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

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.

The first concert that we’re going to play is at the University of Ghana-Legon in Accra. The second one is in the National Theater with the National Symphony Orchestra Ghana. That concert is a fundraiser for the Yale-Ghana Health Initiative to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. It’s a major event. The Yale bands will play, then the percussion group will play, and the Ghana symphony will play with us. We will do a combined piece. The two combined pieces that I have picked have my band, the Yale Percussion Group, and the Ghana symphony on stage, and will add a contingent of Ghanaian drummers. Talk about a hybrid! The concert will respect both of our traditions and support a great cause.

On the last day there will be a festival called a durbar. We will finish the festival by playing a piece of music using Ghanaian student narrators who will be speaking in English, which is the language that is taught in schools. The piece is called “Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel,” which is a children’s book that I set to music.

You have said that this is not a “colonial” trip. What do you mean by that?

When we transcribe the music, I want to have a Ghanaian press publish it. We shouldn’t appropriate Ghanaian culture for exportation. I want to go to Ghana, meet and work with the residents there, and do something that makes both of our worlds better. Once we transcribe this music, I want to give it back to them. That way we can both can use it. We are serving as cultural anthropologists. We are not going to do something for the Ghanaians, we are going to do something with them. We are going into the field to do ethnomusicological anthropology work. We are studying a culture with an aspect that is fading away, and it is our privilege to help preserve it.

Will the Ghanaians have to re-learn these lost traditions?

The drumming and dancing traditions that the Ghanaian elders were most interested in having us record are those they performed as kids. So the elders are going back to their childhood and are relearning these ancient ritualistic dances before we arrive. Some of the ritualistic dance and drumming pieces are hundreds of years old and haven’t been performed in 60 years or so.

What will be the biggest challenge to playing with the Ghanaian drummers?

I think one of the biggest challenges will be assimilating with people who play completely by ear. How do you add a Ghanaian drum troupe to a piece of music that has an improvisation section? That’s an interesting concept.

What do you personally hope to learn or experience on the trip?

I think the musicological aspect is a real beginning, and if it works well, we can transcribe and record these musical pieces and produce a documentary. We can help preserve these fading art forms, and we can share these materials with the people who originated these traditions. And hopefully the documentary that is produced can be posted on YouTube, and people from around the world can share our experiences as well.