A couple dozen students are gathered in a circle on the brick plaza by the Fisher Fine Arts Library, exhaling puffs of warm air into the cold. Dr. Carol Muller stands in the center, wearing a pair of tall black boots that she’s just stuffed with scarves for a little extra leg protection. She’s here to demonstrate a South African dance tradition known as gumboot for this undergraduate World Music class.

“Have any of you been to the mines before? A coal mine? A gold mine? It’s a pretty [scary] experience, two to three miles underground. You need to listen to the person who’s calling out instructions,” she shouts. “And that’s what gumboot is doing. I am the boss today and you are my workers, and you need to listen to me. When I say 1, 2, 3, 4, I want to see your legs go.”

Muller starts with a steady four-beat stomp. Then she adds some syncopation. “One! TwoThreeFour. One! TwoThreeFour.” When the boot slapping and leg smacking are added on, things get more complicated. A few students make up their own moves as if to hide the fact that they’re not quite getting the hang of it. Muller goes through it again, performing and reviewing each series of steps with the class before adding the next variation.

“This is not how I learned gumboot dance,” Muller explains. “I had to keep watching and hope I got it right.”

For her own lessons Muller, who is white, crossed illegally into the black townships around the South African city of Durban to study with a team of gumboot dancers led by Blanket Mkhiz. (Blanket was her teacher’s stage name, given for his warm and protective persona.) His protectiveness was essential for Muller, who was studying ethnomusicology at the University of Natal at a time when government crackdowns on black political activity were provoking waves of violence in the townships. If it looked too dangerous on a particular day, Mkhiz would call Muller and tell her not to come. Sometimes she and her research partner would pick up the dancers and sneak them back to the university for practices. “We went in some very dangerous times,” she says.

Her parents were engaged in their own work in the communities around them, and they rarely talked about the risks they each faced. “You didn’t want anybody really anxious about you. So you just did it,” Muller says. “You’d just say that people live with that kind of [violence] every day.”

While in graduate school at New York University, she entered different townships around Durban to study women’s music and dance performance within a Nazarite religious community, known as the Shembes. It was still a dangerous time in South Africa.

“You would think as a white person, I would be a target, but they looked out for me. I had a Shembe sticker on the back of my car and I wore a prayer gown when I was on the site,” Muller says. The religious community’s members instructed her to keep it on for protection. Muller still had a few brushes with trouble. One day, members of a gang called the Magnificents repeatedly bumped her car while she was waiting to pick up her research assistant. “I drove away, and when I picked her up later, I told her never to be late again.”

After graduate school Muller taught at her alma mater, now named the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where doors began opening to black South Africans who may not have been steeped in music theory, but were good musicians. Her department began a comprehensive project to research and record indigenous music. “These were the performance genres that white people didn’t know about, which had been around for a very long time,” she says. “You suddenly realized there was a lot to be done.”

Muller would also find that to be the case in Philadelphia.

Soon after she came to Penn, she got a call from Dr. Ira Harkavy C’70 Gr’79, the energetically persuasive director of Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships. “We need to meet,” he said. Harkavy was interested in starting a gospel project involving the local community and put Muller in touch with a CCP board member, Winnie Smart-Mapp, who was passionate about gospel music. This contact culminated in several projects involving the West Philadelphia community, which eventually led her to the Quba Institute.

“In the 1990s gospel was the number one leisure activity in the black townships [of South Africa],” Muller says. “You’d have a competition and 700 groups would arrive. But I had no idea about how important Philadelphia was. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is the first African American church independent of European control in this country, is housed right here in Philadelphia. This was the first major stop beyond the Mason Dixon Line for freed slaves. It’s an extraordinarily important place.”—S.F.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/06