Skip to main content

Richard Deja

School of Music, Musicology DivisionRichard Deja
Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship 2012-13

As a musicologist and jazz musician, Rick Deja sees music as a window onto the fascinating mixing of cultural traditions and collective experiences.  He is exploring this in his dissertation, entitled From Place to Placelessness: Malawian Musicians, Commercial Music, and Social Worlds in Southern Africa

Rick began playing the saxophone in the fifth grade.  He earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in Jazz Studies and Ethnomusicology, followed by a masters in Jazz Studies from DePaul University in Chicago.  His interest in African music, however, goes back to high school when he attended the Interlochen Arts Academy, an international boarding school where he met young musicians from different African countries.  His connection to Malawi was forged when he spent a year abroad there.  “I started to get to know musicians in the city and in the towns, and I recorded with some fairly well known musicians in Malawi,” he says.  “Playing the saxophone is a great entrée into any group.  It’s not that common an instrument over there, so bands were keen to have me sit in.”  

Eventually, Rick enrolled at the University of Illinois intending to get a doctorate in Jazz Studies.  However, a seminar on the music of Africa with Dr. Tom Turino, now Deja’s primary advisor, led him down a different path.  “The way he approached music making forced me to think differently about it.  I started to think about it more holistically, not just from the perspective of a performer but as an anthropologist,” he says.  Rick switched to ethnomusicology and turned his attention to the music of Malawi. 

He explains, “I want to understand how music making and working within the recording industry shape musicians’ sense of belonging beyond their country of origin.  Their passport may indicate their legal citizenship, but they are constantly working to make sense of multiple cultural influences in their music and in their lives.  Although it is very popular in many African countries to describe lifestyles and cultural practices as blending Western and African influences, the reality is much more layered.”

Decades of political instability and population movements have indeed shaped post-colonial Africa.  As Rick explains, “In Malawi, the sons and daughters of people exiled under the Banda regime, which ended in 1994, have been returning. They’re bringing new approaches that come from their upbringing and experiences in the UK or in South Africa or even Tanzania.  The music is not merely a combination of African and western traditions or cultural influences but really the overlapping of the many different countries they grew up in.  It is a very cosmopolitan environment in which people draw on a shared knowledge that is southern African.  The term ‘Afropolitan’ was coined a while back to reflect that fusion of identities.” 

Individual differences still characterize the music of particular countries, though.  “Malawian music frequently features a triplet feel comparable to an Irish Jig, and South African music often exhibits a duple feel like most US pop music,” Rick explains.  “There is a stronger rap tradition in South Africa, but the influence of reggae is more noticeable in Malawi.  Vocal styles differ as well.”  Rick’s dissertation will lay out the complex musical, social, and political elements that shape and define the musicians and music of southern Africa.

In putting together his application for the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, Rick worked with his professors but also turned to the Office of External Fellowships in the Graduate College for help.  “Your advisor will help you with the theoretical aspects of your proposal whereas the Graduate College will help you frame your proposal appropriately for a particular grant,” he says. “Working with Ken Vickery was a huge help because he has an anthropology background.  He understood the terminology I was using and the ideas I was trying to convey and showed me how to present them for the broader audience that would evaluate the proposal.” 

Along with the Fulbright-Hays fellowship, Rick also received a FLAS fellowship and a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad fellowship, both of which allowed him to spend a summer in South Africa learning the Zulu language. 

Rick will continue to interweave these different threads of his life—scholarship and performance, the United States and Africa—as he pursues his academic career.

Rick Deja at LinkedIn

Itinerant - CD by Rick Deja

YouTube: Performing live: Deja and Friends at Café Chez Maky, Blantyre, Malawi - October 2013