‘Music connects’ for Summer Institute students

The Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen brings new students together with experienced faculty and graduate students to discuss cultural themes in Africana studies.

Timothy Rommen next to a piano and a podium teaching a class full of students.
Timothy Rommen (right) teaches a class on Dominica’s popular music, one of several in this year’s Center for Africana Studies Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen.

Professor Timothy Rommen wants all his students stomping their feet and beating on their desks. “Now don’t speed it up,” he admonishes. “It’s actually kind of hard not to speed it up, but keep it right here.”

While half the class keeps the beat steady, Rommen leads the other half in a different, syncopated rhythm, both complicating and confusing the beat. “It’s three in your hand and two in your foot,” he says. Stomping and clapping, Rommen is teaching them how to manage different beats at the same time, a skill frequently employed in the Caribbean, which Rommen studies as a music ethnographer in the School of Arts & Sciences. “This is a lot about feel, right? If you tried to count it, you’re gonna fail,” he says.

It’s harder than it looks. “We’re not going to take this on tour, I’ll tell you that,” Rommen tells the group as the students collapse into laughter.

Rommen’s class, A Borderless Caribbean?: The Creole Geographies of Dominica’s Popular Music, is just one of the courses offered during the 2022 Center for Africana Studies Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen, now back in person and in full force. (The Institute was online in 2020 and offered at reduced capacity due to COVID restrictions in 2021.) The one-week intensive study experience exposes students to Penn’s campus, collegiate expectations, and major intellectual and cultural themes in Africana studies, all before their first year at Penn. All for free.

Two masked students sit in the front of a classroom, one with a laptop, the other speaking
In A Borderless Caribbean, one of several course offerings during the Summer Institute, students explore the idea of “Creole” through music from Calypso to Soca. 

The Institute was established 36 years ago, a fact noted by Vice Provost Beth Winkelstein during the Institute’s midweek barbeque, hosted at the Koo Pavilion. She and Camille Z. Charles, who has directed the Summer Institute for the past 16 years, introduced Penn’s new President Liz Magill, who visited with the students on her 20th day on the job.

“It meant the world to me to be able to spend time with these incredibly motivated students,” said Magill, speaking after the event. “They are going to be contributing greatly to the Penn story in the coming years, bringing their brilliant, authentic, and unique perspectives to campus. This summer program is only the beginning for them, and that makes me really excited for the future.”

Four students pose with President Magill; one student holds up her phone to take the picture
President Liz Magill takes a selfie with students. 

Back in the classroom, teaching assistant Stephanie Gibson, a doctoral candidate in the History of Art Department, is reading the rough draft of a student’s final paper, trying to pin down the thesis.

“What is it you are saying that is different than anyone else?” she advises the student. “Even if you tie it together in your conclusion, signal that you’re going to do that in your introduction.” Gibson says she likes the message of the final paragraph but tells the student to state her point up front in the revision. “I had no idea that’s where you were going,” Gibson says.

A strong thesis statement is what professors will be looking for, Gibson says. The student asks for an estimated grade. Gibson hesitates. “You’re at a B-,” she says. “But you can do better.” The student nods, and packs up her backpack.

“It’s amazing to see how much they grow in a week,” Gibson says. “Their thinking is so fresh; they’re looking at texts I’ve already read with new insight. I love that this class gives them the tools to think about colonialism, gives them the tools to make their own decisions.”

In the course A Borderless Caribbean, students explore the idea of “Creole” through music from Calypso to Soca. The course asks What is Creole? Could it refer to something broader than mixed race or language in the Caribbean? Who gets to claim this term? Where are its boundaries? In Rommen’s class, it’s all fair game.

Rommen breaks a track down for students. Listening to each musical layer a line at a time, he calls out the bell pattern that originates in the musical style Lapo kabwit, the percussive shaker typical of Jing Ping accordion bands, and the extra hits often heard in Soca. “Put everything together, you’ve got Bouyon,” he says, a musical tradition unique to Dominica.

An anglophone island lying between the French-speaking Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south, Dominica is marked by its mountainous inland peaks. Most of the settlement and limited infrastructure lies on the coastal road circumnavigating the island. For a nation of 72,000 people—for comparison, Philadelphia’s population is over 1.5 million—Dominica has a disproportionately vibrant and thriving musical scene, Rommen says.

But musicians in Dominica almost all have day jobs, the students learn. They’re not generally connected to powerful studios or big-name producers in the same way that musicians in Jamaica or Trinidad are, Rommen says. They don’t get the tides of tourists seen in Trinidad or Antigua during Carnival season.

“This class showed me how music can really demonstrate the historical, social, political developments of a region,” says Kaitlin Cruz, an incoming freshman in the Wharton School from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. After listening to similar beats used by different artists, the class also made Cruz wonder about appropriation and intellectual property. Music itself is almost recycled; many different groups have similar origin sounds, she says.

“What’s interesting is that there was a deliberate, very explicit decision on the part of these artists to claim the music of the region as their own kind of palette to kind of work from,” Rommen says, which differs from sampling Top 40 songs or using other people’s melodies without consent.

Artists in Dominica take the musical base layers that connect the region and reconfigure them into something new as a way of making a big powerful claim about how Dominica is connected, Rommen says.

Omotola Ogundele, an incoming freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences from Orange, New Jersey, connected Creole music with what she sees in Nigeria. “We have traditional music that you don’t hear that much,” she says. “There is so much variety … there’s a lot of realness within it. But it’s not really out there. Why? Because they don’t have the resources.”

“The colonial matrix of power is stopping a lot of things,” Ogundele says. One, she concludes, is the flow of good music to a wider audience.

For Rommen, part of his motivation is “to participate in a broader conversation about the long history of colonialism and the violent legacies it left. And kind of do some reparative work, if possible.”

Rommen started out as a classical guitarist before realizing that much of the music that he played and listened to was made possible, in part, by the excess of capital derived from free labor in the New World.

As a thinker, it became important for Rommen to acknowledge the past and think about its implications. “And so that’s what I’ve committed myself to, my whole career,” he says.

For Rommen, even more important than music are the connections that music facilitates. “It’s the meaning that’s generated in the space between people that actually is what’s so fascinating to me,” he says. This is a motif throughout the class—how music and water connect the Caribbean islands.

Timothy Rommen addresses students
For music ethnographer Timothy Rommen, even more important than music are the connections that music facilitates. “It’s the meaning that’s generated in the space between people that actually is what’s so fascinating to me,” he says. 

The class debates whether is it possible to have musical fusion or cultural exchange without the power dynamics of race, class, and privilege. Joanna Raymond Ruiz, an incoming first-year student from Mexico City hoping to double major in fine arts and philosophy, politics, and economics in the College, says that “maybe if as a society, we understand that cultures can work together without having boundaries between them, maybe innovation and progress will be easier.”

From Swaziland, Nhlanhla Mavuso, who plans to major in electrical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, says he also sees reason for optimism. These musicians, he says, “came together to form something new with love and passion … What can we make in this world if we can actually appreciate who we are, and then came together to formulate our own creativity?” Culture is something that can change; culture can create unity, he says.

“So, we have two expressions of real hope!” Rommen says. “That is a hope that we need.” This expression of hope, combined with an awareness of the past, can propel alternate imaginings of a better future, he says.

Rommen is impressed with his students. “Really, really, really, really impressed, he says. “I’m convinced that you will make a difference in the world.”

Just like the Caribbean Ocean, the space between these students from Swaziland and New Jersey, Florida and Mexico, can also be what connects them as people, what brings them together, what defines them as a whole, he says. The space leaves room for a new kind of Creole, a mix that creates something new.

Camille Z. Charles is the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology, Africana Studies & Education in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Timothy Rommen is the Davidson Kennedy Professor in the College Professor of Music and Africana Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences.