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Something New and Buzzy

Last night was the first in our new “Try This” series. Owuo Begine taught a small enthusiastic group some Ghanaian Xylophone (Gyil) patterns at our studio. He began by explaining how the instrument is put together and tuned, and the buzzing sound that comes from the holes in the resonating gourds underneath the keys which originally would have had spider webs covering them but now are paper. The vibration of the paper on the holes results in the beautiful and unique sounds of these instruments.

Students tried various tricky patterns using two mallets and resulting in a complex sound. Owuo finished the evening by playing three gorgeous pieces for everyone. Owuo is currently living in Montreal after emigrating from Ghana two years ago. We are lucky to have him! Special thanks to Dominic & Tony for getting him to Ottawa last night.

Participant (and Baobab Board chair) Ian Brown had this to say:

“While it was different to drumming (and easier on the hands!) there were many similarities… it’s so easy to feel confident that you have a rhythm figured out, play it well for a few minutes and then it just mysteriously vanishes leaving you floundering. I think we  found that even when we did figure it out and could generally go up the notes well, coming back down was a whole other challenge, even though it was exactly the same rhythm! I really enjoyed Owuo’s teaching style – very relaxed but encouraging and easy to follow. I think the main enjoyment was the chance to do something totally new and unique.”

Next workshop in this series:

November 24, 2011: Art Project: Adinkra/ Kente picture  frames with Maureen Clarke

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Drumming for Women

This morning the Baobab Youth performed at the Women’s Economic Empowerment Conference sponsored by CIDA and the UN. It was at the old city hall on Sussex Dr. Its a gorgeous site, and driving there along the Ottawa River Parkway early in the morning with drums in tow, the sun glinting off the river and the Parliament buildings looming against a blue sky, I thought, wow….I have a great job! Playing with such great youth for women from all over the world and having an inspirational and fairly traffic free drive to get there…..awesome. Those days help with the OTHER kind of days :)

It was an early gig, and we drummed and danced from two balconies while international delegates dressed in colourful outfits were arriving, then we grabbed our Northern Ghanaian drums and led the dignitaries in to the stage for the opening talks.  All went well.

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beginning again….

Saw the youth at our first rehearsal of the year yesterday. Wow. What a great and powerful rehearsal…filled with the rich experience they have gained in Ghana and bonds that really cannot be described but which will enhance our performances for sure. Some incredibly tight and dynamic playing. We did a huge stick drumming session on Tokwoe, the piece we travelled to see and participate in, in a rural area of Ghana on our recent trip. See the post!   I am very excited about the season!

Some small changes….we say goodbye to Liam, Angie and Lief who have all been connected to Baobab for AGES. We will hold a special “Sankofa” ceremony on Nov 27 at our Rhythm Café to say goodbye. We are joined by new members Clara and Gabriel, both moving up from the ROOTS class with lots of experience to bring.

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Notes from Ghana #23

So this may be the last post from our Ghana trip, and this is not even about Ghana. Its September 1st and the air is cooler, everyone’s thoughts are turning to school,  work and next chapters. Footsteps to Ghana in July seems like ages ago, however we know it will be within us in small ways forever. For instance, recently one of the adults told me as she was waiting (and waiting) to make a major presentation at work, and was getting frustrated and anxious with the delay. Then the Ghana phrase popped up “any moment from now” which made her laugh and remember the amazing wait times we had in Ghana, never knowing the answers to “what” and “when” and it broke all her tension for her. So many great lessons learned…if we can hang on to them.

Last night we had a get together for the travellers and their families. It was a wonderful opportunity to see each other again (its pretty strange to be with 34 other people 24/7 for three weeks and then….nothing…..) So we had some great visits, told some funny stories, looked at photos, looked at movies and slide shows and made a collage of the trip using all kinds of crazy stuff we brought back, everything from local dirt to cedis to Obama cookie wrappers…FUN. The evening was beautifully hosted at the CUBE Gallery. Angie suggested we take up  donations for the famine relief in East Africa….a terrifying and unimaginable reality that is far from what we experienced on the other side of the continent. So we did ($261 she told me this morning) and she will pass on to CARE Canada today.

Hayley and I are looking forward to receiving a photo book of the trip  “presented” to us last night (in fact because of Hurricane Irene it ended up in Memphis so its on its way, but we saw the slides) . It was a lovely gesture from the parents and youth. Thank you! There are some really stunning pictures taken by some and we plan on making a card series…stay tuned for that.

Although most of the kids in Baobab Youth are coming back this season some of the kids will be leaving the group (as happens!) to pursue their other interests, focus on school and just move on with their lives. Last night was poignant in that both energies were felt in the room…lots of chat amongst the youth about these changes. Many of the kids have been with us for 4, 5, 6 years and its such a pleasure to watch them grow, change, deepen and reflect together.  A privilege for me. Always. I am seasoned enough that I can embrace the cycle…even if there are a few tears shed in private :)

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Notes from Ghana #22

A few of Augusta’s favourite photos (check out her writing on Ghana post  #14) :

And now one of mine: we always try to bring back drums purchased from local drum makers. Almost all of the drums we needed had been assembled but there were no axatses  (gourd rattles) to be found locally so they were brought in on Motorbike. It was quite a sight. They have the courier thing down in Ghana for sure!

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Notes from Ghana #21

For good reason, many of these “Notes from Ghana” posts have focused on the youth in Baobab and their experiences in Ghana; their connection to the kids and culture, especially Dagbamete.  You have also heard about our terrific manager, Hayley,  and some history about my relationship with Ghana. However, these kinds of trips do not happen unless there is  solid support from the Baobab parent community,  and in particular, those entrusted with accompanying the youth on this important journey. We had six chaperones, Evie Gray, Jenni Tipper, Christopher Duschenes, Shelagh Murray, Lynn Rainboth and our Baobab Board Chair Nadine Powers. And serving as a first aid point of contact, Claire Thompson.  Also accompanying us were two other musicians, Rory Magill and Jennifer Moir who provided some great mentoring and connection with the kids. What an awesome team we had! This is the third trip to Ghana we have taken with the youth since 2001. When deciding the right “next time” to go, there are many factors that I look for, including of course,  the particular kids in the group. I am also looking for the elusive but cohesive parent factor, as that can make or break 18 months of fundraising followed by a VERY intensive trip. This particular group of adults, got along famously and we shared many,  many laughs and poignant moments throughout the trip. Their curiosity and connection to village life was amazing and they spent a lot of time getting to know locals and helping out in the school, making friends, talking about development issues, and of course looking out for the Baobab Youth. Our daily conversations at the “Spot” and at mealtimes were at times, funny, gross, illuminating, interesting, over the top and occasionally delving into “Eat Pray Love” territory (insert personal opinion here). We learned and have now adopted as our personal mantra,  Kwasi’s Ghana phrase “Happy Yourself” as “No one go happy you”.  No kidding.  Now that we are back, this group is galvanizing to direct their energies to better the village in whatever way works best, as well as wanting to keep the connection strong between themselves, and keep that sense of daily community present. I am extremely grateful to ALL the parents who have taken the leap with us to go to Ghana with teenagers each of the three times we have gone. Here’s to you all. Yes it is crazy and yes we did it.

On our last night in Ghana, at a special outdoor restaurant in Accra, we thanked and paid tribute to these wonderful individuals with a special Kente cloth woven with the Dagbamete name  in a nearby town by a master weaver.  THANK YOU.

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Notes from Ghana #20

Donations: Canada to Ghana


During the eighteen months of planning and fundraising for the trip, we also were raising money and collecting much needed supplies for some of the cultural groups and schools and libraries we were visiting. What a pleasure to be able to present these while on our trip. Thank you to the greater  Ottawa Community, both businesses and individuals for their generosity,  as well as the Baobab families for gathering,  packing and transporting these items to Ghana. For a full list of cash and in-kind donations see our donor page.

Our first opportunity came when we visited Kwasi’s mother’s village of Dzogadze to see the amazing performance of Atsiabekor and other pieces (see blog entry #13). We always give monetary donations to support the cultural groups performing to us in this village,  but this time we were able to give more than usual to the groups, as well as some money and school supplies to the community on general.

For almost twenty years members of Baobab Community have facilitated donations to the local school in the village of Dagbamete, our home in Ghana. This year was no exception. During our last week, we gathered outside one of the buildings one morning where the students, teachers and some elders and school officials had assembled. our manager Hayley presented the Kindergarten supplies, geometry sets and sports equipment, as well as presenting cash which enabled the school to buy a new computer and printer which they had been sorely needing. The students at the school gave a couple of wonderful cultural performances but the highlight was the Kindergarten class reciting their poems….absolutely CHARMING, especially our special friend Esther Dunyo (or as she says, ” My name is Dunyo, Estah“)  granddaughter of Kwasi, who captured all our hearts  from the beginning of our stay, with her affection and mischievous spirit (see her in sunglasses in Ghana blog entry #3)

The final destination of the donations was reached on our last full day in Ghana, when we visited the Nima Library for a cultural exchange with the Kathy Knowles Theatre Troupe. This library is part of the OSU Library Fund libraries in Ghana, an incredible story and organization to check out if you don’t know them.  This was an amazing afternoon of  artistic exchange….young dancers and drummers impressed and inspired the Baobab Youth, with exuberant performance skills and smiles that could knock you back a few feet if you were directly in front of them. After viewing a few pieces by the resident group, our kids reluctantly and nervously moved to the stage area. Knowing they could not even come close to that incredible energy and style, they nonetheless gave their own “best performance” full of the smiles and the joy that they feel when drumming and dancing. It worked. After only  a minute, the Ghanaian kids were cheering and encouraging our kids on, THRILLED that these kids form Canada were interested and skilled enough to “try” which made the performance even BETTER. Could not have asked for a better exchange. The drum and dance was followed by a funny and moral tale by the Theatre group, written by their director Martin Legend (is that a great name or what?), an inspirational leader for these young people in one of the poorest areas of Accra. During a break in the program, we were able to present Martin Legend and Joana Felih with bags of donations of paper, pens, pencils, backpacks (which went to the performers) shoes and clothing for young children books for the various libraries and a cash donation of $775 USD for the cultural group. It was a pretty special afternoon for sure and a nice way to send us back to Canada, after an amazing trip.

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Notes from Ghana #19

Here is a description (and a little history) written  by Rory Magill of my naming ceremony that the elders invited everyone to share. This included a shot (or tot) of the local Akpoteshie which everyone in our group was offered….we’re not telling who all accepted, but it was all in the service of tradition :)

NAMING CEREMONY

On her first trip to Ghana in 1990, Kathy Armstrong established what would become a life-long, ocean-deep connection with drummer Kwasi Dunyo who, by simple dint of his wonderfully accented English, gave her her first African name, Kahti. Somewhere between Kahti Armstrong and Kahti Am Strong.
When she returned to Canada, she inspired her new friend Rory Magill to book a flight and go see for himself what it was all about. On his first trip to Ghana, he acquired a number of names: Kofi Tetteh Tsulu Dogo Dogo – Friday-born second-son red tall tall.

The written versions of Kathy’s name in Ewe circles was a different matter. Letters to Canada from Dagbamete friends arrived addressed to Rory and Karthy, or to Roly and Katchy – letters which usually ended with lovely wishes, like “more grease to your elbows.”

On her second trip to Ghana, Kahti Am Strong went with her new traveling companion, Kofi Tetteh Tsulu Dogo Dogo Rory Magill. Whereas she had previously been greeted enthusiastically with cries of “Kahti”, she was now moving with a man and moving in a pretty fiercely patriarchal country – a man’s world – and now, as she walked with Kofi Tetteh etc., she was met with very enthusiastic cries of “Dogo Dogo!”  Suddenly: Mrs. Magill. This, the woman who had impressed an entire village on her first trip with her masterful turn on lead drum at a powerful chief’s funeral. This, the woman who had since that time brought Kwasi for a working visit to Canada, setting off a remarkable chain of explosions that has brought continued prosperity to the unstoppable Kwasi Dunyo, and to his family and his village. This, the woman whose African name Kahti became synonymous in Kwasi’s village Dagbamete with “white person”, so that subsequent white visitors to the village were often greeted as “Kahti”. But now, visiting in tandem with a man, it was all “Dogo Dogo” this and “Kofi Tetteh Tsulu” that. And now Kofi Tetteh Tsulu Dogo Dogo was adding little by little more names, first by having his head shaved, thereby earning himself the epithet Sakora, and second, by simply being a man and thereby receiving from our man Kwasi the honorific Nana Nii, which means nothing less than Chief in two different languages.

As Rory’s name grew longer and longer, Kahti’s stayed short and to the point. She began to wonder why KTTDDSNN Rory Magill would so easily acquire so many names, while hers remained so….short and to the point. Was it a case of male privilege? This might spell trouble for the two, who were in fact much more than travelling companions. In fact, this their second trip to Ghana – their first trip together – directly preceded their wedding in Toronto, which, not surprisingly, involved a lot of drumming, dancing, singing, libation and excellent fun. That is another story for another time.

Long years lay ahead for the too-short-named Kahti and her extravagantly-named husband Nana Nii. And so one day Kofi Tetteh Tsulu Dogo Dogo Sakora Nana Nii Rory Magill realized it might fall to him to redress this untenable inequity. He consulted with Kwasi and with Kwasi’s niece Aku and with other Ghanaian friends and he consulted his handy pocket guide to the Ewe language.

The first place to look for a Ghanaian name is the day of your birth. Kahti Am Strong was born on a Sunday and so she would be Kwasiwa. She was the first-born child in her family, and a girl, so in Ewe she would be Ewui (which sounds like your either whistling or blowing out a candle). Kahti’s huband was always fond of calling his wife Mama (once there was a babe in her arms) and, after getting past the fact that “Mama” is Ewe for grandmother, he found that it also means “Queen Mother”. That seemed very fitting, given her leadership status in what is essentially the village of Baobabtree and her prominent status in Dagbamete. Kwasi provided the kicker with Yenunya. Mama Yenunya, he said, was a very powerful, highly respected, much loved Queen Mother of his village a couple of generations back. Say no more. Mama Yenunya would now be virtually reincarnated in Kahti Am Strong who would now be called Mama Yenunya Ewui Kwasiwa Kahti Armstrong. A name fit for a king. This grand new name was emblazened on a plaque and presented to her on the occasion of her forty-fifth birthday.

When plans were struck for a third Baobab trip to Ghana, an idea began to hatch in Kwasi’s mind.
As the trip came near, Kwasi declared that Kahti’s new name must be properly appointed to her. When we finally arrived in Dagbamete, he told us there would be a naming ceremony. Time had truly come. The name had been very satisfactory, if a little under-used. It would gain more currency if the elders of the village formally conferred the name on her and blessed it, speaking it repeatedly, reminding everyone of all the parts of her fine new name. So we awaited word from our host about the day of the naming.

The day came, and our entire retinue, the moving village of Baobabtree, assembled at the lodge, some in newly acquired Ghanaian finery, and followed Kwasi down past the shrine to the hunters’ house, the mysterious windowless little white house decorated with black insignias denoting power and prosperity. There we took instruction to sit on the long benches outside the hunters’ house, the house said to have once been Mama Yenunya’s house. As benches filled, more benches were carried over by the lovely and wonderfully named Divine, attendant at the shrine and junior brother to Kwasi.

As more benches were brought over, benches were re-arranged and assembled guests were asked to get up and re-arrange themselves along with the benches.

Thoughtful bench re-arrangement carries some import at special occasions in Dagbamete, and Divine delivers benches with uncommon grace. The elders sat on benches facing assembled guests and the subject herself of this naming ceremony. A cluster of women sat on the foundation wall of Mama Yenunya’s house.

People continued to arrive until we were perhaps sixty or so. Crates of minerals – the very common offering of soft drinks – were delivered to the feet of the elders, as were bottles of akpeteshie, the favourite drink of the ancestors. A calabash of palm wine was brought for the purpose of the naming. Kahti was called up to join the elders together with her husband and daughter and the three followed the elders of the shrine just outside the assembled gathering to face east, where the tiniest of the elders took the calabash, reached into the palmwine with one hand and began to stir as he spoke a long blessing. This east-facing libation was an invocation to the ancestors and he called out various names. With gentle prompting from Kwasi, the man stirring the wine was able to remember all the names that would receive blessing that day, often preceding each name with the sound “uh”. Uh Kahti Armstrong, etc., etc., uh Rory Magill, etc., uh Iris Magill….and finally came the new names. Mama….Yenunya….Ewui….Kwasiwa….Armstrong. The name Kahti was not included, it seemed, perhaps because everyone in the village knows the name Kahti so well. The elder bent down, called one more invocation and poured the soapy-looking wine into the earth in waves, intoning with each wave some other name. He then received a shot of akpeteshie which he touched to his lips but then poured fully into the earth to chase the wine. Then the akpeteshie bottle was upturned to pour the rest out for ancestral enjoyment.

We then followed the elders back through the gathering and out the west side to face the gods and offer similar libation all over again. This time, curiously, the naming ended up with a twist: it came out Mama Yenunya Ewui Kwasiwa Armstrong Magill. Maybe that’s supposed to be Armstrong-Magill, in this age of hyphenated names. But truly, truly, we know the name is Mama Yenunya Ewui Kwasiwa Kahti Armstrong. And now we know, following the many blessings and several intonings of the name, now we know that Yenunya is pronounced with soft or implied n’s. Ewui is still whistled, and Kwasiwa, after our dear brother Kwasi, is pronounced “sh” in the middle.

The men’s work done, it was time for the real celebration to begin. The new Mama Yenunya was invited up to dance with the elders of the village women – daughters and granddaughters of the original Mama Yenunya, as it were. Among them was the lovely and surprisingly young, new Agbadada – leader of the village women
– who had just recently succeeded the long-lived and much-loved Auntie of our dear friend Jambola. The new Agbadada engaged the new Mama Yenunya in a warm embrace and a celebratory dance.

Another woman took hold of the celebrant and pulled their heads close together at the forehead, sharing sustained, broad smiles. More dances and more warm smiles and embraces followed. And so Kathy Armstrong was inducted into the ranks of the Mamas of Dagbamete, and her new name was enshrined for all time. And from now on, every time she visits Dagbamete, she will come with a long, rich, meaningful and most honourable name.
-Rory Magill

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Notes from Ghana #18

Cross Country Travel & Fruit

Usually when we take the Youth group to Ghana, we pile into 2 or 3 vans to make our travels. With 35 in our party this time, that only worked some of the time. For the longer treks,  our dear host, Kwasi,  arranged for us to travel in the big bus My Goodness. (How he finagled this is a WHOLE other story, that deserves its own blog entry, as we were party to some of the transaction.) Mostly everyone had a seat,  however 2 or 3 of us needed to sit on the plastic stools pulled from below the bus and placed in the aisles. We all took turns as it was a coveted spot for sure. Not something we would even consider here but when in Ghana….

I must say that travelling in a big air conditioned bus is not the experience of Ghana I wish for my students. However,  there were certain practical pluses that I could appreciate once I was able to let go my romantic memories of grunge trips. For instance, we were all together which made for a more cohesive experience and easier communication. Plus our driver Kobla was able to navigate the ever increasing traffic and construction in Accra which is just hideous these days and can slow down travel by an hour or two easily. Literally,  he just bullied his way through the jams. At one point, it got so bad that someone outside started banging on the bus window, at which point the youth broke out into a new war song from Atsiagbekor that they had been learning from Ledzi. A perfect response :)

Also,  it was a real treat to see Kwasi’s face as we pulled into every destination with lights flashing and horns honking to announce the arrival of the Yevu . Driving into Dagbamete, with this big behemoth of a vehicle, past the Shrine on the so called road which is really just red sandy space between buildings was surreal for sure.

On our trip to Cape Coast we stopped for snacks at the Tema roundabout: bananas, cassava cookies, groundnuts (peanuts) and the ever popular plantain chips. Mostly purchased form the trays on heads of vendors. Once past Accra our driver Kobla said he needed to eat Fufu, so he stopped the bus and got out to order. I checked nearby and sure enough there was a spot that served minerals so everyone got down from the bus and ordered Fantas etc.

At one point,  we stopped at a roadside pineapple stand and bought enough to make their day for sure. The woman used her machete to cut them all for us. Ripe, juicy, and dripping. Yum.

Speaking of fruit, someone dropped by the lodge one day with fresh coconut so some of the kids got to try the young coconut juice and pulp. Very refreshing!

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Notes from Ghana #17

So now that we are back in Ottawa, I will continue to try to fill in the gaps from some of our adventures, knowing full well that you really can’t communicate the complexity of sensory and emotional experiences we all had. Rather than go back chronologically, I will just add new posts so you don’t have to go searching.  The time thing,  as you have been reading, is really insignificant anyway.  Here are some thoughts about a musical event:

Community Drumming Space


On the edge of the village is an area known as the community drumming space. There is an amazing canopy of trees under which  benches are set up for any community events. These can be funerals, wake-keepings, general social meetings and in our case, a burial ceremony. Its a fantastic natural room, very cool and breezy with a palpable buzz of energy whether there is a small group gathered, or a few hundred.

We did not have many formal performances scheduled for the Youth but we always hope there is an opportunity for something to happen in this space. Last Thursday, we were able to perform at and witness a burial ceremony of a soul that passed on outside of  Ghana and needed to be repatriated. We met the elders and several people of the community there around 4 o’clock. (Like many afternoon activities we had been waiting some time for it to start having been told that it would be “after lunch”, or even better, “any moment from now” our new favourite saying.  We waited for a while on the benches with no shortage of friends beside us.

Even though people in the village may know something is happening, it takes a little music and dance to get their attention and in this case it was US who provided the impetus to get people arriving.  We performed a gumboot dance (in flip flops on the village soil….not exactly the foots stomping sounds usual to that style but it was greatly admired anyway, as it is not familiar to most Ghanaians.)

We also played, danced and sang a Bobobo and parent Claire easily stepped in to fill the role of a missing dancer. (You’ll notice from the photos that a few kids were not up for this event…we had already had a full-on ceremony in the morning complete with early morning fantas and akpoteshie tastings -yes even the kids if they so desired- so we were  a little smaller in numbers) .

Then Kwasi began to play a gankogui and his son Kwadzo an axatse and some women began to clap sing a women’s song that was sooo beautiful. Some incredible cross rhythms in a 12/8 feel. I did not have my good video camera there but took this rather surreal  vignette…. (still trying to load)

The ceremony went on very simply but beautifully to place something personal of the deceased’s in a small box wrapped in traditional cloth. After some libation pouring and prayers for the elders, we all walked down the road to the cemetery where the small box was laid to rest in the ground. It was really quite lovely to think of this person’s spirit getting a chance to rest in Dagbamete accompanied by such thoughtfulness, reverence and music.

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