Teaching Community Building Through African Drumming

Munpurugu, Munpurugu, Munpurugu


Do the above words sound strange to you? Not to students of Applied Music in a high school in New York City.

Have you ever thought of introducing a new program in your community for the youth to help them stay out of trouble? What about the idea of introducing Africa in a high school curriculum from an artistic perspective? This is exactly what the school in New York City is experimenting with, teaching its students community building and other life skills through African Percussion. 

This interesting article is culled from the school’s online newsletter and has been edited for World Music Central’s audience.

The Akan people of the great Ashanti kingdom of Ghana, West Africa, have a proverb that translates as “Time flies when one is having fun”. These words of wisdom are appropriate contextually for the school’s Applied Music Class, as the semester passed without the participants realizing it.

The excitement and the interests the class generated are summed up by two students who had the following final comments.

Talisa, a student who joined the class late, wrote about the class as “Mad fun” and Valentin, a hard working student wrote “An exciting experience for me and would like to take the class again”.

The Facing History School (FHS) is one of the dozens of new small schools opened in the fall of 2005. Based on ideals of studying and knowing the past as a key to enhancing the present, the school opened with the first class of 9th graders and it will add a class each year until it becomes a full 9th-12th grade school. The FHS curriculum is based on the guidelines provided by its lead partner organization, Facing History & Ourselves, (FHAO). The FHAO is an international organization that has over 28 years of experience helping schools to create rigorous, relevant, and exciting curricula.

As part of the FHS curriculum to promote multiculturalism, Music; Yoga,; Fine Arts and Poetry are part of the school’s rigorous programs. The Music program titled Applied Music is also known as Drum Discussion or Drumming. The aim of the program is to use the four habits of learning of Independence, Interdependence, Interpretation and Voice to achieve broader objectives of students learning academic, artistic and life skills.

The Applied Music program is one of the popular programs in the school. The class is under the direction of a Ghanaian native, Harold Akyeampong who is the president of the Ghana chapter of the world famous Percussive Arts Society.

According to Harold, students are introduced to various types of musical instruments which include traditional African drums and contemporary instruments such as the popular conga drums. Ngoma, dundun, kinkini, dawuro- Nta and awosowa are some of the traditional African musical instruments used in the class.

Using essential questions and following lesson plans, students are taught about how the instruments are made in Africa, what they are made of, which people make them and how the environment influences how people make music in their respective countries.
They are also taught the role of music in various world cultures and how African music has influenced the West especially American’s contemporary music such as spirituals, gospel, hip hop, rap, house, orchestras etc.

Among the highlights of the past semester, according to Harold, were the opportunity for the students to perform at the school’s assembly during the opening ceremony in November, 2005 where the NYC’s Board of Education’s chancellor, Joel Klein was the special guest of honor and a speaker. The students in percussion class also had the opportunity to perform at the Bowery Poetry Club, an off Broadway venue as part of the school’s culminating event. At these events, the students not only performed before an audience, but they also learned the application of stagecraft, getting audience members to participate.

As with all new programs, the beginning of the classes were not without problems especially for students many of whom are not familiar with cultures other than theirs. To make the program relevant, students were introduced to the geography of the world, the location of Africa, its people, history and the culture. Students were also introduced to the syllabus and the rubrics for the semester. In the class, students were taught hands playing techniques in drumming of slap, tone and bass for jembe drums from the Senegal-Gambia region of West Africa. They were also taught the tone and bass for the congas as well as stick playing techniques for other West African rhythm suites.

Students were introduced to some African chants, call and responses as well as some African songs. Students were also given the opportunity in learning how to deconstruct traditional musical pieces from Africa and composed rhythms through special techniques taught in class.

In order to make connections, students were given the opportunity to listen to different genres of recorded contemporary music on such as gospel, reggae, dancehall, reggaeton, jazz, house, country, rock, hip hop, rap, salsa, merengue and highlife, soukous, zouk from Africa, all on CDs. To add variety to the class and to broaden students horizon on world music, video documentaries and shots of people making music in Africa and in other cultures are regularly shown in class.

The Success Story-Applying the Four Habits of Learning:

In many traditional cultures around the world, people celebrate life with music. In Africa, making music is a communal event where both the performers and the audience participate. Drumming plays a significant role in these life celebrations. As many of the traditional drumming groups and suites are played in an ensemble setting, the promotion of a sense of community cannot be overemphasized. Students in this class learned a habit of learning principle such as Interdependence by playing in an ensemble setting. They learned an artistic skill by playing in the group. They also learned a life skill by learning how to work together in a group, accept constructive criticism and build confidence.

Students also learned how to play as soloists. As a habit of learning, it refers to Interdependence. By playing individually, students are inspired by the drumming vocabulary that they learn in class. To reach that level of independence, students have to apply another habit of learning known as Interpretation. This is done by their listening to traditional music, composed rhythms and contemporary music and then interpret it through deconstruction of the piece. To express themselves and play well, they have to apply all the principles learned and to bring out their own rhythms hence their own Voice.

Another point worth noting is that drumming in Africa imitates the nuances of the human voice and is used mostly to communicate. Like any other language in the world, to communicate well and effectively, one needs a large stock of vocabulary. Students were taught on how to brainstorm these sources and were also taught how to play distinctly so that dancers and the audience can hear, interpret and enjoy their performance.
Students have not only learned how to play drums but how to sing as well. Songs such as "Agoo, Agoo, Agoo" and "Kusum Agoro" were learned in class.

All these artistic, academic and life skills learnt in class were evident during the culminating event at the Bowery Poetry Club held recently. Students such as Ebony, Francis, Valentine, Talisa, Aisha, Zach, Rafael and José treated their own mates, teachers and the audience to some pulsating drum suites through solo work, duet as well as played in an ensemble setting.

Our future and Conclusion:

With the experience gained from the first semester, the teacher, Harold, foresees a great success for the Applied Music Program at FHS. To reach that goal, all the challenges that are identified would be addressed. Provisions are already being made to purchase more musical instruments to augment the stock, and a formal request has been made for the chairs in the class to be changed and appropriate strategies are being put in place to address discipline issues.

"If you are a parent who has plans to educate your children in New York City High School, the Facing History High School has unique programs for them," says a school representative. "In Applied Music Class, students will be able to play instruments, sing songs and play games from Ghana and other parts of Africa. This is to enhance their appreciation for cultures other than theirs. The course will also equip students with knowledge in musical cultures around the world and how it affects the everyday life of the people who practice it. It will also teach the students how to be creative by emphasizing self-awareness, greater listening ability skills and confidence in solo and ensemble performance setting. The experience gained in playing together will teach them to be team players, show tolerance for each others opposing or supporting views, cooperation and responsibility. It will also give the students an alternative to being violent or to channel their energy to drug use. The ultimate goal will be the acquisition of a life skill that will transform them to be productive world citizens to promote global peace and understanding."

One additional incentive is a proposal and plan to establish a permanent FHS Ensemble that can participate in local, state, national and international drum festivals and other cultural programs. This will give them special performance experience outside the school.

More information at www.fhschool.org.