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East to West: World Music Is Center Stage

New Marsh Professor-at-Large Srinivas Krishnan, Indian percussionist and singer, hopes to give students “a better understanding of music from another world.” (Photo: Sally McCay)

Srinivas Krishnan opens his guest lecture in Alex Stewart’s world music class in Southwick Ballroom by writing three large Hindi syllables on a blackboard.       

Gesturing to each looping swirl, he booms, “Sri…ni,” “Sri…ni,” “Srini” – his nickname. He pauses, fires off a volley of Hindi words, stops dead, and then rattles off another stream of Hindi.   

Krishnan, an Indian percussionist and singer whose recent lecture kicked off his six-year tenure as UVM’s newest James Marsh Professor-at-Large, isn’t entirely in the business of baffling American students – although he clearly relishes the momentary confusion and the teaching moment that will follow. 

Coming to the rescue, he explains to the students – in English – that Indian music is a language as foreign to American ears as Hindi and will require “love and attention” to understand. During the remainder of class he demands ample amounts of both, asking students to chant bogglingly complex rhythmic sequences of syllables called sollukattu and to sing impossibly long, swaying Indian melodies called ragas. 

Several days later, Ghanian master drummer, composer, and ethnomusicologist Sowah Mensah, a Marsh Professor-at-Large whose six-year term is ending this semester, has commandeered another of Stewart’s classes – his honors Ethnomusicology Seminar – and is using the same language trick that Krishnan employed, to a slightly different end.

Stationed before a semi-circle of desks, Mensah speaks to the students in meliflous Ga, one of Ghana’s major languages, then switches to another Ghaniain tongue, the more stacatto Twi.

“Music is exactly like that,” he says to the class.  “Yes, it is a language used for communication.  But there are many musics” – which are frequently as little understood by people outside the cultures that created them, Mensah says, as Ga and Twi are to the students.    

Messengers

The back-to-back Marsh professorships of Krishnan, who will give his first UVM performance Friday night, and Mensah, who will give his last concert on Sunday, mean that for 12 consecutive years UVM’s world music/ethnomusicology program – strong on its own – will essentially be on steroids.   

“It’s one thing for them to hear from me,” says Stewart, a jazz scholar and saxophonist, whose doctoral degree is in ethnomusicology,  “but it’s great to bring in somebody from these specific cultures who can not only talk about them, but demonstrate them and play for the class.”

More the same

It’s tempting to focus on the differences between Krishnan and Mensah.

The student performances Krishnan produces at Miami University of Ohio, where he has spent eight weeks a year since 1996, resemble the Bollywood spectaculars whose music he helps produce in India with his friend A. R. Rahman, the superstar composer who wrote the score for Slumdog Millionaire.

Performances feature hundreds of student musicians playing instruments ranging from sitar and tabla to electric guitar and alto sax, dozens of ecstatic dancers, and layer upon layer of musical tradition, from classical Indian to Latin to Romanian to Klesmer to a dozen more.

Mensah’s student ensembles at Macalester College in Minnesota, where he has been on the faculty since 1987, number in the 40s. The surging wall of sound they produce is unadulterated traditional Ghanian music performed on an array of African instruments, from frame and bottle-shaped drums to xylophones and flutes to rattles, bells, gourds to horns and the human voice.

But the apparent differences mask fundamental similarities:  a powerful desire to give westerners – “a better understanding of music from another world,” as Krishnan puts it – and amazing success in doing so. 

When Krishnan began his tenure at Miami, he attracted four students to his ensemble, called Global Rhythms.  For the past several years, 300 plus have participated.  The group has given more than 70 performances at schools like Berklee College of Music, Duke, and Penn and at venues that include the Hollywood Bowl.

Mensah, too, began small, with the group of 15 students. Today as many as 100 Macalester students audition for the 10 spots that typically open each year, and the group has performed at universities and public schools around the country, including at UVM. In addition, Mensah has almost single-handedly made African music part of the American public school curriculum, visiting more than 2,000 schools in the past 25 years and hosting six, week-long African music seminars for teachers every summer. 

Music department chair Tom Toner, who launched UVM’s world music program in the 1990s, brought Mensah to UVM in 2004.  His success – Mensah has given more than a dozen concerts over his six years in partnership with various students ensembles, has lectured often in departments like Anthropology, Sociology, and Religion, and has inspired countless young musicians at the university – helped make the case for Krishnan’s appointment, which was sponsored by music professor Patti Riley.  

Is it music?

It’s easy to see why Mensah has been effective: he’s a master teacher as well as a master drummer.       

To drive home the point during the enthomusicology seminar that non-western music may communicate little of its true nature to ears outside its culture of origin – a favorite theme of Stewart’s – Mensah fetches a cylindrical drum with thatched sides he brought with him to class. 

After playing a series of high pings at the rim, deep pongs in the center of the drum head, and notes that rose or dropped in pitch like a piece of string being stretched taut, Mensah asked the students if the drum was a musical instrument.  Yes, they replied in unison.

“There is no music in what I played,” Mensah corrected. The instrument was a talking drum, used to mimic the inflection-based words of African languages. To demonstrate, he used it to recite the Lord’s Prayer, speaking each phrase in Ga after playing it on the drum.    

Mensah’s official duties at UVM may be over, but his influence – through the African music ensembles percussionist Toner hopes to continue, the collection of traditional African instruments now available to students, and a general spirit of musical adventure – will live on.  Carrying the cause forward is a new messenger whose impact is just beginning to be felt. 

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