Light & Verity

Yale musicians play—and listen—in Ghana

A partnership to document Ghanaian drumming and dancing.

Dana Astmann

Dana Astmann

View full image

Dana Astmann

Dana Astmann

Members of the Yale Percussion Group played with students at University of Cape Coast during their trip to Ghana. View full image

For decades, musical groups from Yale have flown all over the world in the summers to perform. But the 12-day trip that members of the undergraduate Yale Concert Band and the School of Music’s Yale Percussion Group took to Ghana in May wasn’t just for sharing their own music but also for learning about Ghana’s musical culture.

While on the trip, students made video and audio recordings to document native Ghanaian drummers and dancers—recordings that will be used to make and publish transcriptions in collaboration with scholars and publishers in Ghana. Yale Bands director Thomas Duffy, who led the trip, likens the research to the valuable folk-music field recordings that scholars made in Appalachian areas of the United States in the 1930s.

The students experienced “all levels of collaboration” with the Ghanaian musicians, Duffy says, including drum classes with a master teacher. These were complex rhythmic routines that took the Yale students days to learn—though in Ghana, Duffy marvels, “kids play this stuff.” 

Yale Percussion Group member Douglas Perry ’14MusAD told Yale’s communications department in an interview that the experience taught him “the value of growing up in a culture that prioritizes music and dance. Not only was the sense of community and tradition very strong, but every person I met—man or woman, child or adult—could play drums and dance.”

The trip, which Duffy conceived after hearing President Peter Salovey ’86PhD call in his inaugural address for greater Yale involvement with Africa, had an ambitious schedule: the groups gave concerts at major concert halls and universities and also took part in festive outdoor celebrations. They studied with percussionists and dancers. They also assisted on relief projects and community activities. Some worked with schoolchildren, others on construction jobs, and still others were involved with implementing new water filtration techniques.

The Concert Band embarks on international journeys regularly; sometimes they’ve simply involved concerts and sightseeing. But Duffy treasures the trips that demonstrate “a real investment”—such as when they played a poor Mexican barrio district in 2010 or built houses during a stay in South Africa. “Last year,” Duffy says, “we toured in Estonia and Lithuania. We stayed in hotels, bought souvenirs. This year, some of the places where we were going, we just hoped there would be water. While the tour to the Baltics was culturally important, I believe that going to Ghana was a more significant and moving experience.”

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