Students discover expression through African music, dance
Feb. 08, 2014 @ 05:11 PM

Eight students fidgeted on the classroom floor, taking their time copying a Louis Armstrong quote on their sheets of notebook paper.

“I don’t let my mouth say nothin’ my head can’t stand.”

Joy Harrell-Goff, a music teacher at Estes Hills Elementary School in Chapel Hill, projected a photo of Armstrong onto the big screen, presenting a larger-than-life grin and bowtie, and asked the elementary-aged children what they thought his words meant.

“Don’t say bad things that will hurt someone.” “Don’t say anything bad about yourself.” “Think before you speak.”

“Then you gotta speak on purpose, right?” Harrell-Goff asked.

The students were participating in the first Durham “BUMP: The Triangle” class Saturday. The new nonprofit music education organization teaches children the history and importance of African Diaspora music, using sound clips, dancing and African drum circles to do it.

On Saturday in the little classroom at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, Harrell-Goff pulled out a talking drum, smoothing her hands over its cords and animal skin, and showed students how to gently clutch the instrument under their arms.

Without texting and phone calls, she asked the class how a Durham tribe would communicate with a Chapel Hill tribe 1,000 years ago. The children had different ideas, ranging from radios (didn’t exist) to a Pegasus (active imagination) to riding horses to the next town over. 

Georgiary Bledsoe, who earned her musicology Ph.D. from Duke in 2002, is the founder of BUMP and began the program in Boston almost 9 years ago. She said the “voice” of the talking drums has been carried into blues music and spirituals, and she said the BUMP program is about teaching students the complex structure of African music, its layers, dance and spectacle.

“Music of the African Diaspora is a particularly powerful tool, not only in the lives of African-American students, but in all students,” Bledsoe said.

She said the goal of the new nonprofit is to bring the 6-week program to schools and community centers.

Marta Sánchez, a research scientist with the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, and a UNC student took notes throughout the class, details that would be used to evaluate the workshops.

“Through this direct experience, they’re going to discover the history, the geography, the personal relationships made through these instruments,” Sánchez said.

Durham resident Teli Shabu sat with his 3-year-old daughter, Adefunmilayo, on Saturday, watching as his 8-year-old son, DeLacey, tried his hand at the talking drum.

Shabu teaches African drums on a weekly basis. When asked how long he has played, he pointed to his young daughter and said since he was Adefunmilayo’s age.

He said his son started tagging along to his African drum classes.

“I would like for him to play music for his enjoyment, not necessarily for a career,” Shabu said. “… I believe that music is math, and I believe it’s going to help with academic stuff as well.”

The young students learned about tonal language and inflection, or how they use the pitch and volume of their voices to tell a story or share their mood. The drums also are used for such storytelling. Over the speakers, Harrell-Goff played an African work song, in which drums were used to converse with men working in the fields.

When you hear the drums in the song, stand up, she said.

“If you’re really bold, you can stand up and dance.”

To learn more about the “BUMP: The Triangle” program, visit