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West African Ensemble electrifies with eclectic beats

November 30, 2018

Mindy Leder
Mindy Leder
MAKING NOISE: Led by Adjunct Lecturer in Music Jordan Benissan, the West African Music Ensemble champions a non-Western perspective.

Hip-Hop, rhythm and blues, jazz, reggae—many kinds of popular music have roots in Africa. Last night, the West African Music Ensemble brought to life the connection between drumming, dancing and singing during their performance “The Path and the River.”

Distinct at Bowdoin in its non-Western approach to music, the ensemble is directed by Adjunct Lecturer in Music Jordan Benissan—a master drummer of Ewe people of West Africa, esteemed for complex cross-rhythms. The unique aspect of this ensemble lies in the method of learning music via the truthful method of West African musicians.

“Inherently, West African music is the experience and not necessarily the sound,” says Nick Cattaneo ’21, a drummer in the class this semester.

Although some students have previous experiences with drumming, most students come into the class as novices. This may seem intimidating at first, but Benissan’s method of teaching allows students to form deeper connections with their instruments.

“If you want to learn to understand and play, it’s like [trying] to find your way into a relationship with somebody. It is hard to find your way at first, but after you find your way in, you still have to work hard or it will fail,” Benissan said.

Instead of the traditional Western methods of reading notes on a page or learning to count the rhythm, students in the class first learn the spoken version—singing and talking—of what they will be playing. Compared to Eurocentric academic traditions, this approach challenges students to push their boundaries.

“The connection between hearing a part in my head and hearing it actually played on the instrument isn’t so strong. Learning how to sing everything that I play makes that connection much faster,” said Cattaneo.

Instead of having one drummer play a complex rhythm, each of the 10 drummers learns to play an individual part that is relatively simple. However, once all the singular parts come together, it creates something harmonic and beautiful.

This process plays into other music fields.

“The lessons you learn can be applied to a drummer in a band’s mentality. As a drummer, your job is to keep the time and to make the music feel good and danceable. Your job isn’t to play all of this crazy stuff,” Cattaneo said.

In addition to the unconventional method of learning music, the ensemble also exposes musicians to the important underlying cultural tradition. As an academic discipline, traditional West African music is often pushed aside as colleges focus on genres such as classical music developed by European musicians.

“[In many colleges,] you don’t really see much of other complex musics that are balanced in other cultures, for example in Africa, India or the Middle East,” said Benissan.

More broadly, Benissan wishes to give his students the creative tools to preserve the legacy of traditional African music while also creating more modern and transformed pieces.

“Music was developed out of the concept of breaking down a single perspective. Instead of playing music in one time or one meter, [musicians] came up with a mathematical equation to redevelop music to be played in multiple time and several meters,” he said.


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