Artist-in-Residence Shares West African Culture with Students

Kate Koenig, Arts Editor

This semester, the SUNY Oneonta Music Department has been having the privilege of enjoying the presence of the department’s new Artist-in-Residence, Godwin Abotsi of Ghana. Abotsi, who specializes in West African drumming and dance, has been working with Dr. Julie Licata of the Music Department in instructing students on the subjects, which will culminate in a West African drum and dance showcase performance presented by the World Percussion and Dance Ensemble in the Hunt Union Ballroom on April 16.

The temporary addition of Abotsi’s instruction to Music Department curriculum is a unique benefit to students, and can be attributed to the positive effects of our Ghana internship program. Through the Department of Africana and Latino Studies, many students have had the opportunity to travel to Ghana and be exposed to Ghanaian culture firsthand. From his involvement in this ongoing program, Abotsi established a relationship with SUNY Oneonta and the idea was generated that he share his talents further during a stay in upstate New York. This being his first time in America, Abotsi says he’s enjoyed his time here especially for the easy adjustment due to previously knowing “at least 18 students” through the internship program.

Together with Dr. Licata, Abotsi works with students involved in the World Percussion and Dance Ensemble on Tuesdays and Thursdays, preparing the percussionists with music on Tuesdays for when the dancers join the group on Thursdays. Abotsi observes the experience’s effect on those who participate, saying “They don’t want to leave” after they’ve taken part in a session: “They try to make it as quickly as they can, to have time with us.” While the ensemble had included African dance in the past, the variety of instruction has broadened greatly with the addition of Abotsi.

This is also not the first time he’s provided such instruction. His experience in African rhythm and dance, which has spanned the past 15 years, began when he was 18 and studied at a center established by the Ghanaian government through the National Commission on Culture. Abotsi expressed his natural affinity for dance, saying: “I have a passion for dancing, for hearing the West African rhythms… It flows. I don’t really get much difficulty in learning. It’s … divine. I have that inside me.” Since studying at the dance center, he has worked with several performing groups and traveled to Austria, Germany, South Africa and Korea, and once collaborated with an Aboriginal dance group in Australia at the African Academy of Music and Art in Kokrobite. Currently, he is the artistic director of his own performing group, the Sweet Africa Dance Theater, a collection of 10 versatile performers from 10 different regions of Ghana who dance, sing and drum in West African style.

Abotsi explained that in his culture, “Music is dance, dance is music”; it’s rare for one to exist without the other. Performances include both. “We use [dance] to create awareness, to tell stories, to send messages across.” Just as in our culture, those who perform on stage devote extensive time and study to learning dances and performing choreographed movements, but basic dancing is a ubiquitous form of expression, like a language. “Music and dance are based on our daily activity. The way we walk, the way we eat, the way we do our normal duties in life, that’s where we take most of the movement [from]. …And out of that, you can create something. …Wherever there is rhythm, there is also a dance to it.” According to Abotsi, in the days before the development of technology such as radio and television, rhythm and dance was relied on more heavily as a form of communication. For example, villagers would be alerted to come into town by the beating of a bell called a gong gong, and their specific responsive movements to the rhythm as they would head towards the town center would communicate the alert to onlookers. Similarly, different drum rhythms played in times of war would signal warriors to duck for cover, or to attack. Today, each of the 10 regions in Ghana have 10 to 15 ethnic groups which each have their own different dances and traditions.

On Monday, April 9, Abotsi will be conducting a West African dance workshop in Room 201 of the Fine Arts Building, from 6 to 9 p.m. On the Monday of the following week, April 16, the World Percussion and Dance Ensemble, led by Dr. Licata and Abotsi, will perform in the Hunt Union Ballroom from 6 to 9 p.m., in an evening of dance, music, poetry, West African cuisine, and table displays by several campus and community organizations, including students from the local elementary schools.

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