Published: Sept. 5, 2017 By

austin okigbo posing with fellow presenters in africa

Austin Okigbo (right, holding the kora, an African harp), colleagues from Harvard University and Mali musician Mande Griot in Conakry, Guinea, in April.

Perhaps the key to helping eradicate some diseases and bring equality on a global scale can be found in music.

It may sound far-fetched, but Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology Austin Okigbo has found in his research and travels that music’s way of reaching people on a deeper level could help doctors and law enforcement officials in some of the world’s most desperate societies transcend language barriers and make real progress in decades-old struggles.

“Until you tap into what really guides people’s thinking on things like disease and the justice system, you won’t be able to fully help them understand. Music can serve as a decoder to help facilitate communication.”

Okigbo is making the assumption based on years of study and observation. Prior to coming to the College of Music in 2012, the native of Nigeria taught at Williams College and Harvard’s Center for African Studies. His years of work resulted in a book, “Music, Culture and the Politics of Health: Ethnography of a South African AIDS Choir,” for which he won, along with Associate Professor of Composition and Pulitzer finalist Carter Pann, the Provost Faculty Achievement Award.

His work also resulted a presentation on music in African health discourse before an interdisciplinary audience in West Africa last April.

“I also chaired a panel on African languages in health, law and business at the UNESCO World Book Capital conference in Conakry, Guinea,” Okigbo says.

UNESCO’s annual World Book Capital celebration brings together professionals from different fields to engage in conversations about how language operates in disciplines such as law, the arts, literature and the medical field.

Okigbo says that kind of collaboration is important to preventing a siloing of expertise when fighting some of the world’s biggest problems. “We can’t continue to live in this compartmentalized frame of mind,” he says. “If you’re in music, you’re in health. We need to see the intersection of all these areas to really solve problems.”

Okigbo knows the benefit of a well-rounded approach. Though he always had an affinity for music, he began his academic career as a philosopher. After receiving an undergraduate degree in philosophy in Nigeria, he switched gears to come to the U.S. and study music at Westminster Choir College.

“I’ve never been able to separate music and philosophy,” he explains. “Even in a conservatory setting, I always saw music as more than just sound. Then I did a project on ethnomusicology, and I decided to pursue a PhD in that field at Indiana University.

“I didn’t abandon philosophy or music. I found a place where they began to function together for me and then I dug deeper.”

That opportunity to dig deeper came last spring as Okigbo traveled to West Africa ahead of the UNESCO conference. In talking to African community leaders, he learned of their battles with cultural holdovers from colonial times.

“If you go to certain African countries, you’ll notice that the legal systems are still modeled after either the French or English judicial systems—whoever colonized these countries. Citizens lose their cases because of the language barrier. So that raises the question, ‘How is justice being administered when everything is lost in translation?’”

The problem was especially profound when it came to local health concerns such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is still rampant in parts of Africa.

“The doctor can’t tell people what they’ve been diagnosed with because of the language and knowledge barriers, so we have to find different means of communication besides ordinary language. And often, music and the arts can help doctors do that.”

So, in the presence of language limitations, people’s experience with diseases and health in general are sometimes best articulated in music and the arts.

“As ethnomusicologists, linguists, anthropologists, we need to work together get to the level of the people and redesign education and policies in a way that will be more beneficial for everyone.”

This semester, Okigbo is teaching an elective course on music and global health for the first time. For more information, visit the CU Course Catalog.