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Two men sit across from each other a living room, with a microphone set up between them. The man on the right, dressed in white dress shirt, turns to the camera, smiling. The other, in a dark cardigan, holds a musical instrument, smiling at the man across from him. Black-and-white photo.

George Moss (left) being recorded at his home by Peter Cooke of the School of Scottish Studies in September 1981.

Photo by Manfred Sell, School of Scottish Studies Archives, SSSA.V.5b.8080

  • The Contributions of My Mentor, Ethnomusicologist Peter Cooke (1930-2020)

    As an undergraduate music student in the 1980s, I felt there must be a means of studying the music of my own Scottish culture. In those days, the field of music was pretty conservative, so I knew more about Shostakovich than I did about the Highland bagpipe tradition.

    I had not yet discovered ethnomusicology, but that changed when I became a postgraduate student at the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. My time there, under the supervision of Dr. Peter Cooke, proved the most formative of my career. In this period, ethnomusicologists were increasingly investigating not only music from far-flung parts, but also starting to conduct fieldwork “at home”—in one’s own culture. Peter introduced me to the possibility of remaining part of my own community while daring to ask questions about it. He accompanied me on early fieldwork trips in my home area of Galloway in southwest Scotland.

    Peter died on December 28, 2020, and I want here to share some memories and a few of his many contributions to the field of ethnomusicology and to the musical communities he served. As is the case with other great teachers and mentors, his humanity, insight, and wise counsel made all the difference.

    Born in Wales, Peter began his career as a music teacher and lecturer in Bristol, England. In 1964, he moved with his wife Diana to Uganda. Just two years prior, the country had gained its independence from the United Kingdom, and the UK government set up initiatives to develop educational opportunities there.

    “They were looking for people prepared to teach overseas,” Peter said. “It was my own feeling that the focus of [British] music teaching was too narrow, so I wanted to experience a very different kind of music and see if I could learn how it functioned.”

    During his time in Uganda, Peter established the music department at what is now Kyambogo University, where the existing syllabus included Western music but had often neglected Indigenous music. He encouraged trainee music teachers to draw on their own diverse musical traditions which varied from district to district. “At that time, people knew very little about their neighbours’ music,” he remembered. “It was a voyage of discovery for all of us.”

    During that period, Peter recalled, there was the feeling of building a nation, embodied by the phrase “we are many tribes, but we are one Uganda.” Music was a valuable tool in this project. It is a mark of the impact of his work in this period that for the rest of his life he would hear from Ugandan musicians who said, “You were the teacher of my teacher.”

    After returning to the UK, Peter worked at Moray House College of Education in Edinburgh but continued to study the material he had recorded in Uganda. He learned that the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University had equipment that could slow down audio recordings for transcription purposes. “I spent happy hours there transcribing like mad!” he told me.

    Two people play fiddles, sitting across from each other inside a home.
    Fiddler and shepherd Robbie Murray with Jo Miller, Galloway, 1985
    Photo by Peter Cooke

    In 1969, he was appointed to the department to research and teach the music of Scotland, where he completed and published his PhD thesis on The Fiddle Tradition of the Shetland Isles. “I wanted the book to be useful to Shetlanders and teachers,” he said. “It was an attempt to feed back to the community, as well as address the academic community.”Peter also edited the seminal Scottish Tradition series of recordings from the department’s archives, which he saw as a crucial task.

    “I decided then that the majority of my publication efforts should be putting out the sound [of the music]. As a musician, I was concerned that the best of a huge store of music recordings accumulating in the School’s archives needed to be made publicly available and much of my time and energy, apart from teaching, went into working with colleagues to select and publish music itself, rather than words about music.”

    In addition to Shetland fiddling, Peter’s research interests included dance, Highland bagpiping (especially the pibroch repertoire), and the music and traditions of the Scottish traveller community. His friendship with traveller singer and storyteller Betsy Whyte, for instance, led him to encourage her to write down her memories. These were published as the book The Yellow on the Broom(1979) and its sequel, Red Rowans and Wild Honey (1990). Both have become Scottish classics. Only the other day in my local supermarket, I heard a shopper ask her friend what she was reading: the reply was Yellow on the Broom!

    Peter said of Betsy:

    She was a wonderful communicator. She had this sense that so many travellers develop in order to survive—knowing what the people they were with at that moment in time were thinking, sizing up where they came from. So, the way she would tell a story in front of Scottish students would be different from, say, American fieldworkers. She could sense just how to communicate with different types of people. In Betsy’s case I was a facilitator. All I had to do was turn on the tap.

    This reflection offers a good example of Peter’s approach as not only a scholar of musical traditions but also a champion of the people who embody them. Throughout his career, he took a continuing interest in the many musicians he recorded. In fact, he offered support to the family of Blasio Busulwa, from whom Peter learned to play the ndere flute at Kyambogo and who died at a young age.

    Peter championed the field of ethnomusicology in Scotland and across the UK, initiating ethnomusicology courses within the music departments at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities. He was also integral to the history of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology, a thriving organization that supports a network of scholars engaged in the study of musical life. The BFE provides a platform for engaging in debate and sharing research through conferences, study days, and its journal, Ethnomusicology Forum.

    Seven men and women play fiddles, flute, and accordion, standing up thick green grass and an audio recorder on a tripod. In the background, over the tree line, is a grand building.
    Jo Miller (left) plays with members of the Riverside Music Project above the River Firth in Stirling, Scotland. Stirling Castle, childhood home to Mary Queen of Scots, sits in the background.
    Photo courtesy of Jo Miller

    As an early practitioner of what came to be called applied or public sector ethnomusicology, Peter provided the perfect role model for me in sharing musicological research beyond academia. “It is all about discovering and learning, becoming enthusiastic and wishing to communicate,” he said. “Most of my work had a wide audience in mind.”

    Peter’s publications Teach yourself the Budongo and Play Amadinda: Xylophone music from Uganda were designed for use not only in Uganda but wherever multicultural music education is taught. Play Amadinda includes advice for refashioning xylophones found in most Western music classrooms in order to imitate an amadinda. His teachings engaged us in active music making. I recall classes where we sat on the floor to learn the hocketing technique of amadinda xylophone music: players alternating notes to create a single melody.

    Peter was passionate about the importance of music education in schools and prompted instructors to consider ways of teaching music that need not be bound to notation. Now, in many ways, this approach is becoming mainstream, such as in the World Music Pedagogy method developed at Smithsonian Folkways by Patricia Shehan Campbell and others. When traditional music became a compulsory element of the Scottish school music syllabus in 1988, he guided me in preparing the first support materials for teachers.

    In the early 1990s, we jointly taught a course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) on “practical ethnomusicology” for students training to teach music in school. In keeping with Peter’s practical and experiential philosophy of music education, we played end-blown flutes made of sawn up metal pipes, joined a local gamelan group, and danced circle dances while singing Scottish ballads. In 1995, the institution created a dedicated performance-based degree course for young traditional musicians.

    The BA (Scottish Music) degree—for which I was the joint course leader—was launched in 1996, and Peter acted as our very supportive first external examiner. Since then, the course has gone through several iterations, most recently as a BMus in Traditional Music.

    A woman and man pose arm in arm, smiling for the camera. We can see that the man is holding a manila envelope.
    Peter Cooke and Jo Miller, 2018
    Photo by Steve Sutcliffe

    This photo from a few years ago shows Peter on one of his last visits to Scotland (from his home near Birmingham). As usual, he is smiling and has brought something interesting he wants to discuss, as we see from the envelope under his arm. His “retirement” from academia was productive: archiving, indexing, cataloguing, and disseminating his work on Scottish traditions, from an eighteenth-century Scottish Gaelic manuscript, through to the music of Uganda.

    I once asked Peter if he considered himself an “applied” ethnomusicologist.

    “Very few people want to study something without wishing to share their knowledge with others,” he replied. “The study of ethnomusicology involves sharing what you learn, not necessarily using words.”

    For me, Peter Cooke played an essential role in setting me on a lifelong path of learning about and sharing music in the most honest manner, which I have tried, in turn, to pass on to my own students. Peter’s contribution to the wider Scottish musical community was recognized in 2019, when he accepted the Hamish Henderson Award for Services to Traditional Music. His mentorship nurtured a multi-generational community of practitioner-researchers in Scotland who were encouraged to study our own traditions in a comparative context.

    My friend Stuart Eydmann shares the following story:

    Peter once accompanied me to a postgraduate musicology conference in London where I was giving an early paper on the research he was supervising me in. Noting that I was nervous and somewhat overwhelmed by the painstaking analysis of scores and erudite historical speculation of the other presenters, he said: “Never forget how lucky you are to be in ethnomusicology. You work with real people and the actual sounds they produce, and their thoughts, feelings, and motivations are always just a question and answer away.”

    Dr. Jo Miller is an ethnomusicologist and community musician. She founded the innovative BA in Scottish Music degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and in 2017 she received the Hamish Henderson Services to Traditional Music Award at the Scots Trad Music Awards. She currently leads a mentoring program for traditional musicians. Her forthcoming book is A Pedagogy of Participation: Community-based traditional music in Scotland.


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