Material worlds

Doctoral candidate receives Fulbright-Hays award to research instrument making in Ghana.

Alex Smith, an ethnomusicologist and doctoral candidate in percussion performance, is seen here in Ghana with Garma, a renowned Birifor gyil performer in Ghana's Northern Region, and Tijan Dorwana. Both men have helped Smith with his research.
Alex Smith with (from left) MSU alumnus Cody Edgerton and MSU Percussion faculty Gwen Dease, and Jon Weber.
Tijan Dorwana with Liga Logs in Ghana where Alex Smith is doing his research.

A doctoral candidate in percussion performance in the MSU College of Music is among five student scholars awarded the 2018 Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad, or DDRA.

John “Alex” Smith traveled to Ghana, Sub-Saharan West Africa, in early December to continue his doctoral research supported by the award. While in Ghana, Smith will investigate the connections between people and the natural resources they use to make musical instruments—in this case, the gyil, a type of West African xylophone. Smith’s research will also examine the sustainable use of rosewood in instrument making, particularly as worldwide demand for rosewood threatens to deplete supplies.

“Several years ago, I started thinking more about where my instruments are coming from, especially since many are made from environmentally problematic materials,” Smith said. “As people grow more sensitive to where things come from, it seemed like a valuable project to do.”

Smith received his master’s in percussion performance and ethnomusicology from MSU in 2015. He said his doctoral research is an application of interests he developed while working on his dual degrees.

“I remember years ago getting a vibraphone in a cardboard box and all I had to do was pull pieces out of plastic bags and assemble it,” he said. “I believe it is important for people to understand the origins of materials and the sacrifice it takes to make them. Hopefully this understanding will promote more responsible consumption.”

MSU Professor of Musicology Michael Largey is an ethnomusicologist and folklorist who helped guide Smith on the academic side of his research. He could see Smith’s enthusiasm from the start.

“Alex has formidable artistic and intellectual gifts that he brings to every project he has undertaken,” said Largey. “He has inspired students and faculty alike with his commitment to environmentalism, his generosity of spirit, and his deep humility.”

Smith will collaborate with local Ghanaian communities, gyil makers and musicians, and Western tourists to investigate the various and conflicting narratives of meaning and value associated with rosewood. His goal is to help define the role the gyil community plays, or will play, in rosewood conservation.

Gwendolyn Dease, professor of percussion and chair of the Percussion Area at MSU, noted that Smith’s achievement highlights the strength of percussion and ethnomusicology programs at the College of Music.

“Alex’s research is groundbreaking and will make a big impact on the global percussion community as the rosewood used in building many of our instruments becomes scarce,” Dease said. “Artists around the world must consider how to create their music in a more sustainable, environmentally conscious way. His research will help move us toward those solutions.”

This year, MSU ranked third with the number of doctoral scholars awarded the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad— tied with The Ohio State University and the University of California, Berkeley. Many academics consider the DDRA honor a defining career moment. The U.S. Department of Education granted more than $4.4 million for Fulbright-Hays International Education Programs in 2018.

Smith plans to do a series of video blogs while in Ghana. This trailer previews his project that focuses on globalization, consumption-production cultures, sustainability, and musical-cultural tourism within the context of the gyil community and its use of rosewood.

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