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Drums Talk, Hearts Dance

CFA class explores Senegalese and Ghanaian music

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Steven Cornelius, a CFA visiting professor of musicology, and Lamine Touré, a Senegalese drum master and MIT artist-in-residence, team up to teach African drumming and dancing at CFA.

Steven Cornelius taps his feet to the drumbeat that he and three students are whipping up. His eyes are fixed on 10 student dancers flailing their arms and legs in wide, fan-like motions, as if they’d suddenly lost their skeletons.

One student, cheeks flushed from the dance, asks Cornelius, a College of Fine Arts visiting associate professor of musicology, for a suggestion to help her remember the complicated moves to kuku, the Ghanaian dance they are learning.

“Talea is our main memory device,” Cornelius says, referring to his daughter, who helps with dance instruction.

“Think of me as an external hard drive,” says Talea Cornelius (SSW’12), without missing a step.

Cornelius and Lamine Touré, a Senegalese drummer and an artist-in-residence at MIT, are teaching CFA’s World Music Ensemble class, which welcomes students of all backgrounds to drum, dance, and shed any semblance of self-consciousness.

“Embarrassment is not allowed in this class,” Cornelius says. “We all support each other and that frees us to try these new things. People who have never danced in public or only behind closed doors are suddenly doing all these African dances on stage.”

On Tuesday, November 30, the class will showcase its drumming and dancing skills at the CFA Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Admission is free and open to all.

Touré teaches Senegalese drumming and dancing during the first half of the three-hour Tuesday night class, and in the second half Cornelius covers Ghanaian rhythms and moves.

“In the West, so often we’re trained to play what we see on a page,” Cornelius says. “Everything Lamine teaches, he teaches by rote.” Everyone, including the BU prof, is a student when Touré leads: “I may have a PhD,” says Cornelius, “but he is a master.”

On a recent Tuesday night, more than a dozen students grip sabars, a typical Senegalese drum, with their knees and fix their eyes on Touré’s hands, which flutter over his drumhead like crazed hummingbirds. He rips off a rhythm, injecting a chant in his native language of Wolof, and students mimic the beat. After several weeks, they’re beginning to hold their own.

Soon it’s time to dance. Touré takes a position toward the front as students remove their shoes and socks. The lanky instructor launches into a high-stepping, arm-whirling move that, Medusa-like, shakes loose his long dreads. It’s a routine students have practiced before, but it takes several minutes before limbs loosen enough to mimic the human Gumby before them.

“Che!” (or, “I’m good!” in Wolof) shouts one student when they nail the last move. Another responds, “Wow, wow!” (Wolof for “Yes, yes!”). Touré smiles broadly, “Wow, wow!”

The class is practicing two dances: the freewheeling line dance kuku, and toque, a flirtatious circle dance pairing men and women. Cornelius preps the drummers for kuku, while his daughter moves toward the front of the stretching dancers.

Cornelius had previous incarnations as a rock drummer and an orchestral musician. But he became “enamored” of African music after stumbling across Afro-Cuban street drummers in New York City. The experience influenced his UCLA dissertation topic and later led him to Ghana—10 times.

“Dancers, I’d love to hear you sing these parts,” Cornelius says. “I don’t care what the words are, as long as you internalize the rhythms.”

Students step through each move, with the music and without, their eyes glued to Talea’s every move. She’s followed African dance since she was 8 years old and has been her father’s dancing sidekick since she was 15.

Tap, jazz, and ballet were “definitely not my forte,” she says. “I like to move and you can’t really move much when you’re doing stuff like that.”

With toque next, Talea counts out male and female dancers. They’re one man down. “Are you dancing?” she asks her father. “I will answer the bell when called,” Cornelius responds cheekily, referring to the cowbell one student is playing. Before long, he joins the dancers. Talea stops them after a couple of minutes, addressing her father: “You skipped the run, run, clap.”

“What?” he says, “I made a mistake?”

Cornelius grins, loving every minute. PhD or no, sometimes Senegalese drum masters and daughters put him in his place.

Steven Cornelius’ World Music Ensemble class will perform Senegalese and Ghanaian drumming and dancing at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, November 30, at the College of Fine Arts Concert Hall, 855 Commonwealth Ave. Admission is free and open to the public. Lamine Touré performs regularly with his Afro-pop band Group Saloum.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday. Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Drums Talk, Hearts Dance

  • Anonymous on 11.29.2010 at 1:03 pm

    Ah, reading this made me so happy! I adore Professor Cornelius. I took his ID116 class last semester and it was by far my favorite class since I’m at BU. I definitely recommend that anyone who can take a class with him should!

  • Samantha on 12.08.2010 at 10:45 pm

    This kind of music is so cool, we have so much to learn from African countries !
    Rihanna
    Shakira

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