Black Man wearing romper smiles and holds large boom box on his shoulder

Ethnomusicologist connects African Music to present-day music of all genres. (Even to Kendrick Lamar!)

Did you know? It’s Black Music Month, or as we also now call it, African-American Music Month. 

We had the pleasure of having ethnomusicologist, Dr. Portia K. Maultsby, or as our CEO, Gina Paige describes her: The Queen Mother of Ethnomusicology on our African Ancestry LIVE show last Wednesday. 

Before we get started, let’s back up and explain what an ethnomusicologist is: 

 ethnomusicology definition as according to Oxford Dictionary using Google Search



To get a little deeper: “Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its social and cultural contexts. Ethnomusicologists examine music as a social process in order to understand not only what music is but what it means to its practitioners and audiences. 

All ethnomusicologists share a coherent foundation in the following approaches and methods: 
1) Employing a global perspective on music (encompassing all geographic areas and types of music). 
2) Understanding music as social practice (viewing music as a human activity that is interrelated with its social and cultural contexts). 
3) Engaging in ethnographic fieldwork (observing and participating in music-making and related activities) and in historical research. 
Ethnomusicologists work in a variety of spheres. As researchers, they study music from any part of the world and investigate its connections to diverse elements of social life and culture. As educators, they teach courses in musics of the world, popular music, the cultural study of music, and a range of more specialized classes (e.g., sacred music traditions, music and politics, theory and methods).” 

- Clip borrowed from 


Now that we’ve covered exactly what it means to be an ethnomusicologist and the importance of the work, let us introduce the Dr. Portia K. Maultsby. 


To start the interview, Gina asked Dr. Maultsby to respond with the first words that came to mind:

History? Legacy, Black people 
Identity? Culture 
DNA? Beginnings 
Black Music? The bomb 


We love that answer. Black music is indeed the bomb. 💣

During the LIVE, Dr. Maultsby shared a variety of music clips from a plethora of genres and explained how the music has derived from African culture through and through. Since this special live was filled with lots of audio and video clips to explain the musical richness, we’re going to pull out only a view big questions Dr. Maultsby answered. 


How does Dr. Maultsby define her work at an ethnomusicologist? 

“Well after musicology is best defined as the study of music as culture. So in other words, we're able to use music to look at having the same practices and values of people to dive into issues of race that in a non-threatening way, in a sense, and what really this thing was just us, is our approach to the study of music. We started world music. Now we can start the classical music world music, but the difference is how we approach it. And we approach it. Like I say, as, as, as an anthropologist, we study people and we look at how music reflects everything about those people. And I'm going to illustrate that today. 

And so, I'd asked this, my field is a combination of cultural and anthropology in that we go into the field, into the, the communities of people and we studied the music within those. In that context, we also analyze the music using tools of musicology to talk about the technicalities of music, but from an ethical optical framework, we're able to look at it within the broader culture. And my, you mentioned my history. I seem like I have a history background. I actually do. I have a PhD minor in African-American history and African history. And in fact, much of my way of thinking about and writing about music has greatly been influenced by my, he was Nigerian at the university of Wisconsin. He was my teacher of African-American history, and I just loved the way he approached the topic. I give a lot of credit to him, his influence in the way I write about and think about music today.” 

As a musician yourself, how do you write and think about music today? 

Ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby on African Ancestry LIVE

“It's always within the context of the environment that gave rise to the music. So, if I'm going to write about soul music – when I write about soul music, I am looking at the 1960s or the effects coming out of the fifties, sixties into the seventies, the social conditions, economic conditions, and the cultural identity formations of cultural identities during those eras and how that carries over into the music, or is reflected in the music. So, it's always situated in some historical social, cultural context, my writings about music.” 


What does Dr. Maultsby think of Black Music Month?

“I think it's a time to stop and reflect - look at what we have contributed not only to the American society, but to the world that our music, every generation has been lifted up has been appropriated, has made billions of dollars for the record companies and the fashion houses and like, cause music, sales products, music, sales, music, but it also sales products think about commercials on radio TV today. Most of those commercials are accompanied by black music. I think the black music month allows us to reflect on our contributions to this country and in the world, even though oftentimes we are devalued, but you cannot devalue our music. It's present. Whether we lack it in that, although we are using it to make money. We love it on that level, but we are separate the music from the people. That's what society does. We'll take the music, the leave you somewhere else.”

What are some of the key African influences that people might recognize on African music or the African diaspora?

CEO and co-founder, Gina Paige talks with ethnomusicologist, Dr. Portia K. Maultsby

The best way to connect African-American music to Africans and the African Diaspora is to think in terms of the way the music is created, the way it's performed and the way we experienced music. So let me explain that. First of all, African music, which is carries over throughout the African Diaspora, us included, is created within a communal context. We are, we don't create as individuals. I mean, we do. So, when we do so we are still within this community context. An example would be: because the music is communal, and this is how we can connect now practices with characteristics of music. But think about it. If everybody's going to participate, or lots of people would participate in the music making activity, then the form of the music has to be such that it accommodates community. What we hearing in African-American music a lot when people are singing is call-and-response phrases that allows everyone to participate.  

These are cultural values that have been maintained over the centuries, passed down to each other to the point that we don't really think about is, ‘is it really African?’ 

Dr. Portia K. Maultsby's Evolution of African American Music

We just do it because we've always learned to do it that way. The same thing with cooking, we learned how to cook certain foods passed down over generations. We don't really think about the origin, but we do it and it's from that our heritage.  

Another example would be the musical creativity that allows for individual creativity back then enables individuals to bring forth whatever their talent may be. We hear screams and hollers, or other sounds used to freely express oneself. The creative process involves movement and dance. Dance and music are considered to be the same. They're not separate. In terms of a place in Africa, they are, when you say music, you're automatically thinking about dance and movement.  

Another characteristic is the from the community, is that it allows for rather than necessarily cause singing in harmony. 

That's the Western concept in Africa. We look at it as they're singing in heterophony, not harmony. It’s not quite harmony but something in between. Think about when we were kids and we were singing happy birthday, and our voices had not fully developed. We have our variation on the melody is not quite harmony, but it's something in between. And bass had a rasp in it that that means that individuals are able to interject and sing along, however they choose. Then we have, again, this community communal approach to music, making the dance itself, and that lends itself, but the fine's characteristics that are unique to that music.   

What makes Black music so funky and danceable? 

Black person smiles and dances in outdoor festival setting

“The multiple patterns that are organized around that baseline makes it your sister. Pay nothing, nothing. It's not one unit that’s prodding along, but each instrument has a specific pattern that's repeated over and over. And they line up in very different ways, which what leads to, as in Western terms, we use the term syncopated, but it's done that way all the time. So there's really not segregated.  

That's just the way it is. 

That means there's a deviation from the norm, but this is the norm. This is our norm. And that's what makes the music funky. That's why Gogo is funky. The drums, percussive instruments, playing different patterns. Each of them, and those patterns are not lining up, you know, in neat 1, 2, 3, 4 formats.  

And that's what makes our music disconnected.  

But that's a good example of how we conceptually still create music from an Africa frame of reference. We've just made functional substitutes. So rather than have a bell pattern, we have the baseline. 

What they have to do to get those sounds to get the instrument to play or to play the instrument is to manipulate the armature. And that's how they're getting those sounds in manipulating the arbitrary closing opening. And a lot of those instruments have only one or two, three holes maybe. And again, how do you create all these sounds manipulating the armature now to create those sounds, and then us on Western instruments, the musicians did the same thing.  

In that sense, we say they make the instruments talk. And what have we done in contemporary times, that aesthetic is still the desired. This is why a lot of musicians love using synthesizers because they can get all of those sounds.”  

Sharing music is important in the Black community 

Black man wearing pink and blue romper smiling and holding a large radio (Boom Box)

Well, way to think about all of this is that African music is functional. It's integral to every aspect of life, which is also true for African-American music. They're integral to every aspect of life. From birth to death and everything in between all kinds of celebrations involve music, even when we're cleaning our house, when we're doing things around the house, we are playing, we have records for them. If the music, the turntables, or CDs, or whatever streaming or whatever we're doing, music is always in our lives. Whether we are dancing with the music or working or singing with the music. You know, that never goes away. Music is just central to the essence of our being. It's always there. It's always present. And the other interesting part here is that music has, we've always shared music. 

I remember early on, if one person was, could afford a little phonograph, whatever you want to call it, it was put on the front porch. This is in the country now. And everybody surrounded with, come to the country, made the staple, talks about that. How people would come to their house to listen to music and the, the more contemporary version of that concept of sharing music. We think about it is when the Boom boxes were invented, how teenagers would walk down the street with the Boom boxes blaring, they were sharing music. That made it perfect to do that. 

[No need to get annoyed with people blasting their music when riding down the street, they’re sharing their music.] That's exactly what it is, is sharing music. Think about it, even though this is for commercial purposes, but the record shops in Black communities, all of them had speakers outside playing the music, which partly was to draw you in. But music was always a part of Black life. Even in, I have some photographs of a blues playing and music making in rural Alabama, where the harmonica and guitar player they're on the front porch and people around dancing in the yard, music was a part of life. In other words, we can think about music on two levels, music making as a lived experience, or it's reflective of the lived experience. It's a part of everything we do. Then there is music out of, from the lived experience, traveling over into the record labels, where it becomes a mediated commodity for mass dissemination.”  

Want to hear some of Dr. Maultsby’s faves? Check out her Black Music Month playlist,  tracing a journey through music, here.