James Anthony Gardner

Key information

BMus (City)
MA (City)
Email address
Thesis title
The Course of the Hand: Formulas, Creativity and Processes of "Improvisation" in Mande Kora Music


James is a third-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Music at SOAS, University of London. He gained his BMus in Music and MA in Music Performance Studies from City University, London, where he also taught as a Visiting Lecturer within the Department of Music between 2007 and 2010. His MA dissertation was a case study of improvisation in Southern-Ewe lead drumming, focusing on Agbadza-Akpoka—a funeral dance-drumming genre from south-eastern Ghana and Togo. Following completion of his MA studies, he worked as a Research Assistant to Professor Laudan Nooshin at City University, London, where he set the music examples for her SOAS Musicology Series book Iranian Classical Music: The Discourses and Practice of Creativity (Ashgate Press, 2015).

His research interests lie in exploring the knowledge base and compositional-cognitive processes at work in improvisatory music performance, with a particular regional focus on the music of West Africa and its diaspora. His work addresses the boundaries of individual creativity and the nature of culture-specific constraints within these traditions. His current doctoral work at SOAS focuses on creative performance in Mande kora music. His primary research method is musicological analysis, informed by ethnographic data from fieldwork with Mande musicians, and, at every level, underpinned by insights gained from immersive performance studies.

A strong proponent of learning to perform as a research technique, James has studied the kora with master musicians Pa Bobo Jobarteh (The Gambia), Chérif Soumano (Mali) and Kadialy Kouyate (Senegal) whilst at SOAS. He is also an active member of the kora group Mande Strings, led by Professor Lucy Durán. He has previously studied Southern Ewe dance-drumming with Ghanaian percussionists Odartey Lamptey (Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble) and Johnson Kemeh (University of Ghana, Legon), and Cuban batá drumming with David Pattman, Hamish Orr and Barak Schmool as part of his MA and undergraduate studies at City.

James has received a number of awards and scholarships during his academic career, including an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to support his MA studies. He was also awarded the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers prizes for outstanding final year achievement (BMus) and final recital performance (MA) during his studies at City. He is currently in receipt of a SOAS research studentship and was most recently awarded a SOAS ROOTS Fieldwork grant to support his doctoral fieldwork in The Gambia (2018-19).

Research interests

My research examines creative performance in Mande kora music. This is primarily in reference to solo melodic passages, called birimintingo in the Western Senegambian Mandinka tradition and bolomaboli (lit: ‘running the hand’) further east in Bamana-Maninka speaking areas of Mali and Guinea. It attempts to understand how creative musicians construct their music in the course of performance, by studying the specifics of the musical material drawn upon and the technicalities of the compositional process. It is strategically musicological in orientation and analytical in approach and grounded in insights derived from extensive transcription and comparative analysis of recorded performances and my own collaborative performance studies.

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