Heather Maxwell Teaches and Informs with Her Music

By Jeanne Nicholson

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Maxwell Sings

Not too many U.Va. professors are likely to turn a Monday afternoon lecture into a dance party in order to get their point across, but then ethnomusicologist Heather Maxwell knows from experience that music makes for a powerful teaching tool.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali educating rural villagers about the hazards of deforestation and infant disease, she used years of classical voice training to compose songs with a message. While some volunteers spent free time drinking tea and talking with local residents, she found herself learning to sing and playing their music -- both contemporary and traditional African sounds. Incorporating Afro-pop rhythms and playing time-honored instruments like the balafòn (a wooden zylophone) and a stringed gourd outfitted with modern tuning pegs, Maxwell composed a song about the importance of polio and tetanus vaccines; another piece urged African mothers to use oral rehydration mixes when children have diarrhea. The villagers responded enthusiastically to an American who sang in their language, and Maxwell has gone on to record several hit albums with other African musicians, making a name for herself in Malian music culture.

"Talking through song," she says, may not be an especially new concept in places where much of the population cannot read, but Maxwell notes that musicians can share progressive ideas that might otherwise not be politically popular. "You can say a lot in music that can slide by because it's a song."

She shared her experiences and her talents in Charlottesville during an October performance lecture that was part of the 2005-06 Environment, Conservation, and Culture Series sponsored by the University's Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies. The series is meant to examine the unique relationships between the environment and human activities, according to the vice president, Dr. R. Ariel Gomez. One of Maxwell's original pieces, "Gwa Kuru" or "The New Stove," encourages Malian wives to build wood stoves rather than open fires for cooking as a means of conserving precious firewood. Presented in rollicking dance rhythms with hip-and-shoulder shimmying moves by the trio of dancers in Maxwell's Africa Soul Ensemble, the piece was hardly hum-drum environmental fare. Wearing colorful bogolan, or mudcloth, wrapped as mini-skirts over tight blue jeans, the women even presented a visual combo of modern and traditional ways.

As a visiting lecturer in the University's Music Department, Maxwell taught four semesters of students "hot" new forms of African jazz, classical mbqanga tunes like "Pata Pata," and the basics of Afro-Pop. She shared the stage during her October performance lecture in the Satellite Ballroom on the U.Va. Corner with U.Va. music professor and jazz drummer Robert Jospé, Richmond keyboardist Charlie Kilpatrick, Charlottesville drummer Darrell Rose, dancer and singer Marthe Talita Bolda, and several U.Va. students, including Seth Green on bass, and vocalist/dancers Nana Flor Guerengomba and Malaika Schiller.

Maxwell, a native of Flint, Mich., studied opera during high school and as an undergraduate before switching majors to music and anthropology and pursuing her lifelong affection for African music. Her subsequent Peace Corps experiences, performing arts studies in Ghana, field research as a Fulbright-Hayes scholar and eventually a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and African studies from Indiana University have only added to that love: "I grew up singing in church, so I was always singing some kind of message. I like to perform and to know that my music is bringing people together in some way."