African drummer sets the beat at Kenmore Elementary

African drummer serves as artist in residence at Kenmore school

“Drums don’t like it if you don’t play them,” Sowah Mensah said to the 30 or more fourth graders gathered in a large circle in the gym of Kenmore Elementary School.

Each student had a colorful bongo drum on the floor in front of them. A visiting instructor to the school for the third straight year and a native of Ghana, West Africa, Mensah several times led the students through performances on the drums and sometimes just singing in their temporary instructor’s native language, Ga.

As for those drums, Mensah would pound out a note on his own drum and, essentially, students would answer, either in unison or solo. By this particular day, they obviously had been practicing, with some notes pounded out in the center of the drum head, while others were produced by hitting the edge of the drum.

As Mensah led students through the songs, he encouraged them to keep their eyes open and on him, noting there was no music stand with a music book in front of them to show them what to do.

One other piece of advice included telling students that it is much easier to sing with their mouths open.

“If you’re singing and you’re not opening your mouth, no sound comes out,” he said.

Self-described as an ethnomusicologist and a “master drummer,” Mensah is a professor and musical director at universities in Minnesota and Vermont. He plays numerous other instruments including piano and horn and travels the country serving as artist-in-residence at schools such as Kenmore Elementary.

During his most recent week at the school, Mensah conducted students from different grade levels through a couple of public performances. In answering questions from those fourth graders, he said he has been to over 2,000 schools all around the country. Besides Mensah’s travels, those students also seemed highly interested in his native language.

Mensah’s native tongue is, he said, one of roughly 50 languages spoken in Ghana, though English is the country’s official language, used in schools and in business. Mensah said virtually all Ghana natives know at least two languages, their own and English. Mensah said he speaks four languages himself and talked about an aunt who speaks 25 fluently.

After the question and answer period, Mensah put the students through their paces with the drums one more time. They knew to answer together or one at a time by whether on not Mensah looked at them or how he turned his head. He professed to being impressed after making it all the way around the large circle of students with each hitting his or her drum solo and no one having hit their drum out of order.

“That doesn’t happen very often in a big group like this,” he said, adding students get excited and just can’t wait their turn.

“That’s one of the things that music teaches you is patience,” Mensah said.

At least one of the songs Mensah had students perform is an original composition, “Sii, Sii, Sii.” The piece is based on a traditional Ghanaian children’s choosing game. The song was written for and commissioned by a school in Minnesota. Still, Mensah has plenty of connections to this area.

In August 2003, Mensah traveled to Beijing, China with the Kenmore Wind Ensemble for a performance at Tsinghua University. He also said he’s been to several other schools in the Northshore School District.

“There are some schools, they ask me to come back and I say, ‘No, I’m busy,'” he said. “But I like it here… I’ll always come back here.”