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Nepomuk Nitschke

E-Mail: nitschke [at] grako-schrift.fu-berlin.de


Ph.D. Project

"Sol-Fa Notation in Cameroon.
The Assimilation of a Musical Notation System in Script, Gesture, and Practice."



"Ni lam metu: Alolon ni lam metu ye…"

"Listen here, all nations listen…"


So begins one of the most beloved songs from the Seraphine Choir, a Presbyterian Church choir from the Bakossi region of western Cameroon.  The song was written in the middle of the last century by Elias Ebong Ngole (1913-2005), an indigenous village pastor and church composer.  Ngole originally wrote these sacred songs in his native language to be sung by the choir in his home village; they quickly spread orally across the region.  Remarkably, however, Ngole also preserved them in written form, using an idiosyncratic version of Tonic sol-fa letter notation he himself developed. 

By analyzing this notation system, my thesis aims to examine the different forms of notation present in this semi-literate society, and explore how they function and how they interact with one another. 

The first part of my dissertation reconstructs the logic behind the system Ngole used to notate his songs by comparing his written sources with audio recordings.  I show here that Ngole’s notes do not merely serve as an ad hoc mnemonic for singers, but rather adhere to a consistent, recognizable set of rules.  Ngole’s hymns are thus set in a distinctly African notational form, constructed in such a way as to accommodate West African musical stylistics and listening conventions.

The second part of my dissertation centers on my transcription of conducting gestures during a performance of the Seraphine Choir, in which a conductor leads a choir performing Ngole’s pieces from memory.  This system of gestures is not only capable of marking meter, but also of signaling meter-free melodies, as well as giving cues and expression markings.  The conductor’s gestures shape the songs of the Seraphine Choir into coherent musical  unities, and function in performance as analogues to the written framework of Ngole’s note-values.  Here, Ngole’s textual notation is manifested as a form of physically embodied notation.

The third section of my dissertation is concerned with the memorization and oral transmission of these songs.  By means of the many borrowings in Ngole’s music from the Presbyterian church’s Anglo-American songbook, we can analyze the criteria by which Ngole integrated preexisting melody-fragments into his work.  In addition, Ngole himself made extensive use of recurring musical patterns in his work; these motifs served as the building blocks for his compositions.  Other composers within Ngole’s ethnic group, inspired by his music, built on his pieces by playing with and adapting these basic patterns.  These patterns have become the basis for an oral notation that exists alongside written notation in Bakossi musical culture.  This oral notation makes possible both the transmission and learning of a great number of songs by church congregations.

The ultimate goal of my dissertation is to explicate the meaning of Elias Ebong Ngole’s notation system within the context of Cameroonian sacred music.  Even though the notes in his Sol-fa system are used in part as tools for rehearsal and performance, they are grounded in a distinctly African notion of musical form, and thus constitute a system quite distinct from European musical notation.  By comparing the embodied notation of the Seraphine Choir’s conductor with the oral notation of other choirs, my dissertation will also show analogies between the various non-written methods of representing music in West African culture, thus expanding the term “notation” from the purely graphical domain into other media.



Curriculum Vitae

Since 10/2008

Ph.D. scholarship within DFG Research Training Group “’Notation Iconicity’: On the materiality, perceptibility and operativity of writing” at the Freie Universität Berlin

Since 2003

Project-based 3D-animations for theater and opera productions

(Deutsche Oper Berlin (2003), Staatstheater Wiesbaden (2005, 2006, 2007))


Composition of the musical play „Werthers Leiden“, Ballhaus Naunynstraße, Berlin

04/2000 - 04/2001

Advanced training as multi media producer (SAE, Berlin)

08/1996 - 09/2008

Continuous employments as video editor for several national television networks and production companies in the field of news reports, magazines, on-air-promotion and documentary movies (ARD, ZDF, rbb, 3sat, arte, PREMIERE)

09/1994 - 09/2007

Studies of musicology and protestant theology (MA) at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg and the Humboldt-Universität Berlin 





„I am on the Lord’s side and the Lord is on my Side“ - Körpernotationen in Kameruner Kirchenmusik, in: Sprache und Literatur, Juni 2011 (in preparation)

Getaufte oder verdammte Melodien?- Über den Einsatz afrikanischer Musik in der Mission in Kamerun, in: Interkulturelle Theologie, (in preparation)


"Between “Heathen’s Tumult” and “Graceful Movements”, how the first missionaries perceived music in the Bakossi area", in: Voices from Kumba. Theological Reflections for Cameroon, Africa, and the World, Kumba/Limbe, Presprint, 2010

Notationsformen Kameruner Kirchenlieder, Quellen zum Verständnis afrikanischer Musikwahrnehmung, in: Grüter, Verena und Schubert, Benedict (Hg.): Klangwandel. Über Musik in der Mission, Frankfurt am Main, Lembeck, 2010



Media production


"Wir wollen eure Lieder singen! – Ein Kirchenmusikseminar im Kameruner Grasland"
documentation, 20 min, HD, 2011 (in progress)


"The Great Hymn – Eine Oper über den südafrikanischen Propheten Ntsikana"
documentation, 30 min, HD, 2010 (in progress)

"Alles was Atem hat, lobe den HERRN – Weltgebetstag der Frauen 2010 Kamerun"
documentation, 15 min, MiniDV, 2010


"Bakossi-Songs – Einheimische Kirchenmusik aus Kamerun"
documentary film, 40 min, Mini DV, 2009



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