I should be used to it by now, but I still can’t help but be astounded by what these children — and adults— here in Ghana can do. This afternoon, the Venezuelans and few more of us were drumming and some kids came to play along. Our master drummer Jackie exchanged a flurry of inspired messages with a boy on the djembe and then more came and before we knew it, they had taken over and we all rushed to our rooms for our cameras. The drummers in Golden Gate Park are in infant school compared to these kids.
There’s no more words beyond the ones I’ve used—in their bodies 150%, able to mimic movements effortlessly, play complex drum patterns as naturally as asking to “please pass the butter,” responding to drum signals that they understand as a home language. And language is the correct way to think about it.
Consider. Every infant born on the planet starts to hear and recognize phonemes from the mother’s speech by the 5th month in utero. Within one year, after birth, those neural connections are firmly established so the child can speak Chinese, Swahili, Hungarian or Farsi (depending on the mother tongue) with perfect intonation and no accent. Within the first two years, they’re creating their own sentences, sentences that they are not just imitating, but creating from an intuitive understanding of grammar and syntax. It all happens below the belt of the conscious mind, absorbing it without willful effort as Nature intended.
Now consider that in addition to the language of actual human speech, there is a language of tones and gestures and movements spoken fluently and constantly in everyday life. Won’t the child absorb those in the same way? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” So here in the Volta Region of Ghana, there is a drum language closely related to speech. Yes, it’s true that master drum parts often tell small stories and quote proverbs and with intonations related to the tonal Ewe language. And, like all music, there is a grammar and syntax to these drum ensembles, one that is extraordinarily complex, especially rhythmically, far beyond the average foreigner’s comprehension, but as easy for the children to understand and speak as—well, please pass the butter. And just the way the young toddler rearranges speech to communicate within the proper grammar and syntax, so were the kids today fluent improvisers, sometimes returning to clear patterns they knew, but often re-arranging things to make a live conversation.
Us adult foreigners can learn how to ask for the butter and mimic the style of buttering the toast, but we will just about always speak and move with an accent and rather clumsily having had to go through the left hemisphere’s neural pathways. And much too late for Nature’s generous offer to give us those gifts of musical culture for free.
And of course, this is not simply an African phenomena. Kids born in Europe surrounded by Mozart and Beethoven will absorb an intuitive understanding of the grammar and syntax of that musical language, will anticipate certain chord shifts and melodic developments and announcements that a final cadence is coming. It’s the same for Chinese Opera or Appalachian old-time music or Aboriginal didgeridoo music.
But what just about all of sub-Saharan (and much to the north as well) Africa can claim is the commitment to speak and move that musical language just about every day of their life and always with the full inclusion of the children of all ages. It’s too easy to just say with starry eyes, “In Africa, music is part of the everyday life.” But it’s true! It knits the community together, calls on the ancestors to be present, gives energy for hard labor, teaches the moral lessons every healthy culture needs to develop in the young and old alike. I know that alone it is not enough. Ghana also has corrupt politicians and cheating husbands or wives and narrow notions about certain things. But it sure brings a useful frame to the needed conversations and animates life with such extraordinary energy, stamina and joy.
As a music educator in America, I feel how we settle for so little with our kids these days. Kids complain they’re tired after 5 minutes of dancing or clumsily bump into each other barely aware of other bodies or complain about so much when they have so much material things—but maybe not enough things for the spirit? It’s at once uplifting and depressing to see what might be and compare it to what is. There is such an open sweetness to all the kids we meet here, a comfort with adults, smiles and eye contact and didn’t I feel proud when a 12-year old grabbed my hand to dance and felt impressed enough with my efforts to feel the style and connect with his movement that he took off his beads and put them around my neck! Yeah!
Every culture has its light and shadow and once we become aware of our specific culture’s shadow, we start looking for the light to find what we need to restore balance. Specifically, we in the West need more music and dance as a mother tongue, spoken fluently by all adults and absorbed effortlessly by the young ones.
Here on the “dark continent,” that light shines bright indeed.