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Call and Response

Ghanaian musicians bring village life to Fort Hunt.

When the day’s work is over and the tang of cooking smoke is in the air, a man takes a seat in the circle of packed dirt at the center of the village. He produces a flute and blows out a stream of notes. As they twine down the alleys between homes, the lone musician is joined by others in the village, a drummer, a dancer, a storyteller, an audience.

Asked when he was first exposed to music, Kofi Dennis laughs. “Ever since I was aware,” he replies.

It’s an everyday life experience,” added his partner Kwame Ansah-Brew.

On March 1, the native Ghanaians, who together call themselves Anansegromma, were about to go onstage before several hundred students at Fort Hunt Elementary to perform the music, dancing, drama and story-telling — all of which are often inseparable — that they first experienced in their villages, where this entertainment is woven into every day life. “Almost every evening, especially when the moon is up, there’s something going on,” Dennis said.

But how can two performers draw several hundred students into the life of a village and a culture they have never experienced?

“Naturally,” said Dennis, “It’s the rhythm.”

Lines of students are still filing in at the back of the gym as the two Ghanaians tap a djembe drum and wooden xylophone, lending a calm, vibrant beat to the scene. Heather Sanderson, the parent who organized the performance, points out students who are already seated. Some bounce impulsively in place while others piston their wrists as if beating a drum. “It’s the rhythm, isn’t it?” she said rhetorically. “The kids respond through the rhythm. They respond with their bodies and their minds and the stories. It just fires up their imaginations.”

Sanderson, a classically trained actress from England, directs a youth Shakespeare troupe. She thought for a moment when asked to compare the appeal of the performance she teaches with the one she was witnessing. “They both work with a rhythm and a beat. They’re both storytellers that have gone back hundreds of years. And they connect children with the past.”

CHILDREN WERE CHATTERING as they entered the gym, but by the time the last of them were seated and the beats from the stage faded away, the room was silent and still. After explaining their instruments, Ansah-Brew produced a conch shell and began to blow, producing a long and deeply-rooted note. “He is calling you to follow directions,” Dennis said above the noise of the conch. “He is calling you to express yourself.”

“Be proud of who you are. Be proud and brave. Express yourself. And oh, my friends and elders — music time.”

The two men sang together, playing drums, tapping a cowbell, rattling a gourd shaker strung with cowrie shells. Dennis explained that it was a song of the Ga people of Ghana’s coast, then told the story of the Gas’ ancestors, how they crawled from the sea, exhausted and starving from their journey. As they lay panting in the sand, they heard the notes of a flute, and followed it to an old woman, who pulled handfuls of corn kernels from a pouch and gave them to the young men and women of the tribe, telling them to plant. Waiting for the corn to grow, the people “learned to endure,” Dennis said.

Then Ansah-Brew taught the students the call and response, the backbone of Ghanaian performance. “Agoo!” he would whisper, shout, crow, warble or repeat.

“Amee!” the students and teachers would whisper, shout, crow, warble or repeat in reply. When the students’ grew a little too clamorous as Ansah-Brew demonstrated the Akhans’ ostrich dance then the dance performed by Ananse the trickster spider after he put a hatful of boiling beans on his head, Dennis quietly said “Agoo!”

“Amee!” the students replied. Then silence.

For their finale, the Ghanaians began calling children onstage. They dressed a king and queen in the royal kente cloth of the Ashante tribe and handed out small gourd shakers to the younger children, who struggled to hold still as the stage filled behind them. Eventually the ranks of the audience were noticeably thinner, and more than 30 people stood before them with noisemakers or sat behind drums.

“I’m going to give you the honor, my royal friends and elders, of giving us a steady beat,” Dennis told the students still sitting on the gym floor. They began to clap. The African orchestra took up the beat onstage, a crescendo of percussion. When the performers asked the students to stand, the room burst into smiles. It was soon awhirl with shaking hips, pumping elbows, fluttering fingertips and whole-body spins. The teachers danced as enthusiastically as their students.

“Adios!” Dennis said at the end of the dance. “Au revoir. Sayonara. Shalom. Namaste.” The two men placed their palms together and bowed to their royal friends.

SECOND GRADE TEACHER HILARY MOORE said she was impressed that the Ghanaians kept complete control of their audience despite exhorting the energetic participation of every student. Asked to compare it to past assemblies, she barely hesiated, “It was the best.”

Dennis said the call and response technique is the key to Ghanaian social structures, as well as to exuberant, controlled school assemblies. “That is what African culture is all about,” he said. “It thrives on this balance of allowing one to be himself, but within an environment… You empower them to express themselves within the established rules.”

Dennis and Ansah-Brew first met as students in the University of Ghana’s School of Performing Arts. Ansah-Brew was majoring in dance and Dennis was majoring in creative drama. They have been in the United States for more than a dozen years, where both are teachers. Dennis teaches in an Annandale Montessori School. Ansah-Brew teaches dance and African religion at Goucher College and the University of Maryland – Baltimore County.

“Most [school performers] are afraid to get their kids up… We try to find a balance,” said Ansah-Brew. “I call it artistic chaos.”

Second-grade teacher Stephanie Patterson had lined up her students and was waiting for her class’s turn to leave the gym. “I learned some words I’m going to use in the classroom,” she said, as her impatient students began to fidget and whisper.

“Agoo!” she called out.

“Amee!” they replied.