Documenting Jazz Beyond America’s Borders

My name is Samuel Boateng. I am a Ghanaian pianist, composer, and fifth-year PhD candidate in the Jazz Studies program within the Department of Music at the University of Pittsburgh. Additionally, I am in the process of obtaining the African Studies doctoral certificate. After completing my comprehensive exams and successfully defending my prospectus, I was honored to be awarded an inaugural Humanities Engage Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship (for AY 2020-21) in order to conduct fieldwork and work towards completing my dissertation. Drawing on both ethnographic and historical methods, my dissertation project is a multi-disciplinary and multi-sited work that focuses on three geographic locations – Ghana, the United States, and Britain – in order to assess the impact of Ghanaian musicians on the development, performance, and meanings of jazz beyond America’s borders. In this way, my project offers a critical outlook on the often neglected and marginalized voices within mainstream jazz scholarship by centering the stories, music, and lives of African musicians.    

A central part of my research since 2018 has been collaborating closely with several institutions in Ghana, including the J.H. Kwabena Nketia Archives at the Institute of African Studies (IAS, University of Ghana), Alliance Francaise-Accra, the +233 Jazz Bar and Grill, and the Anyaa Arts Center and Library in Accra. This work is intentionally designed to be community facing, geared toward broader goals to encourage public access to local jazz scenes and to bring support to local jazz musicians and their collaborators. Over that time, I have been working with IAS’s Director Prof. Dzodzi Tsikata, its Head Archivist Judith Opoku-Boateng, and a handful of technical specialists from IAS to curate the Adepa Jazz Collection (AJC). The collection is a steadily growing archive of scores, interviews, performances, panel discussions, and various audiovisual materials about contemporary Ghanaian jazz culture, and it significantly expands IAS’s repository on African jazz, which had been minimal before this work began. Considering my research interest and my previous collaborations with these organizations, I applied for the Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship as a way to continue the AJC project, to support my stay and research in Ghana, and to produce a short (fifteen to twenty minute) documentary about ‘Jazz in Ghana’ that would accompany, or be integrated in, my dissertation. 

The unexpected global impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the series of safety measures that came with it, including shelter in place mandates, international travel bans, and border closures, has certainly made it challenging to undertake this project as it was initially envisioned. While these measures affected my travel plans for 2020, they have not impacted the central purpose of the fellowship. I have adjusted my research practices in the face of the pandemic, such that in place of in-person communication with my Ghanaian interlocutors and other collaborators, I have relied on Zoom meetings, WhatsApp, and phone calls to move the project along smoothly. Additionally, I continue to work remotely with the Institute of African Studies to update the AJC documents by annotating and organizing materials, recording and transcribing interviews with Ghanaian musicians and jazz fans, and cataloguing press releases and literature about African jazz. Further, I am working closely with Pittsburgh filmmaker and scholar Jose Muniain to complete the documentary aspect of my project and to make it available to the public by the end of May 2021. Copies of the documentary will be placed in the Finney Music Library here at University of Pittsburgh and at the J.H. Kwabena Nketia Archives, Institute of African Studies.

Therefore, the pandemic notwithstanding, I remain in regular contact with my collaborators in Ghana’s jazz community. My ongoing dissertation research has continued to progress steadily through remote interviews that have strengthened my ties with former informants while leading to new connections with other collaborators in and outside of Ghana. My research has also attracted positive attention at several professional conferences. At the 2020 Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) annual conference, for instance, my paper about jazz and decolonization in African music research was recognized as “the most distinguished student paper delivered on the topic of African and African diasporic music,” and it received the 2020 African Libraries Student Paper Prize by the African Music Section of SEM.

To conclude, I am deeply grateful to have been selected as one of the inaugural winners of the Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship from Humanities Engage. It has afforded me the opportunity to contribute to the growing body of work on African jazz, it has opened up new possibilities for conducting remote ethnography, and it has provided crucial support for the documenting and archiving of Ghanaian jazz cultures and practices.

Samuel Boateng
Department of Music
January 2021

Learn about all the Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowships.