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An Interview with Sowah Mensah on World Music Drumming

Sowah Mensah and Michael and Mary Checco
Sowah Mensah leads a group at a World Music Drumming workshop


Sowah (00:01):

And if you play music you are always playing for and on behalf of the community not on behalf of yourself every music making, musicians have a feeling, it's a social responsibility and you do it for and on behalf of the community.

Kevin (00:20):

You are listening to the music and peacebuilding podcast, a professional development network at music,, exploring intersections of peacebuilding sacredness, community creativity, and imagination through research and story. Michael Checco and I sat down to interview Sowah Mensah. Sowah is one of the most respected music educators in the world music drumming curriculum. On this day, we were experiencing very bad audio quality over a shaky internet connection. So we were not able to use the recording for a podcast. However, the content is so rich and we are presenting it here in the form of a captioned video. This interview is rich because it approaches explanations about why studying West African music is a lifetime of discovery. And Sowah emphasizes that we need to leave our Euro-centric assumptions about music, learning at the door. As we try to encounter music in a more authentic way, the repetition of repertoire and a timeline is at the heart of West African experience. We began by asking Sowah about his music learning.

Michael (01:33):

Sowah I was hoping that you could tell us a little bit how you first started learning the music that you play and teach today.

Sowah (01:42):

Uh, well, it is, uh, that's a difficult one to answer because we don't learn that. Um, I, I have never taken a drum lesson in my life, but I've always played one, and, but I did take piano lessons, I took violin lessons. I took flute lessons. [??] flute lessons through a colleague. Uh, and so I can tell you, I learned those, but for traditional music. It is an informal type of learning. You grow up in the music, you participate. And [?] people don't realize that traditionally Africans, uh, has the spirit of music making it at a very, very, very early age. And so all games that children play include song, movement and some improvised instrumental backing. And so kids are making music at a very, very early age, you start walking, you are already, dancing. You're singing. And adults do not create games for children, all African games that, you know, they are children's games.

Sowah (03:23):

They were created by kids, by African kids. You know So in my time growing up, I mean, you were doing music all the time. Every day, you play with your friends, you're singing, you're moving, you know, some of those some of us are improvising drums, and then most activities that go on in the community there's music that is part of it. And so as a kid, you're constantly watching adults play. You're watching adults dancing. Um, you're hearing adults singing, um, and rehearsals of groups it's always done for the community and anybody can go to any rehearsal. You don't have to be in the group to go to go watch their rehearsal. And so kids who are interested in, you know, what you mean, playing. If there's a group in their neighbor, they almost every day, they show up at the rehearsal and sit and just watch, but the watching. It's not an audience that you're watching. You're watching, You're tapping, some of the rhythms, you know, so as the adults play you're watching the techniques, whether it be bands, by the time you are five years old and for a lot of kids, by the time you are like three, four, you can play almost any time, [??] the timeline, for anybody to play on. You know, So Michael, you know the importance of the timeline. Sure.

Michael (05:22):

As, as someone who has studied this music with you and others, I'm familiar with that concept of timeline. Can you explain a little bit about what timeline means in the context of your music?

Sowah (05:35):

Well, the timeline is this is the framework within which the music is organized, that's pretty much what it is, a framework within which all the music is organized, whether it's the instruments or is the singing or is the dancing, you couldn't do it. If you don't have a timeline and all the music relates to the timeline in such a way that until you figure out, the relationship of the parts you play to the timeline. You don't know that part yet. And you know what I mean by that, you can play with somebody, but when they stop playing, you get lost right away. Until you start to feel the relationship of the timeline you don't know the part, you may know the part, you may be able to play it with somebody. You may even be able to play it on your own, even if its just a two note phrase. You won't be able to come in on your own, when the timeline is playing. And so that is, that is why the timeline, everything that revolves around the timeline. Any music you hear, you want to know what the timeline is. Once you have a timeline, everything else makes sense. So that's what the timeline is.

Speaker 5 (06:52):


Speaker 1 (07:12):


Speaker 5 (07:13):


Kevin (07:28):

I was just curious, when you were talking about the timeline, did you use that word timeline when you were playing music or is that a word that you have started using as you've taught this music in the United States?

Sowah (07:41):

Oh, it's a word that, an early ethnomusicologist coined to describe [?]. They noticed that, in all, most of it, almost all the music there is a phrase that is played over and over and over again by, an idiophone, a bell or a woodblock you know, uh a clave, occasionally it maybe played on the rattle or occasionally it maybe played on the drum. If you have a drum ensemble that does not use bells and things, then the timeline parts would be the drum parts. But usually you have an idiophone, which is used in playing. And uh, some of the early writers of the music referred to that phrase as a timeline. And that's why I use it. It's an English word. It's not in their language. Uh, you know, we, we, we were saying, you know, the bell part, that's how they call it you know. The bell part, You gotta listen to the bell part. You gotta play with the bell. That's how musicians [?] you are listening to the bell. You're not playing. It doesn't matter which language it is they would use the word for bell to describe it.

Kevin (08:59):

So I spoke of the differences between Eurocentric and West African music making. He says that it would be crazy for a person in West African traditions to practice their part alone. Parts are always learned in community. So that parts are learned in relationship to other parts.

Sowah (09:17):

If you play in orchestra, sing in choir, you play in band, you are supposed to learn your part and then come and play with everybody. You don't come to orchestra practice or band practice to learn your part. And everybody's learning a part at the time. That is very, very different how we do music. You are not expected to practice your part alone ever. Which means that the only time you make music is when you have all the other parts. This was because everybody who plays present. We never rehearse alone, especially for drumming. Where I come from. If somebody sees you sitting somewhere with your drum in your house, or you go sit somewhere and you're practicing playing the drum alone people will think you are crazy because you don't do that, you always practice with the group, always you learn the parts together, you practice, the only time you practice is when the whole group is there. There is no other time that you practice your part. And so that also tells us how people think that its always part of the group. And if you play music, you are always performing for and on behalf of the community. Not on behalf of yourself. Every music, musicians have a feeling as a social responsibility and you do it for and on behalf of the community.

Michael (11:19):

Sowah, music educators have become increasingly sensitive to historical context of songs that they present in their classrooms. What would you want people to know that are implementing the world music drumming curriculum with their students to understand about the culture and the history of the music and songs that they find within the world Music drumming curriculum?

Sowah (11:42):

Well, my experience is that a lot of music teachers are very resistant to teaching the music the way it is, like I said, you know, our music and Western music is apples and oranges. I write for orchestra. I have a lot of orchestra compositions. Some of them, when you hear them, you know that I'm writing, you know, within the African music, theoretical rules, I have compositions that, you know, for chorus then, you know, and some orchestrations you hear them, you won't believe that I wrote them because they are as classical as you can think of. Um, and like, like I'm saying that when we learn our music it is different, we don't usually use notation systems in learning them. We call it a slow absoprtion. You keep doing it and you get better at it. The goal and the motivation for doing music is very different from that here.

Sowah (12:47):

Especially in schools, choral directors, orchestra conductors, and so on, the band directors, they select all the way up to the professional level, symphony orchestras, around the country. And around the Western world, they select music for a particular concert or a season. You learn them , when they finish the next season, they do an entirely new set. of pieces. They don't repeat the last concert. The only music that you can find them [repeating?] Of ensembles play is like Christmas music. And so on. But otherwise the way Western music operates, you work on a set of pieces, you perform it, the next performance you do a new set of pieces. And so on. We don't do our music like that.

Sowah (13:43):

We play the same music. You play the same music for them. The question is how well are you playing because if you play the same piece for one day and you continue playing it for two years, you will sound much better in the second year and the third year. And we believe that there's no limit that you can say Finally, I have played this piece to a level and go beyond. We don't think like that. And because of that mentality, you don't think that I've had, Oh, I'm playing this all the time. I'm tired of it. No, you cant be tired of it because you haven't played. Think about it. You're a kid. You're a young guy you played for maybe 10 years, 15 years, you know, in groups, but you have people who are 15 years old who are 16 years old. And are still playing the music.

Sowah (14:42):

You maybe play the same pieces but when you hear the other guys play, you're hearing things that, you know, you cannot get those. Because basically if I hit the block 10,000 times and you hit the drum a hundred times, just, just play, just hitting it one tone. One tone. If I do that a thousand times and you do that a hundred times, you will not sound the same. Cause I will get the sound that you cannot get because you haven't hit it as many times as I have. So that is the mentality of our music. And also because traditionally our musics are all part of something else, not just music so that we don't concertize. We don't have music that people come to sit just to watch music. That is also a part of the culture. Like Christmas music here . It is always relevant. And it always works.

Sowah (15:54):

Every Christmas people hear Deck the halls they hear silent night we hear, you know, all these, We wish you a Merry Christmas. People don't get tired of it. They want to hear it at Christmas time because the music is part of the Christmas itself. It's not separate. And therefore, can you imagine going through from Thanksgiving to the first of the new year, without a hearing silent night or Deck the Halls or any of those Christmas tunes. Anywhere, you don't hear it on radio. You don't hear it in the shops. You don't hear it on TV. I mean, you don't hear anywhere from Thanksgiving together. Think about that. It would feel so weird. You probably won't feel that it is Christmas because what makes you feel that it's Christmas is carols, is decorating a Christmas tree, is shopping for Christmas presents, and all of the things that go into Christmas. Families coming together. That is what Christmas is. If you take any of these parts away, Christmas is not compete. For us, all our music is like that. A [te....] Part of every day.

Speaker 7 (17:17):


Sowah (17:24):

my point is that one of the things I experienced is that during these workshops, it is very, very difficult to convince music teachers that they can teach this music the way Africans do it. [??] some of you do a few of you who you otherwise, were able to play these pieces with your students. Where a lot of teachers that did the workshops and year after year after year after year, they have a hard time putting it all together. The World Music Curriculum pieces, because it's written out it, tracks. They said that those won't be like pizzas and Josh's pieces. You know, who's sending in the tissue, you lend them to keep coming. He let him live with three people and you get better at it.

Sowah (18:22):

You know? So that is the resistance that I see in music. And also the fact, the point that I made that isn't to just want to be okay. It meant it came this year, then this piece then that piece, next year, they want to learn new pieces. So when they go back to their school, they teach their kids new pieces. They don't want to teach them the same old piece. Now that is trying to do the music like you're doing American music. Africans Don't do that. You have to know that and Michael, I'm sure you know this, you do [??] with your kids and I'm sure every year you realize that you know it better. And you're teaching it better. And if you continue playing with your kids, they'll be playing it better and better. There are schools that I have done residencies for 15 years in a row, 17 years, 10 years. Second graders are playing [??] because over the years. They hear it all the time. And so by the time they're, now they're first grade, they know they're friends. If I had to assume that they teach them they already know the rhythm, they just have to get the part the hand combination. And then, so that, that is, I think one of the, immediate problems. Most teachers are very resistant. They want to teach the music like the way they teach, American music or Western music, and it doesn't work like that.

Speaker 7 (20:10):


Michael (20:21):

so in our music classrooms, we obviously are expected to be teaching our students to become more musical. In what other ways, besides learning music, do you think the world music drumming curriculum is going to change and shape our students who participate in it?

Sowah (20:40):

It should. If the music teachers teach it within the norms and the traditions, of the music, in the curriculum the world music curriculum is African music it is arrangements within the style of African music. So it's not, it's not motivated by African music. It is not, it's not suggested by, African. It's usually a question of HOW the teachers teach the music. They're not always willing to teach it the way they're learning it. They're learning it, but they want to, they want to teach it the way they teach all they other music. And It never really works like that. And I know, I know some of you teachers you do it the way you're learning it and you're getting your kids playing it as well. They're playing it very well. So that is that. That is a problem that I see with what goes on with music.

Kevin (21:48):

Sowah used his experience in learning piano to compare Euro-centric, notions of music, learning with the learning of Ghanaian drumming.

Sowah (21:57):

I started taking piano lessons when I was, four years old. Okay. In Ghana when I was four years old, the first day I went, my mom took me to this ah piano teacher, I didn't touch the piano, they said, did you bring any books? I said, no, you gave my mom a list? You know, piano books that we have to go by. We went to him [??] it the second day we came. I thought I was going to play the instrument. I Came in with my books, took the books, opened one of them, he said, you know what all these lines are? I was four years old living in Ghana. How would I know what those lines are? I'd seen them before, but you know, I had to learn the lines and spaces I had learn and to know if it is a quarter note, half note and all those things I had to learn to clap simple rhythms. It was my third piano lesson that I played the instrument. Third one.

Sowah (22:58):

Now, By the time, by this time I was already playing drums. I think I was four years old. I was playing and I had been playing drums, you know, for two and a half years or something like that. But I had to learn. It that way. And once I could read, because all the music was written down. So if you didn't read that music, you're never going to be able to play. So how'd you get those tunes. And then how to play and I always had to practice before I go for my lesson, because you're not going to go to your lesson and practice what youre teacher has you doing. You should practice it at home. Know it and come. If you come and you're able to play, you move songs. To the next thing or he teaches you more of what it is. We don't do our music like that.

Michael (23:50):

What one piece of advice would you give to a teacher who walks into a world music drumming workshop to really feel empowered, to walk out and teach this music to their students in a powerful way.

Sowah (24:05):

My advice is when they come to world music drumming, first time, they have to know that. They are probably at a kindergarten level or maybe even preschool, depending on their own, musical experiences before they came. And therefore they need to understand that. That there is only so much they can get and take with them at the end of the week. It's only one week. And you know, I tell, participants all of the time.

Sowah (24:48):

there were one, if the stuff that I do with you and usually level one, I teach them the songs. You know, we do Si-Si-Si, [??], you know, and [??], depending on what it is, and I teach them a little bit, the two [??] phrases, and I said, don't feel like, because you've come to a week long workshop, you should be able to go and teach all the things that you've studied. Of course you can't. The chances are that you will not be able to teach them, you have to be able to be comfortable. You have to know them well before you can teach them. And so whatever you can get out, even if it is one song that you can learn, especially like the things that I do. If let's say you can do one bagogo song, if your students or Si-Si-si, if that's all you can take, go teach your kids.

Sowah (25:50):

You also have to realize that since you're a beginner, you should not plan to come take one workshop and go. Because most workshops that music teachers take, they, which is about the music that they've studied and they teach. They go, they get things that we can take and go teach at all. But you shouldn't expect that in world music drumming because you are a beginner in that music and therefore your plan should include coming back. If you really want to continue teaching the music, you have to keep coming back and keep coming back. So you started from preschool, [??]. And if you come a few years, you'll be at maybe second grade. You come a few more years. And so there are people who have come for 10 years, they are probably at a grade of a fifth grader in this music. They have to admit that there's something new that they are learning. They're Western music training is not going to help them do this music. And a lot of teachers don't understand that, they feel like a Western music training should make any other music easy for them to do. And when they come and it's not happening, they get frustrated. Okay? So that is one, two, take only what You can control from the workshop. I tell them if all you can do with your kids [demonstrates rhythm],

Sowah (27:24):

that's the only phrase you can play. A class of 30, teach them that phrase. They will Play. They'll go home and play on the dining tables. They'll play it in their classrooms. They will play and play there. The kids will not be bored with it. The teachers get bored with it. They say "I can teach them only one phrase. And that's it." Yes! That is it. That's what you can handle. The next year. You can add another, learn another phrase, be able to control it and teach it. And so, you know, those are the things that being prepared fresh to know that if you gonna to do world music drumming it's not a one year, or you do levels one, two, three, and you've graduated. No, you got to keep doing it because I tell teachers that, think about how long you've done Western music, all your life. Before you started walking, you hear the music, on the radio, You are already to church if your family goes to church. You hear it in movies. You start school, you sing it in choir, you play it in orchestra or band, I mean you've done this for all your life until you decide to do it in college. so anybody who comes to College to do music they have done a lot of music before they become music majors and then you continue studying [Apologize for the mixing problem here] you go to concerts all through [??] The music is all around you. And so by the time you get your music degree and you go to teach, the distance between you and your students, it's like night and day. You are so far ahead. And so I tell them If you want to do this music, then you have to put yourself in the position. [??] Because then you'll, teach it better that's good.

Kevin (29:29):

We encourage you to join workshops through world music drumning located at world music This is the music and peacebuilding podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner Johnson. At Elizabethtown college, we host a master of music education with an emphasis in peacebuilding thinking deeply. We reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music peacebuilding dot com.

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