We are entertained by singing, dancing, and drumming at every school we visit. As a music educator I am fascinated everything I see and hear. After we arrive at the school and have the chance to greet the students with a handshake and their shy response to “what is your name?” we are led to either the shade of a tree or an assembly hall. We are treated as honored guests with clean chairs, perhaps a tablecloth covering the small table and we are sometimes offered refreshments. All of the students gather and sit while we listen to an introductory speech from the head teacher or principal. The choir children line up in front of us and begin to sing. I am struck by the strength of their voices. There is no shyness in their singing. The songs we hear are composed for the occasion or they may be known songs whose text has been personalized for us and the children either sing a capella or with a simple drum pattern. There is a lead singer who stands at the end of the row and, using call and response, leads the choir through the song. He or she will sing a solo line and the rest of the choir will join in on the response. The responsibility of the lead singer is great, as she must remember the song and give clear indications of what is coming. The choir watches her like a hawk. The children are always moving in unison as they sing but there is always one or two of the youngest who are still working on their left and rights. Just like in my classroom!
The musical performance always concludes with drumming and dancing. If the school has more wealth, the dancers will have beautiful costumes made of dried grass, feathers, or colorful shirts. The dancers may have bells tied to their legs or ankles to add another layer of sound to the music. Usually the dances are welcome songs that combine singing and drumming but at Ntawo school we were entertained with a courtship dance. We were told later that it was the “G-rated ” version, as some of the dances can get quite provocative and the teachers don’t want to encourage any behavior! Sometimes the lead singer “calls” the song or the lead drummer takes that work. As a novice drummer, the technique and speed of these young drummers is awe inspiring. There are usually 3 or 4 drums. Two are bass drums, made of wood and the heads of the drums are cow skin. The high “lead” drum is tall and the head is no more than 8 inches in diameter. The head of these drums are made of snake skin! The sound of the lead drum cuts through the rest, the patterns are fast and intricate while the bass drums hold the tempo and the beat. Everything that the lead drummer plays is a communication with the dancers as the lead drummer moves the dancers through the various sections of the dance.
I would love to spend hours learning, listening and watching all that these children and their teachers have to teach me. So much of the music that I teach in my classroom has African roots and I am awed by the intuitive musicianship of these children. I have so much to learn from them!