Nunya Music Academy: A Project For Our Time

In the summer of 2016, I was invited to give a short talk at a ceremonial gathering in the Orff-Afrique Course in Dzodze, Ghana. I was to tell a bit about who the 30 teachers from all corners of the world were and why we were here. It began:

I am the director of The San Francisco International Orff Course, the institution that sponsored Orff-Afrique. We all have a profession that might seem a little unusual to the average Ghanaian. We are called “music teachers” and our job is to teach music to children. But in a culture where singing is as natural as speaking, dancing as natural as walking and music is everywhere a part of daily life, this must seem strange—how do you “teach” something that everybody just does? Do we teach the children how to walk, to eat, to breathe?
I have written many books on music education and again, you might be puzzled by the title of one of them: Play, Sing & Dance. ” Well, of course!” you think, “How else does one make music?” But in our worlds, music has become separate from life, treated as a special talent or optional activity. To learn it, you have to go to special classes or special lessons and sometimes this costs a lot of money. And then when we do learn it, we sit down at a piano or hold a violin and spend a lot of time reading symbols on paper and practicing where to put our fingers on the instrument. We don’t dance the music we’re playing, we often don’t sing it, we don’t understand what the message is or what other lessons it is teaching.
And so that’s why we come here. You have something we have lost. You have something we need. Your children can play, sing and dance so much better than ours, doing it all with so much energy, joy, ability to listen and blend with the others. They are teaching us so much about how to play, sing and dance with the children we teach. Thank you for welcoming us to your beautiful culture.
Dr. J.S. Kofi Gbolonyo with students from the San Francisco School

Dr. J.S. Kofi Gbolonyo with students from the San Francisco School

In my own 42 years of teaching at one school, this has been my mission—to create a musical culture, a musical community where music and dance are part of the school’s daily life and something every child—and teacher and parent—enjoys. This is the gift that the Ewe and other cultures can impart, bringing a bit of village wisdom and feeling into a modern contemporary institution.

What do we have to offer in return? As vibrant and whole as traditional cultures can be, they also have their own shadow, their own limitations and their own necessary steps to take to thrive in contemporary 21st century culture. How to do it without losing the wholeness and integrity of the best of village life?

Enter Nunya Academy, joining the old with the new, the traditional wisdom of the village with the latest innovations in modern thought and practice.  Here all the students are guaranteed exposure to and mastery of the songs, dances and drumming that have carried on unbroken in Ewe culture, ensuring that the wisdom of the Ancestors will continue into the future. At the same time, they’re given access to contemporary Western instruments, particularly brass and woodwinds. They’re experimenting with innovative arrangements that introduce them to new techniques, new styles, new feelings. Their teachers are trying out some of the innovative pedagogical ideas of approaches like the Orff Schulwerk.

Beyond music and dance, these students will also need to gain facility in English as a lingua franca in the marketplace, master contemporary computer technologies, cultivate mathematical, scientific and analytic thought. Nunya’s mission to educate the whole child recognizes that is the blend of the old and the new, the intuitive and the intellectual, the heart and the mind, that will give these children the opportunities they deserve.

As mentioned above, Nunya already has deeply impacted the 60 plus music educators from some 15 different countries who came to Dzodze in 2014 and 2016. Now it is our responsibility to pay Nunya back and offer the financial support to realize their largest dreams. Several of the participants from those courses have not only contributed personally, but also organized fund-raising concerts. This Fall, with the help of my colleagues Sofía López-Ibor and James Harding, I organized and co-directed such a concert at The San Francisco School. It was a huge success, both musically and financially, featuring a volunteer ensemble from our Middle School and another neighboring school, as well as other adult musicians who had worked before with Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo.

Doug Goodkin (second from the left) and San Francisco-based jazz ensemble  the Pentatonics  steppin' at a Nunya fundraiser

Doug Goodkin (second from the left) and San Francisco-based jazz ensemble the Pentatonics steppin' at a Nunya fundraiser

The theme was music of the African diaspora. The program started with a West African/Ghanaian set with students performing on traditional and Orff instruments, followed by performances of Afro-Venezuelan music. We then presented roots music from the American South and its modern iterations of blues and jazz. Finally, as no Ewe gathering is complete without a social dance, all groups joined together to play and dance Bobobo. This is a style originally created to gather support and strength in the movement for independence.

The San Francisco School in California, USA, hosted a Nunya Music Academy Fundraiser in the fall of 2016.

The San Francisco School in California, USA, hosted a Nunya Music Academy Fundraiser in the fall of 2016.

In the light of a disastrous election that happened just four days before the concert, gathering support and strength was exactly what we needed. In addition to its musical and financial success, the concert served as a healing gesture to bring us together and fortify our resolve to work on behalf of justice. Nunya represents a vision that can contribute to the soul-force needed to bring peace and harmony to a troubled world. I will close with some words from the program notes:

“We need music every day of our lives. Music is what energizes us, calms us, consoles us, shares our joy, awakens us from our slumber, connects us to ourselves and our fellow human beings.

But some days, we need music more than anything. This past week for many of us has been one of those times. So many of us wondering how we are going to survive what just went down, how to keep our little candle of hope lit and our courage strong. And no better place to turn to than the people who have been down this path so many times and for so long and always, always managed to rise up singing. All music is necessary and powerful and beautiful, but the music of the African diaspora gives us that something extra, that story of people struggling against impossible odds and kept alive and vibrant through music, kept themselves together and connected with music. Getting these pieces ready for today, I felt the ancestors in every note reminding me that they are there with us, they got our back, they’re there to catch us when we fall down and lift us back into the dancing ring.

The ancestors are behind and the children are in front and that’s a happy combination. Here we have two schools dedicated to decades of quality music education, coming together to support yet another such place across the sea in the village of Dzodze, Ghana. So few in education understand what music can mean to kids and community and culture, but 2500 years ago, Confucius had a pretty good handle on it. He wrote:

The superior man tries to create harmony in the human heart by a rediscovery of human nature, and tries to promote music as a means to the perfection of human culture. When such music prevails and the people’s mind are led toward the right ideals and aspirations, we may see the appearance of a great nation.

May it be so.

Doug Goodkin is currently in his 42nd year at the San Francisco School, where he teaches music and movement to children between three years old and eighth grade. He is the author of 8 books on music education and is an internationally recognized Orff Schulwerk teacher who regularly gives workshops around the world. He is the director of The San Francisco Orff Certification Course, teaches his own course on Jazz and Orff Schulwerk in San Francisco and is one of the leading teachers in the Orff-Afrique program hosted every other summer by Nunya Music Academy. To learn more about Doug's work and read more of his writing, see his website here.