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In conversation: Thomas C. Duffy on preserving the rhythmic traditions of Ghana

Band1-532x354Yale News
By Bess Connolly Martell

Thomas C. Duffy, director of University Bands and an adjunct professor at the Yale School of Music, will be part of a contingent travelling to Ghana this month. Duffy recently spoke with YaleNews about how the trip came to be, what he hopes he and his students will gain from the experience, and the reciprocal nature of cultural exchange. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

How did the idea that the Yale Band travel to Ghana originate?

I’ve been at Yale for 32 years, and I’ve done 18 tours. The Yale Band was the first college band to travel internationally, so it has a long history of traveling abroad. Since my first tour I have incorporated — because I believe it’s the right thing to do — some kind of social impact when we travel. So it’s more than just going and playing concerts. When you go to a foreign country and play a concert of your music, you’re a kind of evangelist. You go, you drop off your culture, and you go home.

I have long felt that the real way to have an international experience is to have some reciprocity. When the band tours, we play the host country’s music, which is always kind of scary, and we try to end up with some kind of hybrid between our music and theirs. We don’t travel with a bubble of America around us, unaffected by where we are. That philosophy resonated well with Mark Dollhopf at the AYA [The Association of Yale Alumni]. I was planning for a trip to China this year, but President Salovey articulated [in his inaugural address] that Africa was going to be his focus. Mark Dollhopf told me about the AYA’s Ghanaian initiative. Ghana, of all of the countries in the world, is most famous for its drumming traditions, and Ghana is the area of West Africa where our Afro-Cuban and jazz rhythms come from. The Ghanaian drum masters agreed to let us record and transcribe their rhythms.

What is your itinerary?

During the second week of the trip, we will go into Yamoransa each day, and a third of the band will either plant trees or install water filters, a third of the students will be doing construction, and a third will be teaching music in the schools. We are going to get our hands dirty. On three of the afternoons we are going out on buses to homes in the rural villages of Ghana. We are going to film the dying Ghanaian drumming and dancing traditions and transcribe them musically so they can be preserved digitally. Then we will give the recording and transcriptions back to the Ghanaians to use in their teaching and for their archives. The six percussion students from the Yale School of Music — who are themselves master drummers in Western music — and the Ghanaian drummers will work with each other. There will be reciprocity between these musicians from vastly different cultures.