Ethnographic Highs: “The Forest People” & “African Rhythm and African Sensibility”

First is honored (and stoked!) to reprint the following tributes by John Chernoff and T. David Brent (which originally appeared in a German publisher’s “yearbook”) to two classic ethnographies.

The Stones Ethnographers Trip Over

By John Chernoff

In my first course in cultural anthropology, more than thirty years ago during the heyday of structuralism and functionalism, the first ethnography we students read was The Forest People. With that imprimatur of sorts, The Forest People seemed to me the model we were being advised to follow, an icon of ethnography. I never recovered from that impression as I struggled with the rest of the anthropology I read during my student career. What did these other people think they were doing with their arcane discussions and their technical analyses of symbolism and systems? I never found out. Thirty years later, neophyte students are still initiated by Colin Turnbull, while the products of his contemporaries are dismissed as flawed or at least outmoded by changing questions and sensitivities.

My assumption that The Forest People was what an ethnography was supposed to be was grounded in its way. I grew up reading storybooks about children in other countries, as many children still do. For me, after Babar and other children’s books of the time, I went through all of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books and all of Frank Baum’s Oz books. I read about wonderful people in other times and places. I read mythology and science fiction. But the real standard was set by Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels. Nearly forty years after I read that book, I still remember the way that Halliburton took me with him on his travels. I jumped into the sacrificial well at Chichen Itza. I wandered at Machu Pichu with the last of the hundred Maidens of the Sun, looking at ninety-nine graves, in pitiful apprehension of her own unburied body. I climbed the Great Pyramid and Mt. Fuji. I was moved to learn of Halliburton’s death at an early age.

Now that Colin Turnbull has also passed on, I find myself thinking about his legacy. I realize now that Turnbull was like the Halliburton of my pre-teenage fantasies. Turnbull waded across rivers where people had been eaten by crocodiles. He ran through the jungle at night. Didn’t anyone ever step on a snake? When I was living as young adult in Ghana, most of the people I knew would not even walk across a lawn in the dark. But when I first read The Forest People, I was not consciously looking for another Halliburton, though now I see the debt my imagination owed to the vividness and immediacy of Halliburton’s descriptions. The Forest People lived in my memory until I revisited it to write this essay. Those memories had the same clarity as my images from Halliburton. I remembered the sacred molimo trumpet that turned out to be a scavenged piece of metal drainpipe. I remembered Turnbull’s description of his friend and associate Kenge’s inability to distinguish the scale of the animals he saw from a distant perspective overlooking a vast plain. And most particularly I remembered Kenge dancing his “dance of love and life” with the forest, alone in the moonlight.

If anthropologists still rely on The Forest People to capture the imagination of their students, perhaps they are touching a secret longing that there were more books like it. The book’s original foreword by Harry L. Shapiro, then Chairman and Curator of Physical Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, should have been a warning of sorts. Shapiro said that The Forest People is an “exceptional” book, that reading the book is “an unusual and satisfying experience.” Why should the words “unusual” and “satisfying” be linked? Shapiro virtually apologizes for the “technical reports in which individuals are swallowed up by abstractions and feeling is replaced by analysis. There is nothing wrong with this for the purpose it serves. But…” That big “but”: it has been a convenient emblem for anthropologists to stick out their windows and hang on their doors. Anthropologists generally have turned their backs on the “non-technical, humanized, and personalized view” while unconvincingly reserving their claim to the special sympathy and understanding necessary to interpret the lifeways of non-Western peoples.

Even now that anthropologists have made it their cause to be self-conscious about the power of their descriptions, they still suspect the personal. Their acceptance of hermeneutic theory and reflexive inquiry still leads them into technical territory where the terminology recalls formalism and ideology, where the model of the ethnographic text is held to the criteria of alienated criticism. They should know better. The goal of hermeneutics is not interpretation but transformation, and the reflexive core of our ethnographies is achieved when we acknowledge that our work is grounded in our own historical problem. What could be more personal, and what could be more attuned to an informed understanding of contemporary theory? In this day and age, what needs to be proved or disproved? What can be?

For me, the question that The Forest People raised was correlated, perhaps even a corollary, to Shapiro’s foreword. I did not ask why The Forest People was an exceptional book: I wondered why there were not more books like it. I assumed that many students of anthropology began their careers or avocations with The Forest People. If it was just a trick to get most of them hooked into more serious stuff, an appeal to childish imagination and personal sympathy, I myself was not detoured by maturity. I did not put away my reading of the book as I became more sophisticated and experienced. Years later, my Dagbamba mentors gave me a proverb: when you knock your leg on a stone and fall down, you should look at the stone and not at the place you fell. They were advising me about the good intentions and feelings that bound us together, as the stone that I should look at whenever our relationship might become problematic or whenever it would be represented in my writing. I understood that proverb. When I wrote African Rhythm and African Sensibility, I tried not to write a sentence without thinking of them, so that my book would reflect the evolution of the simple affinity we felt for one another as human beings. As it turned out, I was probably not alone with my question. Scattered along the way have been more than a few books that could share the influence of The Forest People, books that last, books that move people. It seems, though, that they often stand in marginal relation to the contributions that build a scholar’s career. To me, too, it is neither insignificant nor odd that these tangential and unconventional books should often be first works done by youthful seekers, or late works, done by old men and old women who are looking beyond themselves.

What was Turnbull trying to prove? Even as Turnbull covered all the necessary topics of an ethnographic portrait, the abiding motif of The Forest People is an ironic commentary on normative studies. Throughout the book, Turnbull describes himself as being more serious than the Pygmies. He is looking for the serious application of social rules or for ritual seriousness, and the Pygmies joke about everything. Time and again, Turnbull contrasts his sense of ethnographic purpose with the Pygmies’ continuing emphasis on personal whim and their society’s corresponding looseness of normative structures that would ordinarily be the very point of an ethnographic effort. With this literary device, Turnbull authorized the Pygmies to stand for me and probably many other readers in rejecting the normative anthropology of the day. Through another brilliant device, Turnbull both transcended his contrived role to realize his unity with the Pygmies and also avoided posing an essential contrast between their world and that of our Western societies. Instead, he replaced the contrast between Western and Pygmy by posing a contrast between the Pygmies’ world and that of the nearby Bantu villagers. Onto these latter peoples — the BaBira, BaLese and others — Turnbull projected the fantasies of domination, superiority, order and moral rectitude that were continually belied and inverted by the Pygmies. The Bantus looked down on the Pygmies and vice versa, and Turnbull used their opposition to make The Forest People a treatise on cultural comparison. The Pygmies lacked what the Bantus thought important in cultural life. Compared to what? The Forest People represents the Pygmies as rich in ways the Bantus did not comprehend, nor for that matter, would an anthropology bent on advancing itself through science.

Turnbull must have tripped over some different stones from most of the anthropologists of his day. His first chapter provided an indirect clue with its strange introductory overview of previous literature. As Turnbull surveyed the written records of Pygmy culture, the central characteristic he held to compare his own experience with the other portraits was Pygmy music. He was skeptical of anyone who did not mention or convey a sense of the Pygmy’s continual singing and dancing. This standard was not the typical one, to say the least, but Turnbull somehow made it credible. (His recordings of their astounding music are another great legacy of his work with them.) But Turnbull gave more direct clues to his particular field of stones in his acknowledgments. His first acknowledgment presented his idea of how he really prepared for fieldwork: “In whatever measure this book succeeds it is due to those who by their example have taught me the way to understanding. More than any I must thank my parents, who first taught me the meaning of love, and Anandamai Ma, who for two years in India showed how the qualities of truth, goodness and beauty can be found wherever we care to look for them.” He thus linked his results to his study of Eastern spirituality and his consciousness of universalism. With his second acknowledgment, to his teacher Evans-Pritchard, he linked himself to the great tradition of extended fieldwork. His third acknowledgment was to Harry Shapiro and the institution that gave him shelter. Fourth, he acknowledged those who opened the doors for his entry to the world of the forest, those whose legacy was not written but who had devoted their lives to the people of the forest, who themselves received his final acknowledgment and whose wisdom and love he hoped his book might portray.

Turnbull no doubt paid a price for writing a book that others who could not emulate nonetheless found indispensable for their introductory courses. Lacking his sentience, even many who worked with the Pygmies could not attain his perspective. Some even took him as a figure to challenge. But people still read The Forest People. Where are his critics’ works now? In the book, Turnbull himself mentions taking “copious notes” about different groups of people. Where is the specialized information he did not put into The Forest People? The book was obviously written by plan, with purposeful selectivity. It stands on its own as a vision of love and unexpected affinities. I remember seeing a documentary Turnbull made: he was standing beside some Pygmies who were smoking huge pipes of marijuana. (I wish he had been more explicit about their being stoned so much; I would have better understood some of the scenes he described.) In the film, Turnbull towered above the Pygmies and looked amazingly out of place. But from his book, we know that he was there, deeply involved and in tune with the people and their world. Nowadays, we read The Forest People for a glimpse of that achievement.

Has there been progress in anthropology? Certainly, the passage of time has given us some splendid books that can stand beside The Forest People. And certainly, most of those at the cutting edge of the discipline believe that we are now more sensitive to the issues of anthropological work. The normative anthropology of Turnbull’s day has been criticized and either disavowed or refined. We may feel that the increased and broader perspective of our time implies an ascent, for it is normal that those who believe in progress look back at the work of the past and find themselves looking downward. But the depth of Turnbull’s involvement has remained a rare achievement, and many anthropologists are aware that the reason may be that people do not dwell as long in the field as Turnbull and his predecessors and contemporaries did. I sometimes wonder, therefore, what the significance of our theoretical issues are or whether we have done well to embrace developments in the discipline that neglect the deeper configurations of motive our predecessors saw at work in society. If we know that, for whatever circumstances of resources or professional obligations, we no longer spend as much time in the field, why should we expect our ethnographies to be better? Can we presume that our sensitivities are so acute that they offer a shortcut to the type of understanding our predecessors took so much longer to accomplish? I am not sure. I believe that the The Forest People is still significant and is still read because we all remember the stones we tripped over, and we realize that our ethnographic work should acknowledge the validity of those initial motives that could take us to far away places and enable us to stay with the people there.

Halliburton, Richard. Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941.

Turnbull, Colin M. The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo. New York: Simon and Schuster, Touchstone Books, 1962.

Chernoff, John Miller. African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Original publication:

“Die Stolpersteine der Ethnographen” [translated from “The Stones Ethnographers Trip Over”] in Wegmarken: Eine Bibliotek der Ethnologische Imagination. Trickster Jarhbuch. Munich: Peter Hammer Verlag, 1998, pp. 22-28.

Chernoff’s website is:


By T. David Brent

African Rhythm and African Sensibility by John Miller Chernoff became a classic of ethnomusicology and African Studies almost immediately upon its publication by the University of Chicago Press in 1979. Why then had the manuscript been rejected by another leading American university press before it came to Chicago?

Sheer short-sightedness? Fear of the new? We do know that despite the fact that the other press had received at least one quite positive pre-publication review from a leading ethnomusicologist, the overall reaction of specialists was mixed. Chernoff was trying something new for the field, and it was bound to provoke somewhat defensive reactions, couched in the concerns of the day. “Inadequate research methods,” “naive discussion of fieldwork problems,” “not about Africa, but a part of Africa,” “reads like a travelogue,” all these and more were the tools by which senior scholars attempted to cut down a beautiful tree to the ground. Ironically, the field of African ethnomusicoiogy was fundamentally transformed by the book, and time has decisively proven all such reactions completely wrong-headed. The work has been cited as one of the finest early exemplars of the contemporary trend of reflexive ethnography in general[1] and it has appeared in a German translation (Trickster, 1994), an honor reserved for very few American ethnomusicology books.

Still, in one form or another, expressions of resistance to Chernoff’s work have continued to surface over the years in spite, or in some instances because of its status as a classic. Although I believe the book today has many more admirers than detractors, I would venture to say that it caused and continues to cause such reactions, not merely because of the petty turf wars and politics of academia, but for a much deeper reason.

I was fortunate to have been a junior editor at the University of Chicago Press when the work arrived “over the transom” in the summer of 1977. I was a recently consecrated Ph.D. in Philosophy who had studied as much History of Religions (with Mircea Eliade), Symbolic Anthropology (with Victor Turner), and Depth Psychology in the works of C. G. Jung as I had Heidegger and hermeneutic philosophy with Paul Ricoeur, my mentor. I also had very specific musical tastes. Something called “70s music” had completely passed me by and I do not have the slightest idea what it is or was to this day. For whatever reasons, and I am sure there were many, the only music that appealed to me, aside from the Western classical tradition, was the Blues, the Chicago style electric blues in particular, and the University of Chicago’s Southside location made it easy to hang out at numerous Blues clubs, several of which I continue to visit on a regular basis.

If my ears had been captivated by a particular kind of African-American music, they had still not been opened to Africa itself. Yet my peculiar academic and musical tastes could not have been a better background for appreciating Chernoff’s manuscript. My broad interdisciplinary background with a strong leaning toward interpretive approaches to meaning was very similar to Chernoff’s. We had read many of the same books. Moreover, in retrospect, my early days hanging around Blues bars, getting to know the musicians, owners, waitresses, bouncers and patrons had something in common with what Chernoff was doing in Africa. For both of us, “observations” were always participation, and getting high with people from different ethnic and social origins was really the only way to get to know them, if you wanted to get to know them that is. While, unlike Chemoff, my experiences were not directly related to my doctoral research, they did give me something of the same musical and ethnographic sensibility: an understanding of apprenticeship, of the importance of group as opposed to virtuoso musical production, of audience and dancer participation in the music itself, of the importance of music to the life of a community, of the notion of coolness, of call and response, and even a comparative sense of what happened to the music when it became popular on the white yuppie-infested Northside of the city.

My immediate reaction to the manuscript was sympathetic. This soon gave way to amazement, which in turn led to awe. By the time I reached what later became page 9 of the Introduction, I was thoroughly hooked. “To arrive at the point where one sees the life of another culture as an alternative is to reach a fundamental notion of the humanistic perspective, and to accept the reality of one’s actions to the people who live there is to understand that one has become a part of their history. This insight can become a pathway to responsibility and an opening toward one’s own human love.” It was, I think, these two sentences in particular that convinced me not only that I was reading a major work, but that the author had to be a very cool guy. Here he was connecting Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy with African music, fieldwork methodology with love, social science with ethics and aesthetics. I could almost audibly hear Mircea Eliade’s voice as he spoke, in his thick Romanian accent, about the “New Humanism” (I still cannot think that phrase with the aspirated ‘h’). To my astonishment, Chernoff had found what I was prepared to think was the exact right way to solve the dilemma of “incommensurability,” or “untranslatability” of cultures and languages associated with the work of Sapir, Whorf, Quine and others. Participation. Love. Openness to Difference. To the Other. Some thirty-five years later, I would recommend this Introduction to anyone who suffers from acute deconstructionitis. In fact, at one point in the process of reprinting the book (it has been reprinted at least fifteen times by the way), I attempted to convince my colleagues to put a label on it: “Warning! Multiplies when deconstructed!” Contrary to the nature of much current scholarship, even in inherently “humanistic” disciplines such as anthropology and ethnomusicology, African Rhythm and African Sensibility can actually make a difference in the reader’s life.

I would suggest it is precisely this aspect of the work — its challenge to readers to alter attitudes and even to undergo a certain transformation of character — that makes it hard to swallow for some. It is important to recall what the book is about on the simplest level: drumming by Africans. In the 70s, and even today in numerous quarters. drumming by Africans was and is considered one of the lowest, if not most despicable, arts. In the closed minds of the Allan Blooms of this world, it is a co-conspirator, with its offspring such as rock-and-roll and other forms of noise too vulgar to mention, like rap, in the decline of Western civilization. The job of humanizing Atracan drumming, of comparing, without hyperbole, the traditional drumming of the Dagbamba of Ghana with the Western classical tradition, will always appear preposterous to those unable to achieve the insight Chernoff speaks of in his Introduction.

Equally uncomfortable for many is not the mere fact that Chernoff had a lot of fun doing what he loved — after all, so did Picasso and Einstein for all we know — but that he appears to advocate fun and love as methodological virtues. Like Bill Clinton, most academics swear they don’t inhale, and probably most of them don’t. For Chernoff, on the other hand, there was no other way to get the data. One has to step inside a tradition in order to understand what the people who are already inside it have to deal with and how they themselves see things. One sometimes has to act the fool in order to learn, a fact that pith-helmeted Oxford trained anthropologists never got despite the fact that they appeared ridiculous to the people. Even worse, perhaps, than the defense of fun or love as a research method, is the fact that the author is placing a certain ultimatum on his reader. In this respect, one could argue he is no different from the run-of-the-mill postmodern “theorist” who automatically makes the reader feel guilt about hidden vestiges of racism, sexism, political incorrectness or mere lack of sophistication about hegemonic forces. The truth is that Chernoff is just the opposite.

His book is not primarily about trying to make the reader feel guilty about a lack or a defect. It’s about giving the reader a new experience of a magnificent art form and the tradition that nurtures it. He is saying in effect, “my love for this tradition should be the basis for your love of this tradition, and even for me as the one who brought it to you.”

Love the author? Just from his writing? I have to say, back in 1977, I was fully prepared to do so. It took almost a year to meet him, however, since he was still in Africa. Whatever I knew of him as a person came through his lengthy (up to twenty page) handwritten letters and the book itself. During that year the book had, of course, been accepted by the University of Chicago Press, and my colleagues had decided to give me and my enthusiasm for it the benefit of the doubt and launch the book as a “trade” book that might appeal to the “offbeat” (i.e. remnants of the “beat” generation) intellectuals interested in jazz and blues (the Press had of course published Charlie Keil’s Urban Blues way back in 1966 with great success, and Keil was one of Chernoff’s mentors), in addition to its perhaps dubious appeal for scholars. When the author returned to the States, we established telephone contact, and he kindly sent me my very first tastes of contemporary African music: not only the incredibly powerful drumming from Ghana (a sample of which can be found on the CD that accompanies the book), but Sunny Ade’s original Festac recordings, Sam Mangwana and the African All-Stars International, and Fela’s outrageous Afrobeat. I felt like I was the only person in the Western world besides John to have heard such sounds, and I was deeply grateful. By the time we met in October of 1978, I already considered him one of my best friends even though I didn’t know what he looked like.

I was thus fortunate in more than one way. Not only did I have the privilege and satisfaction of launching a great book for my employer, I also gained a close friend. I hope it is not out of place to conclude by dwelling briefly upon yet another thing that links me to this book and its author. In the career of publishing, particularly in scholarly publishing, it is all too easy to be serious. It is, after all, a serious burden to serve as the guardian of culture and authority (if books in fact still serve that function). And it is a miserable business where barely breaking even often constitutes success. The antidote to all this seriousness is enthusiasm, and I often tell my junior colleagues that without enthusiasm there is no real publishing. Enthusiasm — or love, or fun if you will — is the intangible that makes the difference between just binding a manuscript between two covers and putting it in a warehouse, and changing people’s lives, getting them fired up, giving them experiences of new worlds, new potentials. African Rhythm and African Sensibility gave me one of my first chances as an editor to prove my theory about enthusiasm, and for that I will always be eternally grateful.


1 Marcus, George E, Dick Cushman. 1982. “Ethnographies as Texts.” In Annual Review of Anthropology 11:25-69.

From April, 2012