Seeing with Music

The Lives of Three Blind African Musicians

Simon Ottenberg

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  • Published: 1996
  • Subject Listing: Anthropology; Performing Arts
  • Bibliographic information: 232 pp., 29 photos
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: Samuel and Althea Stroum Books
  • Contents

In the course of his ongoing study of the aesthetic world of the Limba of Sierra Leone, anthropologist Simon Ottenberg met three men from Wara Wara Bafodea chiefdom who played an instrument called the kututeng, known elsewhere in Africa as the mbira and sometimes in the West as the thumb piano. Each of the three was blind, poor, unmarried, and childless in a society where children bring status and where musicianship is not a standard role for the blind. Each man's life experiences had influenced the way he performed Kututeng, a traditional but changing form of music.

In this book, Ottenberg approaches Limba Kututeng music through the lives of these three musicians-Sayo Kamara, Muctaru Mansaray, and Marehu Mansaray. He looks at their different styles of performance, the social settings in which they play, the meanings of their song texts, and the relationships between their musical form and other Limba arts.

Ottenberg filters his analysis through the concepts of personhood and agency: he is concerned with the actions and experiences of individuals within a larger cultural structure, with the way people act to maintain or re-create their culture and society as they go about their everyday business. By examining the lives and music of these three men, he is able to show how each one has been an agent for either innovation or stability in Kututeng music in this Limba chiefdom.

Throughout the book, Ottenberg attempts to let the musicians' voices and personalities be heard and seen. He believes that looking at music and performance through their eyes, rather than solely through the anthropologist's organized categories, offers a useful alternative way of understanding how music is practiced, responded to, and changed by individuals. At the same time, Ottenberg makes readers aware of his own agency-the effects his presence, personality, and life experiences had on his fieldwork.

Kututeng music is not an ancient tradition in Limba country, or in Sierra Leone in general, but dates to the early twentieth century. In recent years it has begun to change in response to the popularity of other musical forms in Sierra Leone. Ottenberg shows effectively how these three men have helped reformulate the nature of Kututeng in the chiefdom capital town, giving it a new vitality that is consistent with the aesthetic values of the Limba world.
Simon Ottenberg is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Washington. He is the author of Boyhood Rituals in an African Society and numerous other books and articles on African art, religion, and social structure.