Living a musical life offers many privileges, and many challenges. Today’s afternoon drum lesson contained both. Our teachers, Torgbui Agbla and Selorm were beginning Bobobo with us. This is a piece some of the students know pretty well from the African Ensemble at Carleton. However, several in this group, from other departments of Carleton, have never played hand drums AT ALL, and were certainly not familiar with this piece.
First, the challenge: typical of many beginning lessons in this repertoire, Selorm taught the bell pattern first. And then he launched into the second supporting part, which is two open notes followed by two closed notes, all on the offbeat. To the Ghanaians, this seems like an easy and logical drum part to begin with, but for Western trained ears, musicians or not, it is excruciatingly difficult to grasp. But there is no getting out of it, and I have stopped trying to convince my Ghanaian teachers to leave this to the last. So there we all were, sweating in the heat of the day, playing offbeats and trying to get them to land properly with the syncopated bell pattern. This experience was really eye opening for the students in terms of styles of teaching and learning. I try to occasionally interject helpful comments and reference points but the dogged determination of our teachers to MAKE the students learn how to do this part by sheer repetition with no accompanying explanation completely overpowers my suggestions. They believe the students will do it and so they will! But not anytime soon. And so we persist for at least an hour and a half ON THE SAME PART!
As we reached the point of full fatigue, both mentally and physically, we managed to get some of the students and myself onto some of the lead parts we knew, and so we diversified the sound a little. Torgbui added a song that he knew we knew, and suddenly the energy began to lift as we sang while drumming. We were all hearing the whole, and enjoying ourselves. You could sense our teachers’ relief as well, that things were hanging together. Suddenly, our junior teacher, Selorm, who hails from the Bobobo area of Ho, was inspired to begin a simple song that took hold quickly. After taking a minute to teach it, we all began to add our own sounds and harmonies to it. The one word in the song is simply: Naye…Na being the northern Ewe word for mother. The song apparently is a child calling to its mother. Sometimes this song is sung at the funeral of a young mother who has left her young child behind and Selorm told us afterwards, that often the whole community can be singing this with tears streaming down their faces. It’s a very, very powerful song, as sometimes a simple word or idea can be. This was evident to all of us as Selorm’s face took on a look that transported himself, and took us all along with him. It was as if his musical soul appeared and gathered us all up until we were floating on top of the beautiful and simple music.
By now, we were reaching the magic time of day here. Elvis, our Ewe teacher in Accra has told us this is called Wole, the late afternoon. The sun is beginning to get lower, the air is cooling, the kids are starting to play soccer and the energy for the evening is coming on. The combination of the light, the sounds of our shared singing and the gift of music we were given in this Ghanaian village was truly a privilege and not soon forgotten.