Jingo! World Music at Fairfield

In Western pop culture, we often see music as a product that is heavily advertised through the media, and presented in a buy and sell format. Ironically, as music has become so easily accessible, we have become less directly involved with it than ever before.

Today, fewer people can read music than in the past. Fewer people take music lessons. And, because music is often seen as non-essential, it is frequently the first cut made in school budgets (paralleled at the national level by the dwindling budget for the National Endowment for the Arts). As a result, we have become a society of spectators and/or consumers, watching concerts and videos, and leaving it to the stars to create and perform their favorite music.

As we try to broaden our outlook, especially as it relates to multiculturalism and diversity, music can be an extremely effective tool. Rather than approaching pluralism through theory alone, direct involvement with a Culture gives students a sense of joy and ownership.

Students in Fairfield’s World Music course learn that this does not occur in all cultures. In African and Native American villages, for example, it is the people who perform and bring heritage alive in their communities as part of a holistic way of melding spirituality, ritual, and culture. It is said that in Africa, when people stop dancing, the musicians stop playing, for there is no reason to go on without their involvement.

Students taking the course become part of the World Music Ensemble, a performance group founded in 1995. They learn that they can join in and be a creative force in the process of making music. No previous music experience is required. By putting their hands on African drums, djembes, don-dons, agogo bells, xylophone, flutes, and shekeres and caxixi, they begin to make their own music – and gain new insight into the value and meaning of multiculturalism. The instruments are genuine, purchased and shipped back from Ghana by Dr. Ben Halm, an English professor at Fairfield and native of Ghana.

The first half of the two-and-a-half hour class is essentially a percussion ensemble rehearsal. The second half of the class takes a more conventional classroom approach with readings, lectures, videos, and audio examples including music from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, among others.

In one of their first assignments, for example, I ask the students to improvise and they are often uncertain of what to play. They are then asked to write a few paragraphs on who they are, where they, are from, and what they, think and feel. These, which we call “Iden titles,” are then performed on the drums and students beat out rhythms of the text they have created. They conic to learn that the oral tradition is inextricably linked to the rhythms of the drum, and that improvisation is not a free-form exercise in chaos. Rather, it is a process related to a set-form as a basis for departure and nuance. Every week the students’ musical identity and rhythmic sense become stronger.

The World Music course has proven to be educational and rewarding, and has helped students find then- “inner musician.” The Ensemble, which recorded the cassette jingo! in 1996, has been very much appreciated by audiences at University convocations and concerts, as well as at area libraries, schools, and workshops. As the World Music Ensemble continues to perform and grow, it brings tangible meaning to and a positive message about the value of multiculturalism. And it starts with the beat of a drum.

From Fairfield Now!, Summer 1997