Outdooring, Dartington, 7th August 1998
Dartington International Summer School (DISS) is held annually at Dartington College of Arts (DCA), at Dartington Hall, Devon, England, usually in August. It is mostly devoted to classical chamber music, with optional courses available in various subjects.
In 1998, one of the courses was for West African Drumming, and was led by Trevor Wiggins, a musicologist with considerable research experience in Ghana and Burkina Faso. There were three parallel courses, two for beginners and another for those with some experience. The courses, like most at DISS, lasted for six days. Each course had about an hour and a half of tuition per day. I attended the beginners’ course.
Many courses, notably the Summer School Choir, give concert performances at the end of the DISS week, on Friday. The drumming course fell into this category. However, following Ghanaian custom, Trevor insisted that this was to be an “outdooring”, with as much audience participation as could be managed.
The outdooring took place on a warm Friday afternoon, 7th August – one of the few warm days in an otherwise miserable summer. The location was the grassed courtyard of Dartington Hall, and the audience consisted of other members of DISS and DCA, plus other tourists visiting the Hall (which is of some historic interest, dating back to 1392, and is open to the public). The possibilities of audience participation were therefore limited by their inexperience, which was worse than that of even the beginners’ streams. For the most part, they were a more conventionally passive European audience.
Trevor is the proud possessor of a fancy digital camcorder, which was set up on a tripod and left running, with occasional manual control. This video is the result. Unfortunately, the audience included some very young children, at least one of whom managed to run into the tripod. Included is a piece, “Music for Pieces of Wood”, by the American minimalist composer Steve Reich. He has visited Ghana, but claims not to have been influenced by local music; judge for yourself.
For those listening from a European perspective, it may be helpful to think of Ghana drumming as a kind of hocket. Each drum can only play one note – though the timbre can be varied by how and where the skin is struck, from striking near the edge with flat fingers to striking the centre with the ball of the hand. The drums make melody of sorts by interweaving their individual contributions. Ghanaians says that the drums “talk to one another”. Also, there is the “bell” – a pair of miniature cow-bells welded together, which can be clearly seen in the video, played by Mike, mentioned below. The bell in principle sets the timing for the drums. However, it does not do so on the principal beat of the rhythm. If the rhythm collapses as a consequence, then the bell is said to have “fallen”.
Trevor Wiggins, musicologist and course tutor, in the blue robe – also our tutor in matters of Ghanaian life.
Mike, his assistant, in the maroon robe.
About 20 course participants, of various levels of skill.
… and introducing …
Mark, in the blue-and-white robe and hat, playing xylophone, and lead tamale in Gahu. Mark is in fact blind, which makes his achievement, albeit with more experience than most of us amateurs, even more remarkable.