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UTSA graduate Aaron Carter-Cohn receives Fulbright to conduct research in Nigeria

Carter-Cohn will correlate linguistics and singing through analysis of Nigerian choruses.

By Sherrie Voss Matthews, International Media and Marketing Coordinator

Aaron Carter-Cohn discovered a challenge at the intersection of language and music.

The 2011 UTSA graduate earned his master’s in music (conducting) while working as an organist and choirmaster at St. Francis Episcopal Church in San Antonio. His time at St. Francis exposed him to a wide variety of musical forms -- everything from Iraqi rap to African choruses.

A meeting with a Nigerian choir at a conference in China, Carter-Cohn was inspired to travel to Nigeria to teach and learn, all the while exploring the multiple languages and dialects of its people.

John Paul Ochei and Aaron Carter-Cohn
John Paul Ochei (left) and Aaron Carter-Cohn

During the fall of 2011, he lectured at the University of Lagos, sang with choirs at the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Musical Society of Nigeria, and performed as a pianist and organist.

“Nigeria is building a society that peacefully integrates a large number of ethnolinguistic cultures,” Carter-Cohn explains. “Minimizing differences is a priority, and very few have the luxury of emphasizing their cultural identity.”

Nigeria is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries in the world.  Barely more than 50 years old, there has been progress since the civil war and ethnic conflict of the 1960s, in which millions died many due to starvation.

“A land of more than 500 languages and dialects, Nigeria is rich with level-tone languages, in which tone contrast differentiates words that are otherwise the same,” Carter-Cohn explains. “Nigerian composer, Laz Ekwueme, provides the following example from the Igbo language:

/ ákwá /(high-high tones), sorrow, tears, crying, weeping;

/ ákwà/(high-low tones), cloth, clothes, dress, fabric;

/ àkwà/(low-low tones), bed, bridge;

/ àkwá / (low-high tones), egg.

“The spoken intonation has significant bearing on the singing and music-making of the region, and because music so permeates the culture, the relationship may be reciprocal,” adds Carter-Cohn.

Lagos Brass Band

His plans to teach and begin doctoral work in music theory at The Ohio State University this fall took an abrupt turn when he learned that he’d been granted a Fulbright.

Ohio State has allowed him to spend part of 2013 in Nigeria on the Fulbright fellowship. The Fulbright will allow him the luxury of time. He will teach at the University of Lagos and begin his research into the systematic organization of sounds in the languages of Nigerian music.

“I'm less concerned with identifying external influences than understanding how the languages of Nigeria are musical,” Carter-Cohn says of his research.

“As English usage increases, choruses remain a refuge for the many languages of Nigeria,” Carter-Cohn explains. Many Nigerians are tri-lingual: their native tongue, pidgin English (the vernacular in the cities), and English. Some indigenous languages are becoming extinct as speaking English becomes essential in everyday life.

“[Praise choruses] are a distillation of the tones and rhythms of a language, transcending boundaries of faith, ethnicity, and nation,” Carter-Cohn explains. “I have heard Muslims adapt a traditionally Christian chorus and vice-versa, an Igbo man sing in Efik, Hausa, and Yoruba, and refugees from East Africa sing Igbo choruses. If choruses are the form of transmission through which languages are shared and learned, then a better understanding of the relationship between phonology and singing is essential.”

Carter-Cohn will use an empirical approach, using specialized microphones to produce highly accurate transcriptions of both speech and singing. The data will help him determine the relationship between speech rhythms and intonation and singing. The tonal quality of language affects how music is made; Carter-Cohn wants to gather further insight into this phenomenon.

Carter-Cohn says the musicians of Nigeria have impressive skills that inspired him to become a better musician.

“Nigerian musicians have incredible ears, what we call aural skills in music academia,” Carter-Cohn says. “Nigerian church organists can typically recall numerous hymns from memory and play them in any key. This is true of many highlife and juju tunes as well.

“Because sheet music is not widely available, and when it’s around it has been photocopied so many times it has faded, I had to adapt a great deal. I’ve always been able to play by ear for my own amusement or in informal jam sessions, but to be dependent on those skills in formal contexts when many were depending on me was very new. It was challenging but rewarding as a keyboardist, and very freeing as a conductor.”

Carter-Cohn was honored at UTSA as a Presidential Scholar and Alvarez Research Fellow.

Carter-Cohn also filmed and edited two documentaries: "At Home with Music: Burundian Refugees in America" and "Texas Celebrates Fifty Years of Nigerian Independence."

Sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Program provides funding for students, scholars, teachers, and professionals to undertake graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and teaching in elementary and secondary schools.