Speaking with Drums
Playing like a man
“One of these things is not like the others” quipped Brett Gallo’s mom when she saw the photo (left) of her son, a UNH senior music theory major from Hampton, NH, among his drumming teachers and fellow musicians in Ghana.
Brett was, indeed, a bit of an anomaly in Ghana last summer, and not just because of his skin color and build, but also because of his dedication to spending four to five hours a day, five days a week, learning complex traditional Ghanaian dance music. His hands were bruised, swollen, and peeling, but he kept at it, prompting one of his teachers to comment, “Now you play like a man.”
With a grant from the International Research Opportunities Program and under the direction of UNH Professor Burt Feintuch, director of the Center for the Humanities, Brett studied for nine weeks in Ghana. Instructed by two master drummers, he learned the origin and purpose of over a dozen different drums. He practiced techniques for producing different tones. He memorized patterns, rhythms, and vocal melodies.
“All of this memorization and self-mutilation of my hands wasn't in vain,” says Brett, “because every Friday night we would perform. These are the moments I looked forward to the most each week. The performances were just absolutely breathtaking. I've never experienced anything like this in an American music ensemble. Just the amount of energy that was created in this ensemble was life affirming…it had a fire.”
Traditional dance performed at a funeral. Ghanaian funerals are more celebratory than somber. Video by Brett Gallo
Understanding the language
During weekly performances, local dancers performed with the musicians. Brett was puzzled by the way dancers were able to make sense of the difficult rhythms that often defied notation in western musical terms. Moreover, the dancers were incorporating rhythmic shifts in their movements at the very moment the music shifted. How did they know what the drummers were going to do?
A chance occurrence during a lesson offered the answer.
Slumped over his drum, head in hands, Brett was taking a much-needed break during a particularly frustrating lesson when he witnessed a unique conversation. His teacher, Anafo, spotted a man walking on the street. Anafo played a phrase on his drum. The man turned to Anafo and responded in the regional language, Fante. Anafo played a second drum phrase. The man spoke again, waved, and continued down the street.
“What just happened?” asked Brett of his teacher.
Anafo explained that he had called the man, another master drummer, with his drum. He had asked how the man was and where he was going. The man had understood and responded verbally.
Brett soon realized why this was possible: the strict rhythmic and tonal aspects of the Fante language can be approximated on drums. Fante is so precise that simply using incorrect emphasis can render speech incomprehensible. That precision enables drummers to “speak” with their drums by mimicking the rhythms, tones, and emphases of the spoken word.
Once Brett understood this idea, it became clearer how a dancer might know when a rhythm is changing. The drums tell a story—through music, yes, but also, in a sense, linguistically—and they communicate that story to a dancer. Like oral tales passed down through generations, these traditional dances unfold in expected ways, even as there is room for improvisation. A dancer can follow the story and receive “verbal” cues from the master drummer.
Bringing it home
The melding of spoken language and music continues to fascinate Brett now that he is back at UNH.
“This concept of linguistically-derived music is something I want to apply to my music in America,” says Brett, “but since English isn’t as strict as Fante, it doesn’t apply as well.”
He wants to find a way to make it work, believing it would deepen his performances. He suspects that if the notes and rhythms and colors that one plays have linguistic meaning, or if music is created from the sounds of meaningful language, then it would be more fully connected to the performer: intellect and emotions, body and spirit. Such music would provide a rich experience for the listener.
Brett’s research was funded by benefactors of the International Research Opportunities Program, part of the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research. Undergraduate research funding at UNH comes exclusively from generous donors; to make a contribution, please contact the UNH Foundation.
Professor Burt Feintuch manages a study abroad program for students who wish to study in Ghana. More information can be found at www.unh.edu/ghana.