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African Drumming: Cross-Cultural Disability Awareness & Empowerment

Image of Carrie Brown, Aidan Owens, Marco DiSantis, Mark Palardy, Emily Webster, and Emma Pignone posing together at the African Drumming conference in Albany, New York.

Aidan Owens, a Music and Human Services Instructor at BHMA, studied abroad in the Ghanaian village of Kopeyia in Fall 2015. He went to study music at the Dagbe Cultural Institute and Arts Centre and to learn traditional Ewe drumming; he came away with impactful lessons and connections to share. Upon his return, Owens was inspired to create BHMA’s African Drumming Ensemble in February 2016, and since its development, the group roster has grown to twelve people. When teaching students Ewe drumming, Owens provides background information on the music they are performing and the oral tradition that supports it. Additionally, he passes on some of the history of Ghana and its varying cultures to the students. As Owens describes, Ewe drumming is unique and dynamic with its disparate rhythms being played at the same time. And while it is challenging to master given that everyone has their own part, Owens claims that many students have done so with ease. Ewe music is social, participatory, and engaging, and this feature has resonated well with BHMA students. “They love it” Owens says, going on to explain how students have been encouraging him to learn new drumming material to share with them. Those who are a part of the ensemble have been able to channel their interest in Ewe drumming in productive and meaningful ways thanks to a connection Owens made when in Ghana. Kekeli Ghana, an organization Owens was introduced to during his time abroad, has a similar mission to BHMA. Kekeli strives to “create self-advocacy groups to help young people with disabilities recognize their rights...and use[s] both visual arts and music as a means to achieve greater awareness of human rights issues.” The two organizations’ harmonious missions aligned when Owens brought four BHMA students to Kekeli’s School for All African Festival in Albany, New York this past fall. The event was a fundraiser for a school that is to be built in Ghana for students with disabilities. BHMA students performed at the festival, met the founder of the organization, and learned what it is like to be a person with a disability in Ghana. This presentation encouraged students to want to know more, and to help. They were empowered knowing that their musical efforts made a positive contribution to people like them in a different country. Owens was fundamental in facilitating the cross-cultural exchange between BHMA and Kekeli. He has instilled in students a sense of pride in learning a new type of music, and in translating that ability for good. Owen’s work also underscores the importance of promoting exposure to different ways of living, and of building awareness for people with disabilities all over the world. For many students, Owen’s lessons serve as their first interaction with a non-Western culture, and learning about the drumming tradition in Kopeyia, Ghana is only the first part of the eye-opening process. BHMA students have truly flourished under his teaching. Owens is currently in the midst of a return trip to Ghana, and he hopes to strengthen the connection between BHMA and Kekeli. And of course, many are crossing their fingers that he will return with new drumming material.

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