Sustaining Music Careers to Revitalize a Dying Music Tradition

I'm Josh Brew, a second-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. As an ethnomusicologist, my main research interest focuses on the relationship between music and sustainability. My recent master's thesis emphasized an under-appreciated aspect of sustainability in music studies­­–– the importance of a sustainable careers for sustaining musical traditions. But one of the critical reasons music traditions wane includes the reality of losing musicians and a lack of interest from younger generations who don't understand the value of a music career. As an "applied" ethnomusicologist (ethnomusicologist who set their research into action to benefit their research community), I pay attention to viable music career strategies. The difficulty of having a music career is a well-known situation that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and is even more challenging in the Ghanaian context. 

Hence, this summer, with funding from the Humanities Engage immersive fellowship, I have started working with the Legon Palmwine Band (LPB) and young musicians in the Legon community, Accra, Ghana, to explore music career strategies - an unmatched opportunity to put my research ideas and findings into practical use. LPB is a Ghanaian ensemble established by Dr Eric Sunu Doe in late 2014, which led to his doctoral research to revitalize Palmwine music, a dying music tradition. Palmwine music (nsadwase nnwom) is a music tradition that emerged along the coast of West Africa in the early 20th century due to the fusion of guitar traditions and indigenous musical resources. Before his intervention, the only active performer was Koo Nimo, an octogenarian. LPB is actively giving the music tradition a new life through bi-monthly performance circles dubbed "Nsadwase Nkom4", and an annual Palmwine Music Festival dubbed "Nsadwase Music Festival." These activities are reviving the music tradition and opening up an avenue for other Palmwine music bands to start. As Palmwine music is being revitalized to make it more sustainable and contemporarily viable, its practitioners need to pay attention to all the factors that affect it, including the socio-economic aspects of pursuing a career in music. Speaking with Dr Sunu Doe (and from his project), the band's primary concern has been on the creative/aesthetic part, ignoring the business aspect. This creativity-commerce dichotomy has been a significant point of tension when discussing the remuneration of artists. From my research, I understand this is a substantial reason for the challenges Ghanaian musicians face. Hence, I aim to draw the attention of the LPB to the business aspect and help them develop a plan. Specifically, new methods of getting gigs, seeking government/institutional support, and expanding and promoting social media presence.

As a Ghanaian musician deeply embedded in Accra's musical life, I already have a relationship with the LPB and will therefore be able to jump right into ethnographic work. I plan to observe and record LPB's music practices in Ghana– rehearsals, performances, and recording sessions. After getting a sense of their routine and song repertoire, I will begin interviewing and interacting with the musicians, audiences, and patrons. One of the major plans for this project is to organize a workshop for the musicians to learn about specific socio-economic aspects of being a musician in Ghana, help musicians understand the royalty system in Ghana, institutions, and bodies they can liaise with and educate themselves about musical sustainability and the music business. The workshop will be extended to the larger Legon community. LPB's activities are community-engaged, and just like the music tradition, it thrives on solidarity. I believe that music and sustainability approaches need to begin from the bottom; people who are constantly engaged with the music and those whose livelihood depends on it. This small-scale action leads to more significant and more productive avenues for music and sustainability.

My immersive fellowship with the LPB, under the leadership of Dr Sunu Doe, a senior colleague and experienced applied ethnomusicologist, provides me with a tremendous opportunity to learn and be mentored. As I spend this summer navigating the terrains of the Ghanaian music industry with him, we hope to come up with a concise manuscript of the music industry and how it operates, which will be useful for both active musicians and students. Moreover, studying the dynamics of establishing and running a band will provide me with the knowledge and experience that will be useful as I prepare for career after my doctoral studies. I am interested in working in both the music industry and academia, where I aim at managing musicians and band, whether independent or signed to a label in creating and distributing their music. Thus, the experience I gain from the immersive fellowship will put me on the right path as I put my humanistic research and experience into practice.

Josh Brew
May 2022

Learn about all the Pitch Your Own Summer Immersive Fellows and Curated Immersive Summer Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.