CHANA Call: Chan-gu chi-mwe cha-na Response: Cha-ka-sa-ra ku-hondo Call: Ti-peyi do-ro tim-we Response: Ye-ha-ye Call: Ti-peyi do-ro tim-we Response: Tauya Ku-zo-fa-ra
These song lyrics were elements of the many interactive elements of the African Music Ensemble Concert, showcased as a part of Black History Month, on Saturday, February 16th at Macalester’s Mairs Concert Hall. Macalester’s 40-member ensemble performed such an energizing and culturally polished performance that I was taken aback at their rich sound and its unfamiliar yet welcoming experience.
Founded in 1987 by current director Sowah Mensah, the African Music Ensemble meets twice a week for three hours per week. Drummers practice for an additional four hours. While this requires a hearty commitment, the group’s talent was evident during the concert, especially during their improvised solos.
The sophisticatedly-decorated stage held a backdrop of embroidered fabric which accentuated the semicircle of African xylophones, drums and microphones. “We play for your dancing pleasure,” Mensah joyously announced, creating a relaxed environment for audience members to sing and dance along.
Most pieces were call-and-response. Often beginning with a single voice, the songs intensified when each instrument beat together and ended by returning to an individual sound. It is common for musicians and audience members to interact during music performances in Africa. Thus, this traditional call-and-response style aids the African music culture of engagement. “Information is relayed within the calls, delivered by one person and is responded to with shorter echoes by the entire group,” Mensah said. While they sang, students also played instruments originating from places like Ghana, the Middle Belt and Zimbabwe.
On the side of the stage, a solo dancer performed while students played. Many audience members were hesitant to join him, even with the lighthearted and welcoming encouragement from the stage. After a handkerchief game, however, confidence inspired many audience members to join the solo dancer and move around. Throughout the performance it was easy to see the comfortable community of genuine smiles and widespread comradery between the students and the conductor.
The handkerchief game is played by children in southeastern Ghana. Its rules are simple and the entertainment was endless. Two teams, four ensemble members versus four audience members, stood on opposite ends. One at a time, a player from each team would face off by dancing toward each other. In the middle, two handkerchiefs sat waiting. Players danced to the middle, picked up their kleenex and danced the tissue back to their side– without using their hands. This lead to amusing and emotional dance offs as participants picked up the handkerchief with their mouths and danced them back to their respective sides. Whoever riled up the crowd the most won. This creative addition to the concert lead to laughter and full engagement from the audience.
As the concert came to a close and the ensemble danced off stage, Mensah reminded us of their Spring concert on May 4 in Mairs Concert Hall. After the concert, I had a chance to chat with Mensah, who at first chance sincerely thanked everyone for coming. He actively encourages more students to join the unique ensemble because, “African music is not often taught in high school. Everyone is a beginner!” Interested students can simply audition by singing a song.
I was fortunate enough to watch my peers perform traditional African music this past Saturday. It was a thoroughly entertaining and beautiful performance. Just from listening to the music for 90 minutes, I feel as though in I have learned more about Africa, and I cannot wait to hear them again at their next show. Mensah’s last remarks to me urged a broader message, reminding us that Black History Month is not just a month-long event, but a culture and history that should be celebrated all year around.