On A High Note

Nashville’s rich international culture

Sankofa, the Blair School of Music’s West African drum and dance Ensemble

Sports and Entertainment Nashville is proud to welcome Steve Morley as a guest writer for our website. We hope you enjoy his remarkable story of Sankofa, the Blair School of Music’s West African drum and dance Ensemble.

Sankofa, the Blair School of Music’s West African drum and dance Ensemble

Sankofa, the Blair School of Music’s West African drum and dance Ensemble

Our fair metropolis’ identity as Music City is like no other. And while country music’s far-reaching appeal will continue to draw visitors here from all over the globe, Nashville itself has grown into a city of surprisingly diverse cultural elements. From the Chinese Arts Alliance to the Tennessee Scots Pipe Band, the international offerings to be found inside Davidson County give the Sherwin-Williams paint makers a run for its money… that is, in terms of “covering the world” and representing many hues.

At the forefront of such multicultural initiatives for many years now has been Nashville’s Global Education Center, which first began in 1982 as an educational outreach, according to Ellen Gilbert, the Center’s director. Gilbert notes that the organization has long been hosting foreign artists and bringing them into area schools and the community “to show the commonalities,” she says, of all people groups.

With an artist roster representing 40 cultures, the Center presents both local and visiting artists and also provides professional development programs for teachers. On Dec. 1, the Center celebrated the grand opening of a new studio at Casa Azafran Community Center on Nolensville Road. (For more information on the organization and its upcoming events, go to globaleducationcenter.net or globaleducationcenter.org.)

Gilbert recalls meeting Gyane Kwame Ahima when he was a teenager living in Nashville. Originally from Ghana, West Africa, the young master drummer would later become one of the organization’s first board members and artist/instructors and eventually go on to work with Vanderbilt University. These days, he serves as artistic director of Sankofa, the Blair School of Music’s West African drum and dance ensemble.

Kwame Ahima

Kwame Ahima

Sankofa was formed at the Blair School in the fall of 2000. As Ahima explains, he was approached by Dr. Gregory Barz, an associate professor of ethnomusicology at Blair who’d seen Ahima perform locally. He was brought on board to teach African drumming, and Sankofa was thus created as a performance vehicle for students taking the course.

At 8:00 p.m. this Saturday, Dec. 8, the now-acclaimed ensemble will present one of its recurring end-of-semester student performances in the Blair School’s Ingram Hall. Sankofa—which means “to return and retrieve [one’s roots],”—incorporates dance and traditional African songs into its performances, and the ensemble uses authentic instruments as well as native costumes.

“[The costumes] actually come from the villages of the different places in Africa where I acquire the drums,” says Ahima. “[The students] do have a great appreciation for that.”

S&E: “Have you seen students change the way they think as a result of exposure to African culture?”

Kwame Ahima: “The changes that I see [in the students] actually happen during the course of the semester. And a lot of times it happens with music majors, where they have the most difficult time initially trying to adjust to a totally different style of music. They, in a sense, have a complete, total experience, as compared to the non-music major. Because they have to, in a way, learn a totally different language. It gives them a sense of diversity.”

S&E: “Is the community embracing international culture outside the educational system?”

KA: “Absolutely. I’ve been in Nashville for 28 years . . . 29, I think it is. I’ve seen firsthand how far our style, our culture, being the African culture, has come in terms of music and just the acceptance of the people. I’ve seen people who have come to [Sankofa’s] performances at Blair several times. And the comments that I get are very positive. [With] Vanderbilt being as prestigious as it is, having the students even be interested in and consider African . . . anything . . . has been quite impressive to the community.”

S&E: “How do communities benefit most from the sharing of other cultures?”

KA: “The global economy and culture is really coming together, you know? You take America, for instance, where there are so many different cultures . . . it becomes essential that we also introduce to the world, and to America, what the other parts of the world entail. There’s a saying in my language where they’re basically meaning in English terms, “play the black keys and make a sound, and you can do the same with the white keys on the keyboard, but when you put the two together, you create harmony.”

S&E: “Is there a way for international music to interface with the country music community?”

Kwame Ahima

Kwame Ahima

KA: “I have had opportunities to … [do] some programs on NPR, and at country music events at Opryland and other places, where we put together different cultures, playing with country musicians just using the African rhythms. It hasn’t manifested into any greater thing, but I’m always on the lookout for such opportunities.”

S&E: “What do you find most inviting about Nashville?”

KA:” I think the first thing most people see about Nashville is the friendliness and the acceptance of people in general and their culture. I think Nashville is a very peaceful place to live, having come directly from New York City, after living there a while. So, compared to other states where I’ve lived—there have been about 35 other states that I’ve visited—I think Nashville is a very family-oriented place.”