New drum class inspired by trips to Ghana

By Bethany Knipp

Kansas State University students will have the opportunity to learn some worldly music this fall with a new class that teaches West African drumming.

The course, Music 281, will be taught by Neil Dunn, an instructor of percussion and dance. The class is open to all K-State students. It will specifically teach them about drumming from Ghana, where Dunn went twice to study percussion.

“There are some cultural aspects that we’ll get out of this,” Dunn said. 

Dunn said he’ll teach the context of where the drums came from and how they are used in a multitude of Ghanaian cultures.

For example, the lunna drum, known as the talking drum because it’s played based on language, has an has an infamous cultural context.

Dunn said the drum was banned because its loud, sharp linguistic tones can offend people.

The talking drum is encased with strings and played with a bent stick while held under a person’s arm. The arm squeezes the strings, changing the drum’s pitch.

Dunn said the instruments that will be used for the West African drumming are primarily hand drums, with heads of goat or antelope skin.

There’s also the djembe with its bass, open and slap tones, requiring a different technique for each sound. The slap, which sounds just like its name, is the hardest, Dunn said.

There’s one important element that students also will learn about central to Ghanaian drumming: dancing.

Dunn said that most, if not all, of the drums accompany dancing in Ghana.

Students don’t have to dance if they don’t want to, but they’ll certainly learn about it.

“Everybody learns everything,” Dunn said. “Some students are scared of it and they shouldn’t be.”

Dunn also teaches two dance classes: Dance 350, West African Dance Styles of Social Dance and Music; and Dance 507, K-State West African Dance and Music Ensemble, which will have a few performances for the students who take the class in the fall or spring.

Dunn said teaching dancers about drumming and about dancing is important for the learning process.

“I have discovered that the best way to get the dancers to learn is to get them to play,” Dunn said.

In the future, K-State might be more exposed to West African music if Dunn reaches his goal.

“What I’m really aiming for over time is to have a dedicated ensemble,” he said. That would combine dancing and drumming and it would perform regularly, he said.

In the meantime, Dunn said the West African drumming course will bring a different, worldly sound to the K-State community.

The class will meet from 9:30 to 10:20 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday in 007 Nichols Hall.

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