Students enrolled in this semester's Global Music Ensemble course will learn about the culture and history of West African drum music from a University of Ghana professor who will bring along some of his own handmade instruments.
The Global Music Ensemble class has been part of the University of Richmond's curriculum since 2002 and is now led by professor Andy McGraw, an ethnomusicologist who studies both anthropology and music. The course will explore how the two interact.
Until now, the focus of the class has primarily been on Brazilian samba and bossa sounds, and more recently, traditional music of South East Asia, since McGraw lived and taught in Asia for five years before coming to Richmond. But his desire to diversify the course led to him to request a grant to travel to Ghana and learn with students there about West African drums, primarily the Ewe and Dagomba. He partnered with master musician, dancer, historian and philosopher Abdallah Zakariah, a professor at the University of Ghana. Together, they created their own vision of how to bring these lessons back to the students at UR.
"We originally intended to bring home only one drum," McGraw said referring to the Ewe, which he said was easier to play. "But when I heard Abdallah playing the Dagomba I said, 'We have to get that one too.'"
Both drums, named after the ethnic groups that use them, are not meant solely for entertainment. Zakariah said they were used to disseminate information to the people or larger communities.
"These drums are used in all activities of the life cycle events of the Ewes and Dagombas," he said.
Zakariah, who will only be visiting for a month, emphasizes the importance of students not letting this opportunity slip through their fingers.
"They are going to experience an aspect of a pure, traditional, African culture at its best," he said. "Students of UR are for the first time, maybe in their life, privileged to have not only a feel, but touch of an African drum Ensemble with a difference."
Despite Zakariah's brief stay, McGraw has studied the master parts of West African drumming enough to continue teaching the class. While he does believe having a master in the art makes the lessons more advanced, the course is just for beginners who can absorb only so much at once.
"We are going to teach it the way it is taught there. No notation, just oral tradition. I teach them how to do it and say, 'try it,' until they get it," McGraw said.
While the course has become part of the expanding diversity curriculum on the Richmond campus, McGraw stresses that his objective is not a global harmony narrative.
"I'm looking at music essentially as a metaphor for how to deal with diversity," he said. "I don't expect students to fall in love with the music. The point is not for them to find a universal value, but really for them to encounter difference. They are going to show up and no matter what, it is going to sound weird and they are going to come to terms with what that means."
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He said he believed this was all part of the world's faster intensification of interculturalism.
While courses similar to Richmond's Global Music Ensemble can be found in many universities throughout the country, there are only roughly one hundred Ghanaian ensembles, which is what makes the course unique. This semester's ensemble students will perform Dec. 4 at Camp Concert Hall. Additionally, Zakariah will be offering workshops in West African dance, which is open to all students.
Both McGraw and Zakariah have high hopes for what the course can do for the University and its students.
"Universities get excited about this because it works into the rhetoric of diversity and multiculturalism," McGraw said. "Students are getting the opportunity to come in contact with traditions that have a history of thousands of years."
Contact staff writer Allie Artur firstname.lastname@example.org
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