The Spirit of the Sankofa Bird

The Spirit of the Sankofa Bird

Thursday, September 6, 2012

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.

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.

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