orff afrique

Planting the Strings Seed under the Baobob Tree

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.
— Leonard Bernstein

In 2014, I was fortunate enough to attend the first Orff-Afrique course in Dzodze, Ghana, run by Dr. Kofi J.S. Gbolonyo and the music teachers of the San Francisco Orff Training Program. This incredible 2-week course was filled with dancing, drumming, singing, xylophone, and cultural trips, as well as performances by Nunya Academy, and other local traditional musical groups. This experience has had a lasting impact on me, as well as my students who have loved learning about the music and culture of Ghana and West Africa.  

While I was there, I found out that not only was being a guest teacher at Nunya a possibility, but that they had violins, violas and a cello donated to the academy that were just sitting there because there was nobody to teach strings. It was the end of the trip when I told both Kofi and Prosper (Nunya’s assistant director and Kofi’s brother) that I wanted to come back to teach strings someday.  

One morning in early 2017, I opened my email to find out that Kofi would be holding the 1st Nunya Summer Institute for Advanced Studies in West Africa Music, Dance and Culture. I knew as soon as I saw it, I was finally going back. I contacted Kofi, told him I wanted to sign up for the course, and that I would like to stay another week to help start the strings program at Nunya. He sent me the most gracious and enthusiastic email accepting my proposal, informing me that another strings teacher, Mary Jackson-Richardson, would be staying to teach strings as well.   

And so we started planning through numerous emails and texts between Kofi, Prosper, Mary and myself. Prosper went through the instruments, cataloguing the sizes and repairs needed. On our side, Mary and I started collecting parts, repair tools, bows, strings, rosin, shoulder sponges, and other accessories, as well as a few more violin donations to bring with us. It was a little nerve wracking to figure out what we needed to repair instruments before we left, because once we were there, there wouldn’t be a local music store to run down to for a broken violin strings or other parts.  Whatever we brought with us was our store.

All the planning paid off. By the time we were ready to teach, we were able to restore 32 violins and violas of varying sizes, as well as one ½ size cello.  The plan was to teach each of the 2 campuses separately.  We would spend 3 days at the Hatsukorpe campus, which is currently a large, open aired room in Prosper’s house, as well as 3 days at the Dzodze campus, which is currently the Gbolonyo family compound house. As the students were still in school during the day, we only had about 2 hours for each session, which meant a total of 6 hours with each group of about 40 or more students.  So we had a plan, and yes, not quite enough time!

Shared determination during lessons

Shared determination during lessons

Before teaching strings to the Nunya students, however, we had 2 weeks of classes with Kofi and other guest teachers to experience. A typical day’s schedule went something like this:  Dance at 6:30 am with Kofi, followed by breakfast. Drumming for half the morning with Kofi and Oliver Torgboh, a local drummer, musician and teacher, followed by gyil lessons with Sampson Kuudenign, a teacher from the University of Accra. Lunch was long enough to eat, and to journey to the market using the two main forms of public transportation: a motorcycle, or a trotro, a small van. After lunch, more drumming and dance, as well as a lecture on various aspects of West African culture, or what Kofi humorously refers to as “blahblahblah.” After dinner, there were performances at night, by Nunya or other local traditional music groups, all of which ended with everybody dancing together at some point. Finally, we went to bed at the end of the day with images and rhythms of Ghana floating through our minds.

Although that was a “typical” day’s schedule, no two days were ever the same.  While we were scheduled for about 7 hours of actual instruction a day, we never stopped learning and experiencing Ghanaian culture between classes. There were often special cultural experiences throughout the day that you would only get as a student of this course.

For example, on our first day, we paid our respects to the village chief who, along with the village elders, welcomed us to Dzodze. We then met Kofi’s immediate and extended family at the family house and although there was a language barrier, there were warm smiles, gestures and laughs that made us all feel at home. After that, we went to Kofi’s uncle’s house for a homemade traditional Ghanaian lunch where we sat under the shade and ate too much food because it was so good.

On the first day of teaching, students began arriving at the Hatsukope Campus in groups of varying sizes and ages.  Somehow, through the constant chatter, introductions, and 40 bodies moving in a space, students ended up in seats with instruments in their hands. The full size violas were given to the biggest students, all high school boys. We made every attempt to give students a violin that fit them, but in the end there were still full size students playing ¼ size violins and other students sharing. The cello made its appearance on the second day, and wound up in the hands of a high school boy who had been quite successful on his viola.

The author working with Nunya students

The author working with Nunya students

Mary and I decided technique was the most important thing on which to focus during our short time with Prosper and the students. When we discussed beforehand what music we would eventually play, Prosper assured us, “Once they know a scale, they can play anything,” which pretty much proved to be true. So, onward we went with how to hold the violin, how to hold and use the bow, and how to play the D major scale. As Mary and I made the rounds to help students one-on-one with their bow holds, we heard students figuring out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on their own, They were clearly enjoying the process and challenge of their new instruments. By the end of the first 2-hour session, the students were able to pluck as well as bow the D major scale, and “Twinkle” as a group.  

Our sessions with the Dzodze students were held at the White Dove Hotel, which is where the adult participants stay for Kofi’s courses. Our first day with the Dzodze students yielded not only the D major scale and “Twinkle”, but also a version of the “Our Father” Prosper had taught them on their wind instruments.  The students on this campus were just as engaged and excited to learn a stringed instrument.

Nunya students helping each other adjust left hand position on the violin

Nunya students helping each other adjust left hand position on the violin

By the end of the week, students from both campuses were able to bow Twinkle, French Folk Song, Ode to Joy and the Our Father as a group. Mary and I were impressed with how quickly they picked up the music, as well as the technique. This is obviously a result of having Prosper as their teacher for both traditional and Western music. They have learned to really listen, both to the music, and to instructions, as well as how to transfer the concept of playing from one instrument to another with relative ease.

Each session with each campus had so many funny and memorable moments. One of my favorites was seeing Prosper playing his violin the first day while surrounded and cheered on by his students, who obviously love him and were sharing his excitement for his new instrument. Another picture I still see in my mind was how the students immediately started helping each other, whether they were sharing an instrument, or had their own: one person’s victory was everybody’s victory.

Acting principal, Prosper Gbolonyo, learning alongside his students

Acting principal, Prosper Gbolonyo, learning alongside his students

The staff in Ghana includes Becky, who is Prosper’s wife, who is also a high school English teacher; Daniel, a high school science teacher who teaches math to the Nunya students; Achtu and Promise, members of the Gbolonyo family.

These incredible people are not just there to teach music, math, language and technology for free, but to be there for the whole student.  When I think of them and the way they care about the students, I keep coming back to a quote by Shinichi Suzuki:

Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.

In the end, that is what Nunya Music Academy is going to give the students lucky enough to be part of the school. They are going to be not just great musicians, but will also be good citizens, not just in Ghana, but in the world beyond its borders. There is no doubt that Nunya is going to have students follow Prosper’s footsteps to be a music teacher, or Daniel’s to be a math or science teacher, or Becky’s to be an English teacher, or even to follow Kofi’s footsteps to other parts of the world to study, perform and teach, many with the intention of returning the opportunities given to them through Nunya.

It’s exciting to follow the already incredible journey of Nunya.  Once you are touched by the experience, you start thinking about how to help Nunya reach their ultimate goal of seeing their new school building completed and filled with students, instruments and computers.  There are many miles to go, but as Kofi often says at the end of his emails, “Onward!”

Mary Maravic is a strings, rock band and general music teacher at the Seacoast Charter School, Dover, NH, an arts integrated Pre-K through 8 school.  Her instructional approach is Orff-based with an emphasis on world music and culture.  When she is not telling students to stop playing while she is talking, she can be found playing double and electric bass for local music groups.

Woezo! You are welcome.

Agobaya mefoanu dzro o. Yae doa nofu ne.

The palm does not speak by itself, it is the wind that causes it to do so.

-Ewe Proverb

If you’ve come across this website you have probably come in contact with, or have heard of, J.S. Kofi Gbolonyo. If you have happened on this website without any knowledge of Nunya Music Academy’s founding director I highly recommend you find a way to learn from him as it will change your life - it surely changed mine.

I met Kofi Gbolonyo in 2007 in Hong Kong. He was a visiting artist at the Hong Kong International School and I was working there as a music teacher in the second year of my career. In the fledgling years of my life as a teacher, I was aware that my worldview was incomplete, it was why I became an international school teacher, to experience it firsthand.

During an afternoon jam session in his first week at my school, Kofi put me on the gangokui, the Ewe name for a double bell, and he proclaimed that this would be my instrument for the rest of his visit. My job was to keep the repeated patterns going, patterns that often held all the other instruments in the percussion ensemble together. At first look, the bell seems like a harmless, low-stress job. Little did I know, Kofi would challenge my musicianship with West African rhythms that make you feel like you’ve turned your brain inside out, scrubbed it clean and, in doing so, lost all concept of the placement of the downbeat.

Hong Kong 2007 hard at work on the  gangokui

Hong Kong 2007 hard at work on the gangokui

More challenging than picking my musical ego up off the floor, during our time together Kofi would also expand my definition of what perseverance looks like. Kofi works tirelessly to maintain and preserve the traditions of the Ewe people and, in doing so he hoped to improve their quality of life. He is determined to bring the world to Ghana and bring Ghana to the world. Little did I know, almost ten years ago, I would have a part in his mission.

Kofi’s time as a visiting artist in Hong Kong would be the first of many opportunities that we would have to learn from each other. Each time, I would be in awe of his ability to balance sharing and translating Ghanaian music, dance and culture to a Western audience without sacrificing its richness and authenticity. His tenacity for giving context and meaning in a way that is digestible for your average Western musician is invaluable for music educators worldwide.

In 2014, in collaboration with the San Francisco Orff Summer Course, Kofi hosted the first ever Orff-Afrique master class in his home village of Dzodze, Ghana. I quickly signed up to be a part of this experience, excited by the opportunity to finally learn from Kofi on his “own turf.” The course was amazing, but what made it so remarkable, beyond the games I learned, the fabric I bought or the newfound connections to other music educators, was my interaction with the students from Kofi’s school, the Nunya Music Academy.

Located in the Volta Region in southeastern Ghana, the Nunya Music Academy is an institution that provides free Western and traditional Ghanaian music education to any willing child. The students who attend Nunya Music Academy, which is currently hosted in the Gbolonyo family home and runs as an after school activity, are a vibrant example of the value and potential this educational approach can bring to a community. These students not only possess awe inspiring musicianship and abilities in movement that are natural component to the Ewe culture, but they also possess an inspiration to use these abilities to go further, to connect to the world through their music and dance.

Kofi and the students who attend Nunya Music Academy belong to the Ewe ethnic group, which is one of the largest in Ghana. In the Ewe language you will often hear their greeting “Woezo” which translates to “you are welcome.” The common response of the visitor is then “yo” which means "yes" or “thank you.” Kofi enjoys pointing out that Western communication often involves giving thanks first and then responding with “you’re welcome,” whereas the Ewe people do it the other way around.

2016 Dzodze, Ghana with Nunya Music Academy students at the 2nd Nunya Music Festival

2016 Dzodze, Ghana with Nunya Music Academy students at the 2nd Nunya Music Festival

A decade into my teaching career, I’ve learned that my worldview will always be incomplete. There would always be more to learn and new places to explore. However, watching children from the Nunya Music Academy perform with pride and connect to foreign educators so earnestly, moved me to find out what I could support and contribute to what I did know. They had welcomed me so warmly, I wanted a way to give them my thanks.

I found my role in giving thanks for Nunya in creating this website. My intention is to use it to amplify Kofi’s message and that of the students of this school to digital citizens everywhere. It is my hope that this blog will serve as a forum for the plentiful voices surrounding this institution. A place for people to share their stories of how they too were moved by Nunya or how they contributed to help this community build something truly unique. Every other month we will have a guest blogger including students, teachers, volunteers and donors telling their story of how Nunya brought the world to them or how they helped to bring it to Nunya.

We look forward to your return, but for now, weozo, you are welcome.

Ashley Benusa is a Performing Arts teacher at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong. She is currently serving as the webmaster and Director of Technology of the Nunya Music Academy.