The Class 7 students – some gripping cylindrical drums in their arms – entered the Assembly Room one recent morning, faces bright with anticipation. Those with the drums arranged themselves in a circle of chairs in the center of the room, the instruments resting about waist-high in front of them. Nearby, the other half actively watched from their spots on the floor.
“Everyone will be drumming, and everyone will be dancing,” declared Middle School Dance teacher June Anderson, who is also Head of Middle School Arts and Integration. Her colleague, Middle School Music teacher and Music Program Coordinator Patricia Norchi, nodded in agreement.
In fact, these students, who comprised Ms. Anderson’s Dance class and Ms. Norchi’s Music class, were about to experience both art forms through an exhilarating lesson led by a distinguished guest artist named Mangue Sylla, whose oversized smile and warm demeanor immediately put them at ease.
Mr. Sylla told the students that he comes from Guinea, West Africa, and started playing the drums when he was just seven years old, continuing a deep-rooted family tradition that has been passed down for generations in Guinea and other neighboring West African countries like Mali and Senegal.
Demonstrating on his djembe (pronounced “jem-bay”), a goblet-shaped drum carved from a single piece of wood and topped with animal skin, Mr. Sylla showed the students how to tip the instrument forward to allow air to circulate underneath, thus creating the desired sounds.
He guided them through the three primary notes of sinte (pronounced “sin-tay”), the fundamental rhythm of West African music. “If you have these three sounds, you can do anything,” he said.
The students tried playing the uniquely pitched sounds of “tone,” “slap” and “bass” by hitting different areas of the drum (the edge or the middle, for example), by opening or closing their fingers and by quickly moving their hand off the drum as if bouncing a ball.
“Wow! That’s good!” Mr. Sylla commended the students as they repeated the high, low and medium tones back to him with their left hands. “1, 2, 3, 4. Now use two hands,” he prompted. Over and over, the group played a series of phrases, gaining confidence along the way.
Soon, it was time to switch places. The students who were observing slid into the now-empty chairs and began to learn what their classmates had just mastered. Quickly picking up the trio of sounds and percussive patterns, this group also exhibited concentration, poise and no shortage of enthusiasm.
“I want to hear you!” Mr. Sylla shouted jubilantly over the beating of the drums. “Repeat after me. Faster now!”
The playing accelerated. With 15 drummers giving their all, the Assembly Room echoed like a magnificent, melodious thunderstorm. With excited expressions on their faces, the students beat their drums faster and louder until Mr. Sylla signaled for them to stop by holding his fist in the air.
“It’s time to dance!” he sang out. After the teachers moved the chairs and drums out of the way and the students took off their shoes and socks, Mr. Sylla introduced the girls to Kuku, a celebratory West African rhythmic dance song. He explained that women in Guinea sang and danced the Kuku when they returned from fishing.
Lined up in rows perpendicular to the Assembly Room stage, the students followed Mr. Sylla as he demonstrated a series of basic movements. They sidestepped back and forth, then waved their arms in the air one by one, not unlike a swimmer mastering the crawl.
Adding a traditional chant to the performance, the guest artist asked the girls to repeat the after him: “Kuku way we can wa la.” “Kuku way we can wa la,” they sang back.
“Now, can we do the two together?” he asked. Mr. Sylla played his drum while the students danced and sang, their bodies moving gracefully across the floor, their strong voices rising up.
Before they knew it, this instructive and entertaining Assembly – a spectacular example of successful arts integration – came to a satisfying conclusion. Enlivened by their newly discovered West African drum and dance skills, these Class 7 students headed to their next activity, a few still clapping their hands and twirling around.