By MICHELLE SCHMIDT
Even between cultures, music is a common language. The University of Idaho Lionel Hampton School of Music is offering a way to expand that vocabulary at the Sounds of West Africa drumming and dancing workshop beginning June 12. The workshop will be led by Nii Ardey Allotey, a Ghanaian master drummer and dancer, and world percussionist, Nevin Chettri.
After all, West African music has a bit more to do with the music on your playlist than many might think. The sounds that came over the Atlantic in the 16th and 17th centuries have deeply influenced the American music tradition: blues, jazz, bluegrass — even rock and country — can trace their roots to West African sounds and rhythms.
Still, Ghanaian drumming works differently than notated music or even pop songs with a set verse and chorus, Chettri said. The music is unscripted and moves like a fluid conversation that has a basic direction, but improvises along the way.
“It’s like a dialogue,” Chettri said. “It’s not the same every time you play it.”
In that dialogue, the drum master works as the leader and calls out when it is time to move to another part of the song. Each percussion instrument — the various drums, shakers and bells — has a basic pattern to play that is improvised along the way.
“It’s almost like a percussion orchestra,” Chettri said. Together the instruments create a layered, intricate sound.
With the instrumental foundation in place, a melody of words rings out over top. Usually it tells a folkloric story, and it’s typically sung in a call-and-response format that involves the whole community. Dance, then, is a part of the storytelling, and the moves depict some aspect of the story, Chettri said. It’s choreographed, but like the music, improvised along the way.
“There are certain moves that are traditional that belong to a certain tribe or ethnic group. But then there’s the evolutionary aspect too, where people develop new moves,” Chettri said.
An ensemble devoid of a stringed instrument might seem unusual to those immersed in the American music sentiment. But drums play a different role in Ghanaian culture. Drummers are trained from a very early age, Chettri said, and the instruments are integral to society. “They use drumming and singing as part of everyday life.”
Not only are drums central to the cultural ceremonies — weddings, funerals, honorary events — but they are seen and used everywhere. During a visit to Ghana, Chettri observed people who would drum as they walked down the street and a group of young men who would play during their early morning run, as if in lieu of headphones and an iPod.
And if people weren’t playing drums, they were dancing to them.
“I would see these people in their 80s — they could hardly walk, but once the music started, they’d get up and start dancing,” Chettri said.
Last year Chettri and Allotey held a similar workshop in McCall. Most of their students had some type of background in African music or in drumming, but experience varied. It drew interest from all ages and the two full days of dancing and drumming went at a comfortable pace for those involved. In fact, Chettri said, not everyone was ready to go home at the end.
The workshop provides access to various types of cultural music without the cost and hassle of travel. And in his worldwide travel and exploration of music, Chettri has found that music styles have more in common than people initially believe.
“We think there are too many differences, but actually there are a lot of similarities.”
if you go
What: Sounds of West Africa: Ghanaian Drumming/Dance Workshop
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 12-13
Where: UI Lionel Hampton School of Music, Room 213, on the corner of Blake Street and West Sweet Avenue in Moscow
Cost: $150/person. Register by Tuesday at Lionel Hampton School of Music Office or online at: www.uidaho.edu/class/music
What: Sounds of West Africa: Ghanaian Drumming/Dance Performance
When: 11:30 a.m. June 14
Where: Moscow Farmers Market in Friendship Square
Schmidt can be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 305-4578.