Winter 2009

Performing the humanities at the Ethiopian Millennium

Kay Kaufman Shelemay

Kay Kaufman Shelemay, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2000, is the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University. She is the author, most recently, of “Soundscapes: Exploring Music in a Changing World” (2001, second edition 2006) and editor of “Pain and Its Transformations: The Interface of Biology and Culture” (with Sarah Coakley, 2007).

The performing arts, sometimes regarded as separate from the humanities, in fact bring the humanities to life.1 Through performance, the written word travels from the mind’s eye to the lips and to the ear; painting and sculpture suddenly spring into motion; and music takes wing from the imagination or from a score to fill all available sonic space. A moment of performance, at its best, gathers together various domains of human expression, a sensory experience able at once to narrate history, enact social relationships, symbolize systems of belief, and generate feelings of fear, comfort, or joy. While the humanities are generally conceived as the disciplines spanning fields of knowledge such as literature or philosophy, they simultaneously provide the basis for much of human behavior and patterns of interaction expressed through the arts. Music and its performance, in particular, convey these multiple domains of knowledge as well as provide “audible entanglements,” shaping both individual imaginations and broader communities.2

Performance tells us less about procedures than it does about processes. Ideally, performance incorporates spectators .  .  .


  • 1The American Academy of Arts and Sciences’s Humanities Indicators Prototype expressly excludes the arts from the scope of the humanities. See Humanities Indicators Prototype, “Scope of the ‘Humanities’ for Purposes of the Humanities Indicators” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2008). My essay engages and takes occasional issue with that exclusion. I acknowledge the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities for fellowships that supported a leave year during which this essay was written. I thank Ellen T. Harris, Steven Kaplan, and Daniel Mekonnen for helpful comments.
  • 2 Jocelyne Guilbault, “Audible Entanglements: Nation and Diasporas in Trinidad’s Calypso Music Scene,” Small Axe (17) (2005): 40.
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