July 18, 2014

Ghana (part 1)

I am crossing the Sahara desert. From the air I see sand and dust – flat, rippled, far as the eyes can see. I, a changed person from one month ago today, take it in and can feel awe at the vast, beautiful, peaceful from above expanse. I know I am changed (thankfully!) : I dove into rhythms and songs new to me, I felt extreme kindness from people, I saw the most beautiful expressions in the faces of children and I experienced ways of living I had not known before. I would like to share some of my experiences with you by quoting excerpts from my travel journal which I wrote when I had time to pause and reflect. It may not be linear, and it may include some personal reflection and cleaning out of my own navel, along with my observations and interpretations. Also, please don’t expect it to be concise. I am coming from a place where people still have the attention span and energy to perform nights full of long intricate dance and musical creations. For those who don’t want to read as much, I will attempt to write a paragraph or two summarizing my experience before going back into the journal. Here goes:IMG_5038

Ghana and Senegal were good to me!  I feel alive and am experiencing life as vibrant and rich. I spent the first two weeks studying traditional music, dance and culture of Ghana via the Orff Afrique Master Class lead by Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo, Doug Goodkin, Sofía Lopez-Ibor, and James Harding along with other Ghanaian teachers including S.K. teaching xylophone and  Pius Vordzorgbe teaching Atenteben flute. I must give a shout out to the administration at my school, Tehiyah, for supporting my participation this enriching endeavor. Thank you for making this possible for me!! None of this would have happened without Kofi’s leadership, bravery and vision. He literally brought us into his family in Ghana. I was lucky to participate in the first offering of this ambitious venture in which 35 music teachers from 11 countries not only studied details of several genres of Ghanaian music with our teachers, but were also warmly welcomed by people and village chiefs, and exposed to many cultural performances and ceremonies in the community.  Kofi made sure that we not only understood rhythms and learned songs and games to go home and teach our students, but that we also understood the cultural and historical context of the traditions, and felt a connection with the communities in which they thrive. I believe the cultural exchange set up in the course will go deep and wide. All of us music teachers will go home to ourrespective countries from Iran to Brazil to spread what we have learned, and hopefully the people who we met learned a few songs & games from us, and also will have even extra inspiration to continue their already amazing devotion to their musical culture with “obrunis” (foreigners) coming through to hear and see them in future incarnations of Orff Afrique.


The second half of my trip was filled with relaxing on beaches, music, meeting new people and meeting up with friends. I visited SK’s village Saru in North West Ghana,  canoed to Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast, experienced an all night funeral celebration with non-stop music and dance, and spent a couple days exploring Accra. The following week in Senegal, I met up with friend Damien Masterson who introduced me to some fun musical experiences even though I was visiting during the sleepy time of Ramadan. I took lessons with a great Sengalese flute player, bought an instrument from him, played a 3 hour Senegalese salsa gig, and recorded piccolo with pop star Viviene N’dour. The rest of the time, I kicked it on the beach with friends, visited Île de Gorée for history and beauty, and Lac Rose for a solo adventure. It was a great trip, and I am sad to be leaving this great continent. There are funky sand formations down below, so I will stop writing to stare out the window for a while.

Journal Excerpts:

Ghana & Orff Afrique 


June 29th 2014 Coast between Cape Coast and Elmina

Ahhhhhhhhhhhh……. Sitting by the ocean watching the waves crash against these rocks. Had a good night sleep at “One Africa” wellness center (after leaving a nearby hotel due to rodent dropping in the sheets) Beauty surrounds me. Coconut palms. Butterflies. Beautiful shoreline. Morning singing birds. Last night’s insects are still chirping.

I have witnessed and learned so much in the last two weeks that I don’t know where to begin. The life of music. The beauty of people. Their smiles. Their eyes. My heart is really opening. I feel it beating. I feel the warmth. I am aware of the miracle it is that I am sitting here in this lion carved chair, breathing and pausing to reflect on all that I have seen and heard. Yet I know that this tenderness I feel in part opened against the weight of realizing the truth of the tragedies that occurred in this place. Down the misty morning coast I see the outline of the Elmina “Castle.”  Yesterday before separating from my lovely group of Orff Afrique music teachers, we visited this site in which a system of atrocity played out its darkest deeds. We saw the dungeons in which men and women were forced to live. No light. no air. Defecating. Urinating. Menstruating. Dying. In those loathsome stone rooms you can feel the heavy oppression of souls past. This is where slaves were brought before they were shipped off to Brazil and the United States. To visit such a place was painful, but somehow an important moment in my life. I did not expect the waterworks which poured from my eyes when I suddenly understood the stories I already know as an actual reality. Real people. Real pain. Our guide had us sing Amazing Grace at the “door of no return.” Not a dry eye. Thank God we are alive and can feel.

IMG_5501     I am learning so many lessons. One is that a teacher with knowledge and passion is a powerful force. Teach truth. Live Deeply. Forgive the past and never forget the lessons. The stories the slaves have become more vivid in my imagination as I am reading while here “Brave Music of a Distant Drum,” by Manu Herbstein:  the tale of a free woman who was captured, kept at Elmina Castle then enslaved in Brazil.

The pain of seeing the dungeons seems to be amplified by how connected I became with people these last two weeks. Kofi, our fearless and visionary Orff Afrique leader, took us to villages where we met and connected with people. Beautiful children climbing all over me, holding my hand, sitting in my lap, playing games with me, dancing with me. Teaching me. Stories. Joy. Laughter. Rhythm. I feel exceptionally alive with these folk. Kindness shines from their eyes. The sweetness of a child, a young girl who was sitting with me, and lead me into the circle to dance, will stay with me forever.

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Humor. Laughter. The teenagers prepared and performed a drama for us which was at once hilarious, entertaining and profound.  To set the scene: All of us “obrunis” were seated in a large circle with the people of the village. IMG_5090Young, old, alike, under the shade of a circle of trees. We were so welcomed and met all the teachers of the school. Then the play began: Enter a young man walking about wildly and yelling nonsensically. In his hand he holds a carved wooden penis. He flails it around and strokes it with abandon. I with my cultural background and a 6 year old sitting on my lap am automatically embarrassed and confused. How could this be acceptable in a community play? The actor, very creative in his role, goes around begging for bread, sometimes even eating it off of his (very detailed) prop. What is going on? I wondered. As the strange young man continues to meet other characters, some are kind and offer him bread. Others ridicule him and laugh at his behavior. It becomes clear that he is mentally different, and can’t help his behavior. He is loud, loose with his body movements, has no ability to understand social behavior, but is not mean or ill-willed. One woman becomes especially annoyed by the begging man, and doesn’t want him interacting with her precious son, one of the mocking boys. One day she poisons the bread she gives to the young man. Back in the street, the woman’s son laughs at him and steals the bread, eating it for himself. Of course, the boy ends up dying from the poison and the mother is distraught. Moral of the story: include all people in society, take care of them and treat them well. It is true that African societies include the mentally and physically challenged, and elderly along with everyone, instead of hiding them away and segregating like we do in the States. In fact there was a man walking in the streets of Dzodze who was uncannily similar to our beloved character. I also learned from this that Ghanaians have a great sense of humor and also aren’t afraid to confront and talk about real life.

(Elmina). Last night in the thatched hut I finished the book by flashlight when the power went out. The details of a slave woman’s life made strikingly vivid by the fact that I had walked the dark corridors of the castle the day before. I had walked them freely. My body feels heavy. Let me return to the joys of the last two weeks, to lighten my mood.

Kofi set up the course time really well, packed with activities and classes. The first week we spent in Dzodze (Volta region). Our days were spent studying traditional Ghanaian music with our teachers. We learned Bobobo rhythms with all the interlocking drum, bell and shaker patterns. We learned songs and dance moves to go along with the rhythms. Kofi’s oldest daughter is a great dancer who helped us obrunis shake our stuff and learn traditional dance moves of Bobobo. We studied the Atenteben flute with Pius. My favorite was studying the three octave pentatonic xylophones with SK. One of these xylophones was gifted to Carl Orff back in 1920, and became the model for the current day “Orff instruments” which we use to teach in our classrooms. The original is pentatonic (instead of diatonic) and has gourds for resonators under the keys. The sound has a distinct “buzz” which for Ghanaians represents the life of the instrument. At first the sound was a little strange to my ears, but later in the course, when we worked with box Orff instruments, I have to say that I really missed the buzz!

One of my very favorite aspects of the course: the evening performances. Every evening Kofi organized a different group to come perform for us: dancing, drumming singing. The number one impression I will take away from all the fabulous performances is the enthusiasm and energy  that children and adults put into their music and dance. They are not afraid to dance till they are dripping with sweat. Somehow they are able to remember many long detailed choreographed pieces without missing a beat. When I think about my students back home, I wonder if they would be up to a challenge like this. I was very impressed by the talent, attitude, and stamina displayed in all these performances. Here I am after one performance with a fellow Rebecca, her friends, and Canadian course participant, Nadia.

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My friends, it is taking me much longer to type out these entries than I expected, and I have another adventure to attend which will take me away from the internet for another 4 days. (yay!) So I will divide this blog into parts and will finish my stories as soon as I can. I still want to write about the church music, traditional ceremonies, the printed and woven fabric of Ghana, the choral sessions, the time in the remote village of Saru, jamming in Accra, and my adventures in Senegal.

Thanks for reading! More to come!

with love,