Sentinel Musicians of the Ethiopian American Diaspora

Colloquium Lecture by Kay Kaufman Shelemay
Dec 5, 2023 at - | Penn Music Building - Lerner 101, 201 S. 34th Street Philadelphia, PA 19104

Kay Kaufman Shelemay

Sentinel Musicians of the Ethiopian American Diaspora

December 5, 2023 (Tuesday) — 5:15 pm to 7:00 pm
Lerner Center
Penn Music Building
201 S. 34th Street, Room 101

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This talk will discuss the experiences of Ethiopian musicians during the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, their forced migration abroad, and their roles in helping found new communities in the Ethiopian American diaspora. Based on decades of ethnographic observation and interviews in Ethiopia and in cities across North America as well as evidence from numerous songs, poetry, and proverbs, the book highlights the many artistic and social initiatives of these creative and mobile musicians. The book uses the expression "sentinel musicians" to designate a musician who has served his or her society with vigilance, drawing on heightened sensory powers of perception and an ability to shape sound. A neologism initially inspired by the official connections of musical sentinels with keeping watch and standing guard in both Ethiopian organizations such as the Imperial Bodyguard Orchestra and many other contexts in daily life, the paper introduces ways in which Ethiopian musicians have drawn on their musical prowess and sensory acuity to exercise cultural leadership and moral authority in service of new communities. 


Kay Kaufman Shelemay is the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music at Harvard University and a former Chair of the Department of Music. An ethnomusicologist who received her Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Michigan, Shelemay's books include Music, Ritual, and Falasha History (1986), winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award in 1987 and the Prize of the International Musicological Society in 1988); A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey (1991); Ethiopian Christian Chant: An Anthology (3 vols., 1993-97, co-authored with Peter Jeffery); Let Jasmine Rain Down. Song and Remembrance Among Syrian Jews (1998; finalist, National Jewish Book Award) and the WW Norton textbook, Soundscapes. Exploring Music in a Changing World, now in its 3rd edition. Her article “The Power of Silent Voices” won the SEM 2010 Jaap Kunst Prize and her 2022 ethnography Sing and Sing On. Sentinel Musicians and the Making of the Ethiopian American Diaspora received Honourable Mention for the ICTMD 2023 Book Prize, and Honorable Mention for the SEM Bruno Nettl 2023 Book Prize.

Shelemay has been awarded  major fellowships, including from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and many others, and is currently starting a new project this fall as a fellow at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. She is Past-President of the Society for Ethnomusicology and in 2012, completed terms as a congressional appointee to and chair of the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2000), the American Academy of Jewish Research (2004), the American Philosophical Society (2013), and the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences (2014), she held the Chair for Modern Culture at the Library of Congress during 2007- 2008 and was the national Phi Beta Kappa/Frank M. Updike Memorial Scholar during 2010-2011. 


This event is free and open to the public. If you attend in person, there is no need to register. We ask that you join us in person if at all possible, but for those of you who are unable to physically attend we encourage you to participate via Zoom. The link to attend virtually is above.


This lecture is part of the 2023-24 Penn Music Colloquium Series. The Department of Music's main Colloquium Series showcases new research by leading scholars in music and sound studies and composers both in the United States and internationally.  All Music Colloquia will take place in Room 101 of the Lerner Center on Tuesdays at 5:15 PM.