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West African rhythms shake Berklee College of Music

Talia Whyte
West African rhythms shake Berklee College of Music
Berklee College of Music professor Joe Galeota has spent the last 11 years teaching West African drumming to his students through an exchange program in Ghana. The art form is so dear to him that he travels to Ghana every year since 1979 to study  traditional Ghanaian music. (Photo: Berklee College of Music)

For Joe Galeota, West African drumming is more than a style of percussion — it’s a lifelong journey into understanding how music affects both the people who play it and the people who hear it, each and every day.

The Berklee College of Music professor has been bringing the art form to his students for the last 11 years through an exchange program in Ghana, where students stay in villages and learn traditional drum and dance from local masters.

Some of the students and their Ghanaian instructors had the chance to play together in the United States this week as part of the Berklee West African Drum and Dance Ensemble in the school’s production, “Ghana: A Musical Landscape.” Following a local performance Monday night at the Berklee Performance Center, on Tuesday the ensemble traveled to Austin, Texas, to perform at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention’s “Focus Day” evening concert. The trip marks the first time a Berklee student group has taken the stage at the four-day convention of percussion students, teachers and performers.

“Putting this together has been an adventure,” Galeota said. “I got hooked on African drumming when I was a younger man. Drumming is not only a part of all aspects of Ghanaian life, but it is also a part of my life.”

Galeota’s journey into Ghanaian music began when he was pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Ghana in 1979. Every year since, he has traveled to the West African country to study traditional Ghanaian music with teachers such as Godwin Agbeli, Emmanuel Agbeli, Midawo Alorwe and Bernard Woma.

In 1984, Galeota founded JAG Drums, a company that manufactures professional West African percussion instruments and has become the industry standard for West African drums. Along with teaching and performing, he also continues to travel throughout West Africa, learning about the different styles of music. The Berklee ensemble, which he put together, celebrates Ghana’s more than 79 language and cultural groups.

Berklee sophomore Kristen Gleeson-Prapa said one of the reasons she applied to the school was because she wanted to study under Galeota. Gleeson-Prapa, who began dancing at the age of 3, has an interest in West African dance and music, and is making plans to study dance in Ghana next summer.

“I have a strong interest in world music, and I was so excited to be a dancer in the ensemble,” she said. “The best part about this production is that we have become a family.”

Berklee senior Alex Raderman agreed. He said that during rehearsals for this week’s performances, members of the ensemble have developed both professional and friendly relationships with their Ghanaian teachers, who have inspired his career goals.

“I hope to move to New York when I graduate and pursue a graduate degree in drumming,” he said.

The Berklee students are in good company. In Galeota’s exchange program, they have the opportunity to study under Woma, xylophonist and lead drummer of the National Dance Company of Ghana. Woma’s recent appearances in the U.S. include a residency with the Ethos Percussion Group and performances and teaching at New York’s African Xylophone Festival. He is also the founder and director of the Dagara Music and Arts Center in Accra, Ghana, and is now a member of the adjunct percussion faculty and director of the African Drumming Ensemble at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

The students also performed with Nani Kwashi Agbeli, director of the Arts Council of Ghana National Folkloric Company. He has also been the lead dance teacher and drummer at the Dagbe Cultural Center in Kopeyia, Ghana, which has hosted students from Berklee, Tufts University and Bowling Green University. Agbeli is currently a dance instructor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Despite their stature within the performance community, Galeota said he isn’t hung up on the celebrity status of his Ghanaian counterparts. Rather, it is all about the music and family.

“One of the best elements of this music is that it brings people and cultures together,” Galeota said. “It is about community.”