‘Music is a vital tool’ for African identity

Nicole Hennessy

The Kent State Afrian Drum Circle plays traditional music originating from all over the continent. Here members play a traditional song from Ghana. Members of the group switch between playing the double cow bell, an instrument native of Ghana, and djembes

Credit: DKS Editors

The drums speak to your body rather than your ears.

The students playing them form the African Ensemble, a group some fear may cease to exist after current members graduate.

“If the African Ensemble disintegrates, the Africans will lose part of their identity,” said Kazadi wa Mukuna, leader of the ensemble and professor of ethnomusicology. “Someone has to tell freshmen this exists.”

As the rhythm picks up, the students smile, clap and sing.

“We teach rhythm and the meaning of music itself,” Mukuna said. “The ensemble is a moment of relaxation.”

But there are no new bookings or new members.

“Music is a vital tool in our existence,” Mukuna said. “The ensemble is open to anybody.”

This hands-on learning tool, created by a man who Mukuna credits with having “great vision,” has offered students “a moment of relaxation” for the past 40 years.

Professor Emeritus Halim El-Dabh, who is 88 years old, created the ensemble in 1969 as a way to bring back his experiences from Africa.

“(The program) stimulated the whole idea of the full and rich cultures of Africa,” El-Dabh said.

He has conducted ethnomusicological research around the world, including in the Congo, Egypt and Morocco.

“There is a huge knowledge of movement and vibration of voice. It has tremendous powers,” El-Dabh said. “I had experiences in the Congo when they danced, they chanted. They used their voices and drums that gave the dancer the energy to counter gravity and stay in the air longer.

“Music and the arts is part of evolvement, not a show. They perform for the environment and the gods. It’s performing for evolvement.”

El-Dabh plays instruments so the sounds they produce mimic the wind and touch people.

“I believe in vibration,” El-Dabh said as he recalled playing outside on a rainy day in Colorado. “I wanted the whole world to be filled with vibration.”

As he played, he said the sky cleared and a rainbow emerged.

He wanted to include in the African Ensemble a “poetic sense,” equating music with growth and nature.

“The circumstances of America don’t allow it,” El-Dabh said. “We have to allow growth of our poetic sense.”

Though he still teaches African ethnomusicology, he retired from the School of Music and the African Ensemble and handed leadership over to Mukuna in 1989.

“I was given the responsibility to carry it on,” Mukuna said.

As he watches one of the members explain Kpatsa’s lyrics and meaning to the resProxy-Connection: keep-alive

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of the group, he plays his own drum.

“We gotta be able to make fun of ourselves,” Mukuna said to the students as they played. “We must be able to have fun with our own playing.”

The Kpatsa, a song women in Ghana dance to before they get married, bounces off the walls of the small room they practice in.

Graduate assistant Noraliz Ruiz plays along on an instrument called the double bell.

“By playing this kind of music, I have conceived how African music is structured,” Ruiz said. “The music reflects, in some sense, how their (Africa’s) society is composed.”

Contact performing arts reporter Nicole Hennessy at [email protected].