Sarah Bishop is researching how music and conflict intersect in Ethiopia. Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Bishop

Originally drawn to Ethiopia because of its historical uniqueness and non-western music, a Ph.D. student is now researching how music and conflict intersect in the country.

Sarah Bishop, a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology at Ohio State, first traveled to Ethiopia as a volunteer before starting her undergraduate career at Point Loma Nazarene University in California, where she was exposed to non-western music for the first time and met many musicians.

Ethnomusicology is the study of society and culture through music — typically music outside of the traditional western style. Both the similarities and differences of western and non-western music drew Bishop to the study.

“When I met musicians in Ethiopia, we sort of had this instant bond over the fact that we both were involved in music,” Bishop said.

Ethiopia stands out among other African countries having never been colonized by a European power, the country has seen its languages, cultures and tribal origins stay mostly intact, according to Bishop.

“In parts of Ethiopia, they have these different kinds of tensions, tonic scales, that we don’t have in western music,” Bishop said.

She added that even the vocal approach and style of playing is different.

“It’s very ornamented, and just quite unlike anything I’d ever heard before in the United States,” Bishop said.

When Bishop got back to the U.S., she tried to find more information on Ethiopian music, but like with other East African countries, there was little information out there, inspiring Bishop to explore it herself.

“If no one’s doing research on the music that’s happening there, maybe I should just do it,” Bishop said.

Growing up, Bishop said she was “steeped” in western tradition; she taught piano, played for churches and accompanied choirs while in high school. She started to earn money for playing and discovered how lucrative the music industry could be.

“I love music very much, obviously,” Bishop said. “But also the financial aspect, interestingly enough, pushed me into [music].”

Bishop completed her master’s degree in ethnomusicology at Florida State University.

In summer 2016, Bishop went to Ethiopia to see how feasible Ph.D. research would be. After being introduced to several people in Gambela, a city in Western Ethiopia, she began recording songs by local artists and noticed ethnic identity and tension “pop up over and over again,” she said.

Bishop added that in Ethiopia, ethnic identity is important and very political.

To finance her research and trips to Africa, Bishop received grants from the Ohio State School of Music, Office of International Affairs and Mershon Center for International Security Studies.

Bishop said that the fluid movement of the local people caused her research to spread across Eastern Africa, and some of the music she studies is linked to conflicts such as the intense fighting in South Sudan in 2016 that displaced nearly 42,000 people and killed 300.

However, not all of the music Bishop studies is rooted in conflict.

K-Denk is an example of an artist who uses music to move past the violence. His song “Brighter Day” was played on South Sudan media stations to acknowledge the peace agreement signed between South Sudanese President Salva Kirr and South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar in June of last year.

Bishop said when people study ethnicity and ethnic conflicts, they typically tend to look at social and political factors, but expressive culture such as music tends to get overlooked.

“And people ignore it as something that’s peripheral to what’s happening,” she said. “We really need to pay attention to [music], especially in the context of societies that are traditionally oral cultures.”