At a film institute in New York City where I intern, one of my colleagues told me about a documentary produced by Greenbox Films. She was kind enough to lend me her copy and I am so happy to have seen the film myself. After watching this documentary, “The Music Lesson,” I was thrilled to know that the world of music history and musicology can now refer to a fresh and new ethnographic film about a musical exchange in Africa.
“The Music Lesson,” is about a few young performers from the Boston Symphony, two Kenyan musicians and a group of students from a rural village in Laipikia, Kenya that come together to teach one another about their musical practices. Both the Bostonian and the Laipikian students learn two very important lessons in performance: how to develop musical ownership with a foreign musical tradition.
Coming from two different worlds, the Bostonian music students have played music in the world that most westerners are familiar with: one where the ear for the diatonic scale and the comprehension of musical notation are the norm. Meanwhile, on the African content, music students have finely attuned motor abilities- the physiological feelings for rhythm, the ear to bend notes to quarter tones, and auditory and physical memory.
During their first meeting, both groups struggle in learning methodologies foreign to them. The Bostonian group struggles with following rhythmic patterns without visual aids, while the Laipikian students have to adapt to hearing a diatonic musical scale as opposed to their quarter tone scale. Both groups share a parallel journey where they become enveloped in a new style of musical performance. The completion of their journey is symbolized by the gathering of both groups of students, the two professional Laipikian musicians and the church’s women’s choir for an unforgettable concert.
For the finale of this concert, the two Kenyan musicians and the Bostonian string players perform an original song. At this point, the two different musical worlds unite and create music that celebrates and validates the growth of these students’ musical experience.
While there are documentaries and ethnographic films that enumerate on the differences and similarities between musical practices in Africa and the western world; this documentary is predominantly told from the perspective of students.
We as viewers expect to learn about ethnic music from a musicologist or music history expert. On the other hand; to learn from a student who is also experiencing the learning process, makes the viewer feel less inhibited. For all of us viewers, whether admirers or performers of music, this is a lesson that most of us won’t soon forget.