African drumming has been part of Ken Sider’s third-grade curriculum for more than a decade. But a partnership with SUNY Oneonta this past year took “hands-on learning” to a whole new level.
After getting drumming lessons from SUNY Oneonta artist-in-residence Godwin Abotsi, Sider’s Riverside Elementary School class stole the show at the college’s West African Drum and Dance Showcase in April.
Led by Abotsi, a traditional dancer from Ghana, 17 enthusiastic third-graders performed with Dr. Julie Licata’s World Percussion Ensemble on the Hunt Union Ballroom stage for an audience of more than 200. The showcase offered an authentic taste of Ghanaian culture—including samples of traditional West African foods and two hours of lively dancing and music using percussion instruments shipped from Abotsi’s hometown of Accra, Ghana. By the end of the evening, people were dancing in the aisles, and several joined the whirl of kente cloth onstage.
For the third-graders, the event was the culmination of a year-long partnership. Last fall, two SUNY Oneonta music students gave weekly drumming lessons to Sider’s class, and Abotsi presented two workshops there in the spring. “What’s incredible is how Godwin came in—he’d heard us play the kinds of rhythms that we’d been working on, and then within about an hour, he took what he’d heard us doing and he turned it into something new,” said Sider. “He’s just amazing. He has an ability to bring the rhythms and the players together instantly.”
Using music and dance to foster global connections and build community were goals of the semester-long residency, which was funded by an Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Action (IDEA) grant with support from the college’s Music Department, Office of Equity and Inclusion, Office of International Education and Center for Multicultural Experiences.
In addition to working with the World Percussion Ensemble each week, Abotsi presented numerous lectures, performances and workshops on campus and in the community, including participating in the college’s Kente Graduation Ceremony and the City of Oneonta’s “Dancin’ in the Streets” festival on Main Street.
The opportunity not only to meet someone from Ghana but to play music together gave Sider’s students a direct and meaningful connection to a place they’d studied. For 8-year-old Jasmine Bonadies, however, one of Abotsi’s lessons stood out above the rest: “What I learned,” she said, “was just to have fun.”
Photo caption: Riverside Elementary School third-graders (L to R) Riley Johnson, Jasmine Bonadies and Yuliah Johnson demonstrate their drumming skills. Photo by Michael Forster Rothbart.