Immersing in Remote Ethnomusicology

My name is Mathew Tembo, a fifth-year graduate student pursuing a PhD in Ethnomusicology in the Music Department at the University of Pittsburgh. I will be defending my prospectus in October 2020, after which the next step in my career will be to conduct fieldwork research for my dissertation, on which the completion of my PhD studies is dependent. My proposed fieldwork will examine the impact of modernity’s notions of secularization and democratic politics and their policies on women’s participation in Zambia’s popular music scene. My ethnographic fieldwork will be based mostly in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, but also in the Copperbelt region in the northern part of the country where most musicians reside. During my fieldwork, I will collaborate with the University of Zambia (UNZA), National Arts Council (NAC), and Zambia Copyright Society (ZAMCOPS). I have also established a network of interlocutors, including singers Jane Banda, Mau Mwale, Teresa N’gambi, Mutinta Mwanza and Katisha Sakala.

Between June and August 2020, I worked remotely as an apprentice in collaboration with Tabitha Lilungwe and O’Neil Mbofwana (both content creators) at Bloggers of Zambia, a civic organization that explores the use of virtual platforms as alternative spaces in which Zambia’s citizenry can participate in the democratic process in Zambia. Facilitated by the University of Pittsburgh’s Humanities Engage Summer Immersive Fellowship, I was accorded an opportunity to conduct remote ethnography. As an apprentice at Bloggers of Zambia, I learned useful skills for navigating virtual research using platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, live streaming, and blogging. I interviewed my interlocutors on the phone and live-streamed their studio sessions. I had weekly meetings with Lilungwe and Mbofwana at which we collaboratively discussed what was to be covered, who I was going to interview, and how. My collaborators also provided whatever technological needs I needed each week.

As a doctoral student in Ethnomusicology, my research has in the past involved in-person participant-observation, in-person interviews, and taking notes during interviews. This has been done in order to ensure the preservation of some important research material for purposes of future reference. The equipment I have used in conducting my research has included a Canon 5D Mark III camera and a Zoom microphone. Scholarship has always encouraged use of good quality equipment to ensure that the data gathered is of the best quality possible. However, my collaboration with staff at Bloggers of Zambia brought to light the fact that research can also be conducted using more affordable, easily accessible, and user-friendly equipment such as smart phones and the applications on them. In academia, my colleagues and faculty have always encouraged me to publish my work in scholarly journals. Publishing on social media has often been discouraged. During my immersive, I was encouraged to publish my blogs on Facebook and other social media platforms and to engage actively with readers. I was advised to use less theory and avoid jargon in my blogs so I could connect with non-scholars too.

During my time as an apprentice with Bloggers of Zambia, I observed studio recording sessions by Jane Banda aka Adasa. My immersive project was a success in many ways. However, I encountered some challenges. Firstly, limited access to the internet at Omega Studio where I observed Adasa’s recording sessions made it difficult to remotely observe her sessions. I tried to overcome this challenge by buying phone data for Adasa to use for livestreaming during some of her studio sessions. Even then, the internet was usually slow.

My prior academic experience came in handy during my apprenticeship with Bloggers of Zambia. The one skill that I applied directly during my remote ethnography project was transcribing recordings of the interviews I conducted. Also, I appreciated being guided by my collaborators on how to engage with readers using blogs. I also learned how to livestream recording sessions using the Stream yard application and make recordings of interviews I conducted via WhatsApp and Facebook. I expect the experience I had during the immersive to greatly impact my career. First, the data I collected will be the main component of my doctoral dissertation and journal articles that I look forward to publishing. Most importantly, I learned skills that I will be able to employ when I return to Zambia for my field work. Through the collaboration with the staff at Bloggers of Zambia, I learned a lot about using phone technology for the purpose of conducting ethnomusicological research, and I have come to realize that scholarship does not have to be confined to in-person experiences alone. I would also like to encourage my fellow students to consider participating in an immersive project. One of the benefits of an immersive is that it could facilitate a deeper engagement with one’s scholarly work as well as greatly enhance one’s professional career.

Please find some of my blog posts here.

Mathew Tembo
October 14, 2020

Learn about all the Summer 2020 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.