The Spirit of the Sankofa Bird: Researching Drumming in Ghana, Brett Gallo '12 Discovers a New Future for Himself
Antoinette Kudo, left, a master drummer from Ghana, and Brett Gallo '12, who studied drumming in Ghana.
On an early evening in mid-April, Antoinette Kudoto sings out a rhythm, her lilting voice lifting to a crescendo: "And-one-and-two-and-three-and-four!" Her hands fly above her drum, a blur of motion. She flashes a smile, shoulders bobbing. "Are you ready?" she shouts. Others are joining in now, more than 30 drummers following her every move. "Let's play some music!" she crows.
Next to her, Brett Gallo '12 carries the rhythm as she begins to improvise, adding layers of complex patterns. Here at a drum workshop in the Waysmeet Center in Durham, the power of the music catches him, returning him to a dusty street corner in Ghana's Cape Coast. It has been more than eight months since Gallo, a music major, returned from overseas, eight months since he sat next to a master drummer, trying to decipher the language of traditional West African music—eight months since he sensed his life shifting in a new direction.
Gallo had always been an enthusiastic drummer, playing in school bands and participating in UNH's Summer Youth Music School. But once he arrived on campus and discovered the Celebrity Series, things took off. "There were all these great names—and as soon as they got here, I followed them around, pestering them to listen to me play, trying to get them to tell me anything that would make my music better." During summers, he went to New York City to study with drummer Clarence Penn, whom he'd met on campus, and he also met John Riley, a world-famous drummer who advised Gallo to travel. To understand rhythm, he said, you must go to West Africa. From that moment, Gallo was on a mission.
Meanwhile, Burt Feintuch, director of UNH's Center for the Humanities, had just returned from Ghana, where he'd been establishing connections for a new study-abroad program, which got underway last semester at the University of Ghana. When he heard drumming rumbling through the streets of Cape Coast, he traced the sound to its source—the Nyame Tsease ("God Lives") drumming and dance ensemble. Founded by Kudoto, the country's first woman master drummer, the group is devoted to reviving the music of their native land, much of which was squelched during colonial rule. Feintuch knew he was on to something good--he just needed to find a student who was up for the challenge. When Rob Haskins, associate professor of music, introduced him to Gallo, he knew he'd found a match.
"It had to be a resourceful and independent person," says Feintuch, who worked with Gallo as he wrote the International Research Opportunities Program proposal that funded his trip. Gallo's independence was put to the test immediately. When he arrived in Accra, the sprawling capital of Ghana, the rainy season had flooded the streets and his original accommodations had fallen through. He also found himself facing an unsettling celebrity status. "It was a shock to attract so much attention," he says, recalling the children who thronged around him and the shouts of Obroni! ("Foreigner") that followed him through the streets. Gallo turned to his journal to keep track of his thoughts. "Sometimes," he wrote, "I feel like I am losing my identity."
But then he'd start drumming with his mentors. As soon as Gallo stepped into the stream of rhythm, as soon as his hands got moving, he felt he belonged. "I usually couldn't understand anything they were saying, but I could follow what was going on," he says. "It was like this huge wave—you get on and just ride it." And so he practiced—two hours every morning and again in the afternoon. He played until his hands were raw and blistered. He played until he was exhausted and sweating. "They were surprised I stuck with it," he says of his African mentors, who had seen others give up.
The incredible complexity of the music was daunting, too. At first he rushed back to his room to write things down, but he soon learned to just listen. "This is 'spoken' music," says Gallo. "They have a lyricism and syllabic structure, and you can't write that down." One day, he watched, astonished, as his teacher turned his drum toward the street and began rapping a rhythm to a passing friend. The friend called back an answer with his voice. The drummer answered with his drum. The friend, another master drummer, was, literally "speaking drum." The two understood each other—one on an instrument, one using his voice.
In six weeks, Gallo learned multiple supporting parts for six traditional pieces. He also tried some improvising, getting a small taste of the role of master drummer, someone who has typically spent years committing to memory rhythms and patterns from every region of the country. Gallo bonded with his fellow drummers and mentors, communicating through their shared music. And along the way, he discovered sankofaism. Derived from an Akan word meaning to "go back and get it," sankofa is depicted as a mythical bird, its head bent around, reaching for an egg that is resting on its back. The accompanying proverb celebrates the past: "It is never wrong to return for that which you have forgotten."
Calling on the spirit of the sankofa bird, Gallo is applying for a Fulbright to continue his studies. He describes his vision as "a sort of reverse colonialism," and he is aware of the irony: A white man goes to Ghana and tries to help implement a traditional music curriculum in the schools, encouraging study and preservation of the very thing white men spent so many years suppressing. Cultural politics aside, he is fiercely committed to the possibility of revival. "For so many years, Ghanaians were forced to learn Western ways," he says. "Today, traditional music is more like a tourist attraction. A relic." Gallo hopes to help change that, to help to keep the music alive for future generations.
"It's become my passion," he says, noting that it never would have happened if he hadn't gone to Ghana in the first place. During Gallo's time in Africa, every Friday night he pulled on his traditional dress and joined the Nyame Tsease drummers for their performance at a local beach resort. It was there on the sand, thousands of miles from home, on the edge of a darkening African sea, that he found a deep connection to an ancient musical tradition—and discovered his own path to the future.
Originally published by:
UNH Magazine Online
Written by Suki Casanave '86G | Alumni Association
Photography by Perry Smith | Photographer, UNH Photographic Services