Call him the Maligu Naa

Ethnomusicologist appointed "chief of goodwill" for development work in Ghana.


(Edmonton) He sat on an animal hide, donning a white robe, hat, staff and decorative slippers. He was blessed by the paramount chief of Tolon and, in turn, expressed his respect and appreciation for the people of Tolon through his own ceremonial dance at the annual Damba festival. And now, University of Alberta ethnomusicologist Michael Frishkopf is officially known as the Maligu Naa of Tolon, development chief in a small Dagomba town in northern Ghana.

Frishkopf has forged a unique career fusing the study of indigenous music with the promotion of global human development, mostly in West Africa. He co-produced a CD of music by Liberian refugees (Giving Voice to Hope) in 2009, and most recently worked with those same musicians to co-produce a hip-hop music video and documentary film promoting clean water and sanitation. He also co-produced another CD, Kinka: Traditional Songs From Avenorpedo, supporting traditional Ewe music in Ghana's Volta region.

He’s now working on a project that takes traditional music and dance, but carrying public health messages, from village to village in northern Ghana, and a new music video stressing the importance of staying in school.

His contributions have not gone unnoticed by locals.

So in addition to professor of music or associate director of the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology, feel free to address him as the Maligu Naa of Tolon. And though the honour recognizes his development record, Frishkopf stresses it’s more about the future than the past and comes with a heavy burden of responsibility.

"They call it a development chief, or a chief of goodwill,” says Frishkopf. “But what it really means is making global connections to further regional development.”

The chief of Tolon has even asked him to establish and direct a new cultural centre in the town, a tall order when you consider Frishkopf lives in Edmonton. But he sees it as his role to help make such projects happen.

"I feel I'm well positioned to do this. If you can address key development issues, especially education and health, funding can flow. Music is a powerful social tool for raising awareness, changing behaviour, building solidarity and teaching. It's not the whole solution, but it has an important role to play, with tremendous potential to transform consciousness, not only locally, but globally as well."

In fact, one of his early accomplishments upon arriving at the U of A was establishing the West African Music Ensemble, which became, and has remained, a hugely popular course. “I thought African music really would bring the students in, and I wanted to push things in a new direction."

Later on, between 2007 and 2010, he teamed up with U of A International to create a study abroad program that took groups of students to Ghana for an intensive five weeks during the summer. Again, it was a way to use music as the way into the country’s culture—with courses offered on drumming, dance and ethnomusicology, but also on Ghanaian history, sociology and religious studies, to provide a deeper cultural perspective.

“It was just amazing, a real life-changer for students,” says Frishkopf. “First of all, the poverty really shocks people who have never seen it. To me, that's the number one thing—to wake people up and say, ‘Look, not everyone lives as we do—some face survival issues every day.’ The students also learn much about West Africa through renowned professors at the University of Ghana, as well as through travel and residence in a small village."

Along the way, Frishkopf connected with the Youth Home Cultural Group of Tamale, northern Ghanaian musicians who involve youth in both music performance and vocational training, a perfect match for Frishkopf’s own interests in ethnomusicology and development.

Those experiences led to a series of projects that have defined his career.

His two principal projects at the moment are Songs for Sustainable Peace and Development—using popular music to disseminate development messages, with a special focus on public health, in partnership with David Zakus in the U of A’s Department of Medicine—and Music for Cultural Continuity and Civil Society, which Frishkopf describes as strengthening the social fabric by supporting “live, face-to-face, participatory music, linking generations, and nurturing an active, critically engaged citizenry.”

“My way of working is always to collaborate, empowering local civil society groups, turning things over to them to the extent possible,” he says. “I only want to be in the background, facilitating connections to the wider world, helping to obtain funding, providing some ideas and direction, but always giving credit where credit is due, always aiming for local independence and sustainability."