It seems like all things point to Ghana this month. First, as mentioned in my previous post, Obama visited Cape Coast Castle one year after I too had been there. Then, as I began to revive this blog, a friend interviewed me for “The Ones Who are Mad to Live” regarding my volunteer experience. Last night, with thoughts of Ghana lingering after the interview, I took my djembe, hand hewn in Ghana, to my first African drumming class in America. I carried with it a mere hint of a memory of my one lesson at the Accra Arts Center last July.
Last night’s class, offered at Albany’s Grand Street Community Arts Center, was just five dollars, a small price to pay for a perfect reintroduction to the djembe. I knew would it be fun. What I wasn’t expecting was Saeed Abbas, a Ghanaian master drummer… from Accra no less. Saeed has been teaching children with special needs in Seattle for several years while Village Volunteers, the Seattle-based non-profit I work for, helps people with special needs in Ghana. Serendipity strikes again.
Only after an online search did I learn that Saeed has played with the National Dance Ensemble in Ghana and performed in theaters and festivals all across the United States, including Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center. He has played for “dignitaries” such as President Clinton, Queen Elizabeth 11 and Tony Blair, and here he was guest teaching me “Fanga Alafia” in a drum circle of 9 on his way back from playing a Rhode Island festival. What a gift!
The lesson was very easy going in feel, if not challenging in technique. I felt a bit inexperienced and shy at the start but we were making music in no time. It was good to join others in song, especially one about peace and welcoming.
My friend Kate came too and we shared notes over dinner afterward so as not to forget the rhythm and lyrics. I wrote “Fun guy a laughia” which was a fun interpretation but not quite right. Hammering out the rhythm with battered hands on my drive home, I used the wheel center for the bass and the outer ring for slaps. Kate and I also traded lyric pages and YouTube Videos once we returned to our computers. By this afternoon, I could finally sing and play simultaneuously using the correct words.
I learned the true value of my drum when hearing it with the others. I knew it was special for sentimental reasons, but the sound is so alive. When I designed my drum, I wanted its voice to be one of peace, unity, knowledge and strength. In Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, Adrinka symbols visually represent concepts or aphorisms and these are often carved into the drums. To that end, I chose the following:
- Bi-nka-bi: “No one should bite the other.” A symbol of peace and harmony, this symbol cautions against provocation and strife. The image is based on two fish biting each other’s tails.
- Sankofa: “Return and fetch it.” This symbolizes the importance of learning from the past.
- Hye wo nyhe: “That which does not burn.” This symbolizes?imperishability and endurance and derives its meaning from traditional priests that were able to walk on fire without burning their feet, an inspiration to others to endure and overcome difficulties.
Peace, unity, knowledge and strength were certainly prominent themes last night. What a wonderful celebration of my one year anniversary, if only in my own mind.