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Africa lives as Glasgow gets rhythm

Ethnomusicology - what are they banging on about? Miranda Fettes finds out

Fun and loud is how 10-year-old Kirsty Shaw sums up a series of West African music workshops at her school, Albert Primary, in Springburn, Glasgow. The teacher in the adjoining classroom agrees, certainly with the second adjective.

For four weeks, Kirsty's P6P7 class is beating out rhythms on djembe drums in workshops introducing the children to the music of West Africa.

Two experienced ethnomusicologists - specialists in world music in its cultural context - are leading the workshops in three primary schools in Springburn. They are introducing P6 and P7 pupils from Albert, Royston and St Roch's primaries to the rhythms, melodies, dances and culture of Mali, while helping them to create their own music, rooted in African tradition.

At the end of the project, the children will perform with members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the African band MALIcool at concerts to be held in two of the schools on September 22.

The BBC SSO will kick off its 2005-06 season on September 24 at the Tramway in Glasgow, creating a fusion of West African and Western music in a collaboration with jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd and MALIcool, under the direction of chief conductor Ilan Volkov.

Jennifer Martin, the learning manager of the BBC SSO, explains: "It's the BBC's Africa season, so it's our contribution to the pan-Africa project Africa Lives on TV, radio and online. The education project is a learning initiative working in parallel with the orchestra.

"The children have had a great time dancing, playing the djembe drums, learning West African songs and learning the culture of Mali and the importance of music in their society."

Edinburgh-based ethnomusicologist Stuart Dinwoodie, who specialises in the music of Mali, Guinea and Senegal, explains: "We're teaching the kids two songs, two dances and two rhythms that can be performed at the end of the four weeks. They're learning about the culture and the importance of music and particularly the drum in African society.

"In a small village the drum is an important part of the culture. The music is derived from the language. Originally it was for communication."

The word djembe, he says, is derived from jebebara which means unity drum.

"It unites all the villagers through music," says Mr Dinwoodie, who has been visiting West Africa for 12 years.

"There's always a reason for people playing the drums, whether it's an initiation ceremony or a wedding or death. If I walk into a village and I hear a rhythm being played, I understand what it means."

The workshops are also raising the children's global awareness, says Mr Dinwoodie, who grew up in multicultural neighbourhoods in Colorado in the United States. "It's getting them to understand how to work together with their class as their community."

Glasgow-based Andy Cook, who was born in Uganda, also specialises in African instruments and music. "The kids have responded really well," he says. "We've been really stretching them and they've soaked it all up. They design their own costumes and have to come up with a name for their band."

It has also been an experience for the symphony orchestra musicians, he says, who have joined some of the workshops. "A lot of them haven't been exposed to African music before."

Morag MacLeod, the depute head at Albert Primary, says: "The children (participating in the workshops) thought it was superb. They were playing these big African drums and chanting and singing.

"They're going to do a performance that the whole school will go to and parents are invited to. It's another way of making music a fun subject and giving them an awareness of rhythm."

John McMahon, St Roch's primary music teacher, says: "It's taught them a lot about rhythm and it's really focused them. Stuart and Andy are teaching them all about the culture and meaning behind the drumming and the dances and the children have really grasped this.

"It's been good for building motivation and self-confidence. Some of the children really need that."

Africa Lives, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Roswell Rudd and his group MALIcool, September 24, 7.30pm, Tramway, Glasgowtel 0845-330 3501

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