West African drum teacher Abraham Adzenyah, who taught D-E’s own drum teacher Robert Levin as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, paid a two-day visit to all three divisions of D-E in mid-February. On the first day, February 11, he conducted workshops with fifth grade drumming students in the Lower School; the eighth grade African drumming class; and Upper School students.
Then the next day, February 12, the Middle School was treated to an assembly featuring Mr. Adzenyah. After Ehren Layne ’19 opened the assembly by performing an original poem, Mr. Levin provided an introduction to Mr. Adzenyah, who not only taught Mr. Levin about West African music but also the notion of sankofa – “reaching back,” in the Akan language of Ghana – and how he has been “grateful for what I learned and who taught me.”
Mr. Levin mentioned that after 46 years of teaching at Wesleyan, Mr. Adzenyah would be retiring at the end of this school year, which led to his final point before turning the stage to Mr. Adzenyah: “Connect history to your future, and stay connected to your roots.”
Mr. Adzenyah then shared a few words with the students, starting with, “This is your time to do the best that you can be… The world is so huge, and you need to find your place in it.”
“Do the best you can so you can live in harmony,” he later added. “Play from your heart. You never know where you music will take you to. I started playing the drums at age six with my dad. I didn’t know my music would take me to America, Australia, Japan… It was in my heart, and here I am sharing it with you.”
Mr. Adzenyah was then joined by the eighth grade African Drumming class, along with former drumming students Elliot Roman ‘15 and Greg McDowell ‘16, for a performance.
Mr. Levin also shared some background on Mr. Adzenyah in a blog post for the Lower School:
“Abraham Adzenyah was my first African drumming teacher; I studied with him at Wesleyan University from 1977-81. He encouraged me to travel to Ghana to deepen my understanding and experience of the music and culture he taught me. I started traveling to Ghana in 1988, and I’ve been there more than 12 times since then.
“Everything I learned from Abraham in school was reinforced and expanded greatly in depth, clarity and intensity when I spent time in Ghana. Playing traditional West African music gives one a true insight into African life, and one sees and feels that truth when living and traveling there. As Abraham did for me and my peers at Wesleyan, I also try to bring West African music alive for my D-E students.
“Among the most important characteristic and values in West African music are polyrhythm; call and response among drummers; singers and dancers; spiritual connections through music, all with the idea of building bonds with one’s community and one’s natural environment. I have been bonded musically with Abraham for more than 30 years, and it is natural for me to ask him to come to play music with my students at D-E.
“Lessons I want my D-E students to learn are the importance of respecting one’s elders, and appreciating the way one gains his or her knowledge. Teachers and schools are roots that give nutrition for students’ growth and health. I want my students to see how I respect, honor and appreciate my teacher, who trained me and taught me to be a better musician and teacher. I also want my teacher to enjoy some fruits of his labor, to see me with my students, so he knows that what he taught me is being passed on to yet another generation. And I want my teacher to impart some of his wisdom directly to my students, to help reinforce what I’ve been teaching them. I want my students to take all of this forward and make a brighter future for themselves and the world.
“My daughter Isabel ‘15 started at D-E in fifth grade in 2007, and that year I volunteered to work with her entire grade, as they didn’t have any music classes in their fifth grade curriculum at that time. I’ve been teaching the fifth graders West African drumming, singing and dancing ever since. I also teach drumming to seventh and eighth graders. This year, Isabel is graduating from D-E, and Abraham is retiring from Wesleyan. I thought that inviting Abraham to work with my current and former students at D-E would be a great way for me to show appreciation to D-E for how the school has educated my daughter and employed me as well. And I want all my D-E students to know that I will also be working to help create a scholarship fund at Wesleyan in Abraham’s honor, to show appreciation for what he taught me, and to Wesleyan for offering his course to its students for 46 years.
“D-E has been especially dear to me since 1990 when Betsey Carson first invited me to speak to her seventh grade [history] classes about my experiences in Ghana. After traveling to Ghana in ’88, I started to build a school in the rural village, Kopeyia, where I lived and studied music with my teacher Godwin Agbeli. Through Ms. Carson and her Middle School colleagues and students, D-E became a loving and generously giving sister school to the fledgling school I founded in Kopeyia – a relationship that continues to this day! So bringing Abraham to D-E is really a long overdue homecoming after all.”