The halls of the Montauk School echoed with the beat of 30 drums last week. Outside their classroom, both in and outside of the school, eighth grade students could be heard playing in sync with one another as a master drummer from Ghana led them through a series of beats. Each time he rattled off a cadence on his tubano drum, the students responded in kind with quick slap, tone and bass hits, to their drums, creating different sounds with their hands in one go.
“You’ve got to stay calm when playing,” the master drummer, Sowah Mensah, announced after a student didn’t take his cue. “When you get excited you make mistakes. Watch your leader.”
The students were preparing for their Red Ribbon Week assembly on Friday where they would perform for their friends, teachers and parents. The performance was one of a kind—instead of singing or playing popular music they are familiar with, the students were challenged with African music and dancing, which largely depends on the students’ concentration. Montauk School fifth-graders joined the eighth-graders with a song and dance from Ghana called “Boboobo.”
During their music class on Thursday morning, the eighth-graders, with serious game faces, watched Mr. Mensah as he beat on his drum, setting the pace and rhythm for the 12- and 13-year-olds. As each student responded to Mr. Mensah’s lead, and the pressure was off, a little smile often appeared and quickly vanished when more drumming began. Each pair of eyes intently stared at their leaders’ hands or on their own, careful not to miss a single beat.
Halfway through the class, each student switched to a donno, or “talking drum,” that can sound like the tone of human speech and is shaped like an hourglass. The students had to modulate the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords of the drum between their arms and their bodies. Mr. Mensah reminded them that they weren’t out of the clear yet—they were still auditioning for who could perform the donno at the assembly.
“If I ask you to sit down, don’t take it personally,” he said with a smile. “You’re still on probation.”
Nine out of 11 students who tried out for the donno part made it through after much inspection and stop-and-go. Finally, to test their skill, Mr. Mensah asked the students to improvise the last two measures of a pattern he asked them to repeat.
“African music calls for a high level of focus and concentration,” Mr. Mensah said after the bell rang and students filed out. “I’ve been to 2,000 schools and the discipline at Montauk is very high. It’s really tough getting students to go through the class and to listen. I’ve had no problem with these students. It’s been refreshing.”
Mr. Mensah’s no-nonsense approach has been successful with students all over the U.S.—he teaches many clinics, workshops, residencies and presents lectures at many colleges, elementary and secondary schools, churches and music organizations. He has also performed around the world with the Ghana National Symphony Orchestra and other notable musicians and ensembles.
Mr. Mensah also rearranged a song called “Sii Sii Sii” for chorus and African drums in 2004, which he still uses in classes he teaches today, including at the Montauk School. The students practiced the song as Mr. Mensah played the piano just as the bell rang on Thursday.
“They’re really into it. You can tell,” he said. “I’m hard on them but they come back smiling.”
Music teacher Steven Skoldberg, who has taken two world music drumming classes himself, said he wanted the kids to experience something out of their realm and African drumming was the perfect avenue because they also had the chance to ask Mr. Mensah about his country and his culture.
“To me it’s not all about the drumming, it is more about opening a whole world they don’t know about,” he said. “It’s about a different way of doing things.”