Class Spotlight: Introduction to Music in Africa

To help students in her Introduction to Music in Africa class grasp the concepts underlying West African music and dance, Assistant Professor of Music Marceline Saibou decided that they should actually experience them. There is a complex harmony and integrity to the music and dance, as well as an emphasis on communal participation rather than dividing active performers from passive audience members.

So she recently invited Samuel Elikem Kwame Nyamuame, an assistant professor in Binghamton University’s departments of Africana Studies, Theater (Dance) & Music, to come to Bowdoin to teach a workshop in his specialty, African dance forms. Nyamuame, who earned his PhD in ethnomusicology at the University of Florida, is from Ghana. His visit coincided with the class’s module on polyrhythms in West African music.

After warming the class up in a Bowdoin dance studio, Nyamuame taught the students, step by step and verse by verse, Gahu songs from the Ewe people of Ghana, Togo, Benin and parts of Nigeria. “It is a vibrant style of dance drumming,” he said. “I thought it would connect with the students very well.”

Saibou said that “the idea was students would experience how the dance, and the singing, and the rhythms are all creating an integral whole in West African musical traditions, whereas we here in the West think of them as separate creative elements. And to experience this firsthand is different than just talking about it.”

Assistant Professor of Dance Adanna Kai Jones also brought several of her students from her class Cultural Choreographies, which is an introduction to popular Caribbean dances and cultures. She said her students told her later that they loved the class—that “they learned so much while having fun.”

That feeling was reinforced by Chiamaka Okoye ’21. “The class was amazing!” she said afterward. “It was so nice to have an actual West African dance teacher come in and show us some moves.”

In Introduction to Music in Africa, Saibou introduces students to the diverse musical traditions of sub-Saharan Africa. They explore music’s role in social, cultural, and political contexts—both in the past and today—and study a range of subjects, from Ghanaian highlife to musical oral historians, South African a cappella, protest music, and contemporary hip-hop and religious pop music.

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