Q&A: Yale College student Eugene Kim on his recent trip to Ghana

Eugene Kim ’16, a clarinetist and president of the Yale Concert Band, recently traveled to Ghana with the Yale Percussion Group for 12 days of cultural exchange, musical research, and community service. He recently spoke to YaleNews about his experiences in Ghana and what he learned on the trip, including how music bridges cultural divides.

What led you to participate in the trip to Ghana?

I was primarily excited by the possibility of listening to Ghanaians play their traditional drum songs. My music education, thus far, has focused primarily on classical music — music that usually is played in concert halls. However, every time I’ve listened to traditional, folk music — the music you might hear on the streets being played by and for people of any class — I’ve been fascinated by its unassuming complexity and vitality. This trip presented an opportunity to expand my knowledge of that sort of music.

What was the most memorable part of the trip for you?

Our penultimate concert in Ghana was held in conjunction with some students from the University of Cape Coast (UCC). In our final number — a concerto written for drum set — we altered the cadenza, having our soloist and some UCC percussion students take turns in the foreground. The result was a wonderful musical dialogue that I hope can be a model for a broader dialogue between Yale and UCC. It was at that moment, and a similar one at an earlier concert, that I felt the closest to the Ghanaians, even though I wasn’t even talking to them (or even playing, at that moment). It was then that I realized that even though the various cultures of our world differ in many ways, they are all linked together by an interest in music, a commonality that can serve as grounds for broader international cooperation.

What did you learn from the trip?

Matthew Griffith ’14 (left), Eugene Kim ’16 (center), and Margaret Ott ’16 (right).
Matthew Griffith ’14 (left), Eugene Kim ’16 (center), and Margaret Ott ’16 (right).

For one thing, I began to learn how to do a Ghanaian handshake. It’s similar to Western handshake, though it ends with the two participants snapping their fingers. I still don’t quite have it down, but I’m hoping to surprise the next Ghanaian I meet in the United States.

More significantly, I’ve come to understand more fully what it means when people talk about global income inequity. Prior to the trip, I was surprised to find out that the per capita gross national product (GNP) of Ghana was less than the amount of money Yale would be spending to send one of us to Ghana for 12 days. At the time, per capita GNP was just a number to me, but, reflecting on my trip, I’ve come to understand the ramifications of that number. Many buildings in Ghana are constructed of corrugated metal sheets, and some of us found E. coli present in a tap water sample. During our tour, we held a concert whose proceeds went to an ongoing campaign to end mother-to-child HIV transmission in Ghana, where transmission rates remain relatively high. This tour to Ghana has given me a broader perspective on global standards of living, and has made me think more critically about what can be done to remedy social, economic, and medical issues worldwide.

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

There was a much larger Asian presence in Ghana than I had originally expected. Our first full day in Ghana, I was surprised to find that one of our tour guides was wearing a shirt advertising a Korean liquor brand. Several of the children in one of the villages we visited accosted me in Mandarin (I’m Korean, but still, I was surprised and impressed). I’d heard that China was looking to Africa as a trading partner, and this experience has left me convinced of that fact.

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