Q&A: Yale School of Music alumnus Douglas Perry on his recent trip to Ghana

Douglas Perry ’14 A.D., a percussionist with the Yale Percussion Group, recently traveled to Ghana for 12 days of cultural exchange, musical research, and community service. Perry has taught music privately since he was in high school, and while at Yale, he participated in the Music in Schools Initiative in New Haven Public Schools. He recently spoke to YaleNews about his “eye-opening” experiences on the trip, and how he hopes to find a way to bring some of the lessons he learned from the Ghanaian culture back to his teaching in America. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What led you to participate in the trip to Ghana? 

I was invited to participate as part of the Yale Percussion Group. We’ve all been very excited about the prospect of going to Ghana, so when the opportunity presented itself we were all happy to take part.

What was the memorable part of the trip for you?

The most memorable part of the trip for me took place after our concert in the National Theatre of Accra. We had just finished our first performance with the Ghanaian drummers, and we were talking about our instruments and showing each other how everything worked. When I showed two of the percussionists the xylophone, they both started playing it and improvising. I grabbed another set of mallets and started playing along with them. The next thing I know, there are musicians all around me — African and American alike — playing together and singing traditional African songs. At that moment, I was more immersed in the musical-cultural dialogue of our trip than I had ever been in my life, or for the rest of the trip.

What did you learn from the trip?

I think as a musician, I learned the value of growing up in a culture that prioritizes music and dance. Not only was the sense of community and tradition very strong, but every person I met — man or woman, child or adult — could play drums and dance. As a teacher, I spend a lot of my time trying to teach my students how to play with good rhythm, and how to make a piece of music “groove.” Watching the Ghanaian communities make music together was very eye-opening. Not only do they have good rhythm when they play, they play with a sense of purpose and intent that is difficult to teach. I hope to find a way to bring this back to my teaching in America, and to help my students understand the joy that rhythm brings to these communities.

What was the most surprising thing that you encountered or experienced on the trip?

Probably the most surprising part of the trip for me was how friendly everybody is. Growing up on the East Coast and living in some pretty rough cities, I’m used to having to behave “defensively” in public. There were a number of times I found myself caught off-guard when a stranger in Ghana just wanted to say “hello.” The friendliness of the general public was certainly shocking to me, and it’s something I really wish I could bring to the culture in America. I sometimes wonder how the simple act of saying “hello” to strangers more often would affect American society.