling traditions “as a whole with interconnected parts” (p. 8). Her cross-cultural study examines four recurring issues in a parallel structure: place, ethnicity, religion, and status. This impressive book is both ambitious in its scope and meticulously detailed.

Standing apart from an escalating number of tenure-track-requirement books, which frequently list three to four years of field research, if that, DjeDje’s primary resource for the book is inter-regional fieldwork over a thirty-year period. She lists other sources such as field and commercial recordings; writings by Arabs and Africans; writings by European colonial officers, explorers, and early travelers; photographs and newspaper advertisements; linguistic sources; and “materials gathered by researchers in ethnomusicology, music, folklore, anthropology, history and other disciplines” (p. 7).

The text is aided by helpful visual materials, including photographs, maps, drawings, diagrams and twenty-six musical transcriptions. Her study also reaches well beyond the Fulbe, Hausa and Dagbamba with the inclusion of a comprehensive dis - cography and videography of one-stringed fiddle traditions across West Africa, organized into four regions (Central Sudan, Eastern Forest Region of West Africa, Voltaic, Western Sudan) and a total of twenty-three ethnic groups. There is also an impressive appendix, which collates the distribution, and indigenous terms of one-stringed fiddles across West Africa indexed by country, people, language sub-family, location on map, and the indigenous term for fiddle. Furthermore, although the book is focused on one-string fiddles, in the main text DjeDje also lists other important instruments for each of the three ethnic groups in the title.

The book is organized into four chapters. Chapter 1, “Fiddling in West Africa: Understanding the Culture Area,” outlines a history of Sudanic West Africa and presents the historical and linguistic complexities of this very large geographical region. DjeDje hints at the controversy of onestring fiddle origin very early in the text in a section, “Arabization and Islamization” (p. 14), that describes the trade routes across the Sahara from North Africa and processes of religious conversion to Islam. This cultural history segues into the distribution patterns, instrument structure, playing techniques, performance contexts, and cultural significance of West African one-string fiddles.

Chapters 2–4 are dedicated to the Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba respectively and have loosely parallel structures. Each of these starts with an anecdotal section describing DjeDje’s field experiences, creating atmosphere and drawing the reader into some of the particularities of each local culture. The following introductory sections include histories of the ethnic group and the region; issues of ethnicity, identity, and religion; and general music making of the ethnic group. The section on the local one-string fiddle tradition draws on oral history garnered from fieldwork and secondary sources. DjeDje focuses on the history of the fiddle tradition, its musical transmission, the social status of fiddlers, ensemble organization, dance, and song styles and forms.

In each of these chapters, the final section, “Music and Identity,” presents ethnographies of three fiddlers from each of the three ethnic groups with which she worked in the field. In these sections, DjeDje presents musical transcriptions and systematically analyzes accompanying songs and texts across the three traditions. One of the most interesting elements in her parallel, comparative approach is that she invited her research participants to make emic comparisons between their own musical traditions and those of neighboring ethnic groups, which often use frameworks quite different from her own comparisons. It is particularly interesting when her research [End Page 285] participants speak about the origins of the one-string fiddle. For example...