Review| Five Window into Africa, Review by J. Martin Daughtry


Five Windows into Africa: a CD-ROM, by Patrick McNaughton, John H. Hanson, dele jegende, Ruth M. Stone, N. Brian Winchester. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, April 2001. $39.95. ISBN: 0253337593

At the dawn of the age of silent movies, one of the first highly popular genres was the so-called “phantom ride,” a type of adventure film shot by a camera mounted on the nose of a speeding train. It was exhilarating! No one (save train conductors) had ever seen what it looked like to barrel through a tunnel and emerge on the other side. The “I-am-a-train” type of movie was revolutionary for its day, but it didn’t last long, and for good reason: once people had seen a few dozen of them, and became used to seeing the world from the vantage point of the locomotive, the novelty wore off, interest waned, and filmmakers were forced to dream up more engaging genres.

The current state of CD-ROM technology is compellingly similar to the state of film in the “phantom ride” era. Just as at the turn of the last century, we are confronted with technological possibilities that have largely outpaced our imaginations. We have enormouscomputer capabilities at our fingertips, but we (read: “we academics”) haven’t quite figured out how to exploit them fully. An interesting case in point is the educational CD-ROM under review, Five Windows into Africa, a collaborative work produced by four professors at Indiana University, Bloomington; one from Indiana State; and IUB’s “Teaching and Learning Technologies Laboratory.” This grand and grandly-flawed multimedia project manages—to a great extent—to fulfill its press release’s promise of “vividly capturing the vitality and immediacy of life in contemporary Africa.” But, like the phantom ride, it captures equally vividly a transitional phase in technology, somewhere shortly after that first dramatic leap to a new medium, but before the golden age of art and scholarship that (one hopes) inevitably follows. Situating Five Windows within this phase is the objective of this review. After a description of the substance of the ethnographies, I will focus on evaluating its effectiveness as a CD-ROM.

Five Windows gives its user interactive access to five ethnographies, each focused on a discrete event or locale. Patrick McNaughton, a professor of African art history at IUB, introduces us to “Kono Don: A Bird Dance Near Saturday City” in Mali; John H. Hanson, an associate professor of history and Director of IUB’s African Studies Program, looks at the role played by Islam in a Ghanaian town in “Friday Prayers;” in “This Is Lagos,” dele jegede, a professor of art history at ISU, provides a glimpse of the hectic life in his home city of Lagos, Nigeria; ethnomusicologist Ruth M. Stone documents the repatriation and funeral of a Liberian dissident politician in “Gbarbea Funeral“; and N. Brian Winchester, director of IUB’s Center for the Study of Global Change, analyzes the events surrounding the negotiation to the end of Zimbabwe’s war of national liberation, which took place in London during the Constitutional Conference at “Lancaster House.” For a project engaging such diverse issues and regions, Five Windows is remarkably cohesive. The aggregate effect of the CD-ROM supports the currently popular view that several scattered, “deep” ethnographies are more valuable (and do less violence) than a single “shallow” work attempting to provide blanket coverage of a large region. The authors also make a forceful case for truly interdisciplinary scholarship. Of the five “windows,” only one (Stone’s) focuses explicitly on music, yet four of the five (all but Winchester’s) explore music as part of the web of cultural production in their areas. Moreover, the CD-ROM can be navigated either by ethnography (e.g., exploring “Gbarbea Funeral” in its entirety before moving on to “Lancaster House”), or by one of five cross-cultural “topics”: spirituality, power, aesthetics, entrepreneurship, individuals, and community. Users are encouraged to delve into each “window” in its totality first, and then to explore the topics across the studies, scooting directly from the applicable section of one window to the related section of the next.

Of the five studies, I was particularly impressed with Patrick McNaughton’s “Kono Don.” His exhaustive event analysis of a single performance by Mande bird masquerader Sidi Ballo is divided into twenty-two short chapters, each of which he narrates. This level of detail, along with the sound recordings, interviews with local experts, and dozens of photographs, presents a vivid image of a richly polysemic performance. In addition to his description of the dance itself, McNaughton folds in a large number of supplementary essays designed to provide a glimpse into the complex set of dynamic interrelationships that connect art to life and vice versa. The essays touch on a broad range of topics, including: the topography of the village; how the village was named; the ethnic groups that make up the population; local architecture and painting; musicians; spiritual life; ecology; herbal medicine; hunting; and blacksmithing, among others. He gives much emphasis to native terminology, especially the term nyama, which he describes as the “energy of action.” McNaughton laudably stresses the ability of the dance to yield multiple interpretations, and he describes two conflicting interpretations in detail. McNaughton is among the most thoroughly reflexive of the Indiana group, describing how he conducted his research and musing on the ways in which his presence at the bird dance was exploited by the performer to dramatic and humorous effect.

Only one of the windows, “This is Lagos,” was created by an African scholar. dele jegede’s piece employs music extensively, using multiple popular genres as a soundtrack to the exploration of Africa’s most populous city. He also provides thumbnail sketches of juju and highlife music, as well as an essay on pan-Africanist pop icon Fela Kuti. John Hanson’s window on Islam discusses the muezzin’s call-to-prayer (while deftly avoiding the quicksand question of whether it makes sense to regard it as “music”) and its role in structuring Islamic experience. Ruth Stone’s documentation of the Liberian funeral emphasizes the role music plays in “the society, the politics, the religion, and the life of these people.” Stone includes an enhanced version of her field notes in her ethnography, with relevant sound recordings and photographs added in at the appropriate moments. Thus, when she mentions that she came upon a group of Nigerian drummers as she was walking down the road, you both see their photograph and hear her recording of their drumming. While less dramatic than the narrated movies and slick animations that are foregrounded throughout Five Windows, these multimedia notes are quietly effective; Stone uses them to buttress her primary text, and in doing so, contributes to the rehabilitation of a genre that most readers (who don’t have access to the musty box of field notes in the author’s closet) never get to see.

All things told, “Gbarbea Funeral” may be the most useful propaedeutic for ethnomusicologists, as it explicitly discusses the relationship between music and social issues, a relationship that every student of ethnomusicology studies in an introductory course. In general, however, Five Windows is designed for laypeople, and its ideal audience would probably consist of inquisitive high school students and first-year undergraduates. While older scholars may find the bibliographies useful, the overall tone of the project (which studiously avoids theoretical discussion and frequently employs image-based emotional shorthand and cartoonish animation) will be more likely to engage teens.

Despite the basic unity of their organization, the five windows vary in their degree of reflexivity, their methodology, the amount of critical distance between researcher and informants, and their tolerance for openly editorial comments. In this respect, Five Windows is no different than your average print anthology. But this is not your average print anthology; it is billed as a twenty-first-century product, transcending the limitations of print and video, handing over to the user the power of narration, interpretation, and selection of data, facilitating a conversation among the users, their African counterparts, and the Indianan researchers. Is it all these things? Well, almost. As useful as FiveWindows is, the CD-ROM is plagued with minor glitches and shortcomings that conspire to reduce its impact as a scholarly tool.

The most serious drawbacks include the following:

  • The interactive element, the freedom to jump from one page to the next in whatever order you choose, is of limited use here. In most cases, there is only one logical order—the chronological order of traditional, fixed narrative. The most obvious effect of your “freedom” is the added work involved in clicking each individual bite-sized narrative chunk into action.
  • In spite of my suspicion that the author’s order is always the best one, it is often impossible to discern the logical succession of the pages, and equally impossible to make sure that you have seen all that there is to be seen. The product doesn’t have a comprehensive site map, and there is no index. Many of the pages feature tiny photo-icons in a field called “related topics.” By rolling over the icon, a pop-up description lets you know whither you will be transported if you click. Unfortunately, these descriptions are often so mysterious in nature (in one case, rolling over the icon actually causes the word “MYSTERY” to appear) that you have to click on them to find out where they lead. Once you’ve been sent to the “related topic,” you are confronted with another set of “related topic” icons with equally bewildering labels. This infrastructure bears an uncanny resemblance to the Dungeons and Dragons games I played as a kid (“There are two small doors on the left wall. A damp breeze emanates from one; muffled screams from the other. What do you do?”)
  • Once you have started up Five Windows, you cannot minimize it in order to access another file. This fact, combined with the utter lack of interactive fields (places where you can engage in the cyber-equivalent of writing in the margins) in the Five Windows structure itself, means that it is impossible to take notes on your computer as you read, impossible to underline or annotate text. There is a bookmarking function, making it relatively easy to return to pages you find interesting, but even this marginal utility is compromised by the fact that, in order to get to your bookmarks, you have to sit through one of the three-minute introductory films that serve as each window’s prelude.
  • So far as I understand, it is impossible to print anything from the CD-ROM. You cannot select, cut or paste any of the text into a word processing program, and there is no print function within Five Windows. This makes the otherwise exciting bibliographies exceedingly difficult to use.
  • Since none of the pages are numbered in the traditional manner, citing a particular moment of Five Windows in one’s own work is a cumbersome and confusing exercise.
  • While the sound quality is quite good throughout, the videos (most of which take place on a 2×3 inch screen) are often migraine inducing. After a half-hour or so of squinting at the matchbox screen of hazy pixilated images, I found myself longing for the luxury of VHS (or, even better, print).

These shortcomings notwithstanding, I can see several advantages in the authors’ decision to release Five Windows as a CD-ROM rather than as a book with an attached video. They include increased salience resulting from the novelty that CD-ROMs still enjoy, and the advantage of size, a double CD being smaller, easier to ship and to store than a book and VHS cassette. More importantly, however, there are several things CD-ROMs can do elegantly that books and videos cannot. The ease and speed of click-navigating through the text (versus the cumbersome and time-consuming process of rewinding and fast-forwarding a video to find the right excerpt) is a major advantage. The ability to “illustrate” text with sounds as well as images is another. Throughout Five Windows, the authors bring music into their text, an act that is so valuable to music scholarship that it alone should make the CD-ROM and the internet our media of choice.

The next logical step, I would argue—the truly revolutionary step that we as music scholars should begin exploring—is to bring text into our music. CD-ROM technology gives us the unprecedented opportunity to provide multi-layered, navigable annotation to a piece of music, thus hitching our insights to the notes themselves. In foreign-language songs, for example, we can restore a sense of temporality to the act of translation, creating word-mappings that unfold in real time along with the music. Creative projects like Five Windows should challenge us to go further, to use interactive technology to present music in a fundamentally different way than was previously possible. Just as the early cinematographers quickly figured out that the possibilities for filmic fantasy reached beyond the limits of the phantom ride, scholars will inevitably begin to exploit interactive technology to change the way people listen to and write about music. The time has come to untie the camera from the train.

J. Martin Daughtry

University of California, Los Angeles

Note from the author:

I would like to express my thanks to Brian Schrag for the insightful comments he gave me as I wrote this review.