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A Ghana Back Story

By: Jerry White, Lifelong Learner and Faculty Family Member

I write this share a few weeks after the reverberations of the drums and the experience have subsided somewhat.  The preparation for the Ghanaian visit was substantive including an introduction to the native dancing and music traditions.  The utilization of drums and rhythm instruments was very new to my ear, accustomed as I am to a lifelong absorption of the European music heritage.  The docents who introduced the unique patterns of African music and dance painstakingly exposed us to samples of what we might expect.

The explanation for Semester at Sea faculty member Michael Williams of South Africa inviting a handful of participants to a local Ghanaian concert was that he has had to cancel an earlier scheduled appearance and was taking advantage of his Semester at Sea schedule to make up for his missed visit.  (Professor Williams serves as the Managing Director of the Cape Town opera and has made friends all over the continent.  He recently produced a major work on the life of Nelson Mandela.)

We packed into a small tour vehicle and set out for a small community outside of Accra, Ghana.  On the way he explained how he supported this developing community center and wanted both to hear what they had prepared for us, as well as tell them about a new piece that he was working on.  The traffic was heavy and our driver was wonderfully creative in extricating us from a series of snarls.  The slow pace added to the building tension.  We arrived at the concert site and parked nearby.  The community center was by far the most elaborate structure in the neighborhood and the two-story structure was a promising surprise.

The auditorium was a modest size with an ample stage allowing for a troupe’s venue.  While we waited for others to arrive we were entertained by a small troupe of percussionists who were “doing their thing” and filling the room with the overwhelming rhythms our pre-tour lecture had prepared us for.  However, it was one thing to have small samples and another to be swept up into the ambience of an enthusiastic Ghanaian troupe.

After the brief formalities of Professor Williams and his host, we settled in for the show.  The story was about a wise elder who was trying to teach his adherents the meaning of living well with one’s peers.  Two hours of wondrous, boisterous music and awesome ensemble dancing later the audience was sated.  As one of the enthralled, I confess Ito having been converted to the exquisite beauty of the dances, the surrender to the all-encompassing drum rhythms, and the extraordinary afternoon in a small rural village.

Professor Williams was beside himself.  He pulled all the performers together on the stage, told them how truly wonderful the show had been, and then wanted them to hear a song from his new show, which he played from a CD (the Mandela Trilogy.)  They immediately started to sing and sway to his new song.  The spontaneous, accepting and encompassing energy was wondrous.  Wow!

P.S. Some ten days later, when we reached Cape Town, Professor Williams hosted a group of fans for a tour of his facility, dinner and a professional, polished delivery of “Fiddler On The Roof.”  The pit orchestra was the Cape Town Philharmonic, and the cast was superb.  What a complete cycle – the joyous gem in Accra and the exquisite piece de resistance in Cape Town!

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