A Servant of Rhythm From Ghana, in Texas
Torgbui Midawo Gideon Foli Alorwoyie, a master drummer from Ghana and professor of music at the University of North Texas. Credit Allison V. Smith for The New York Times
DENTON, Tex. — On the morning of the 20th annual African Cultural Festival at the University of North Texas here, Torgbui Midawo Gideon Foli Alorwoyie, the festival’s founder, was doing last-minute errands. There were drums to gather, programs to pick up from the printer, costumes to procure. For these annual events, he is his own promoter, his own publicist, his own street team.
“I do everything myself,” he explained from the driver’s seat of his minivan. Deep blue scars on his cheeks — marking him as a Midawo, or high priest, of the Ewe cult of Ghana’s Volta region — bent as he glanced between two different cellphones. A thick chain with a gold medallion in the shape of Africa glinted on his chest.
Mr. Alorwoyie (pronounced al-or-WO-yee), 71, is a rarity in American academia: a master drummer from Africa who is a tenured professor of African drumming and dance, disciplines that are difficult to categorize within Western musical theory. And in his own country, he is one of the few musicians working arduously to pass on traditions in danger of disappearing.
Mr. Alorwoyie also carries the title of Torgbui, or paramount chief, in his region of Ghana, responsible for administrative decisions and rulings on certain judgments; an herbalist (a large bottle of gin at his home, stuffed with long roots, was repeatedly offered to a visitor for its healing properties); and a stern taskmaster to his performers and students.
He has a key link to the evolution of American Minimalism: In 1970, the composer Steve Reich traveled to Ghana and studied with Mr. Alorwoyie for a month. “Drumming,” Mr. Reich’s groundbreaking piece for nine percussionists, was written after his trip.
Mr. Alorwoyie leading a rehearsal at the University of North Texas in April. Credit Allison V. Smith for The New York Times
At several rehearsals on the University of North Texas campus earlier this month, Mr. Alorwoyie guided a student drumming and dance ensemble that, for the festival concert, would be accompanied by five Ghanaian percussionists as well as Mr. Alorwoyie’s wife, Memunatu, 46, a former principal dancer in the Ghana Dance Ensemble in Accra; several former students who regularly return to dance at his events; and their daughter, Gloria, 11, who has been under her mother’s tutelage since birth.
Lither and quicker than many men half his age, Mr. Alorwoyie exuded a fierce calm during rehearsals. For many rhythms, he stood next to the atsimevu, a massive drum played with sticks. Tapping against its hull to establish a beat, Mr. Alorwoyie called drummers and dancers into action, activating changes in the patterns and movements with nods or shifts in expression. When not playing, he paced like a general, hands on his hips.
Some Ewe rhythms have a slippery, collapsing quality, an amorphous relationship to any easily recognizable downbeat. Mr. Alorwoyie’s lead patterns directed the dancers, but when another drummer took over the atsimevu, Mr. Alorwoyie stepped into a dance with his wife; their playful steps around each other were like marital shadowboxing. As complex as the rhythmic patterns are, they go hand-in-hand with movement and song — the dancers and drummers serve one another.
Memunatu Gariba Alorwoyie, the former principal dancer of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, during a rehearsal with the University of North Texas student ensemble. Credit Allison V. Smith for The New York Times
“African music is not something you just listen to,” Mr. Alorwoyie said in an interview in his office, its walls covered in awards, degrees and newspaper articles about him dating back decades. “The answer is the dance.”
Mr. Alorwoyie left Ghana in 1976 and took a position as a visiting lecturer at SUNY College at Brockport. After stints at the American Conservatory of Music and the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, he joined the North Texas faculty in 1996. The School of Music there is one of the nation’s largest, with an extensive percussion program. According to John Scott, the chair of the search committee that hired him, Mr. Alorwoyie is the first — and still the only — tenured African drummer at an American university.
“The first year he was here, all of a sudden he says he needs money to buy cloth to make clothes for the ensemble, so they look like an African ensemble,” Mr. Scott said. “‘O.K., where are we going come up in the budget with clothes money for an ensemble?’ But you manage to do it.”
The rhythms Mr. Alorwoyie plays and teaches belong to a language that has been stored in generations of memory, rarely recorded or preserved. Ewe songs are forms of communication; in some cases, phrases like “the lion is coming” are reinterpreted as drum patterns, part of an alarm system that existed among villages. (Some songs, Mr. Alorwoyie says, routinely contained criticism of different families in a community.) Without a written history, traditional Ghanaian drumming (of which there are thousands of tiny variations) is part of a family of African song forms that don’t fit easily into Western pedagogical models.
“There was a time when ethnomusicology was in some places not really integrated into music programs,” Mr. Scott said. “It was sort of the bottom of the pecking order; there’s a whole strata of musicians who looked down on ethnomusicology and ethnic music: ‘Oh, we don’t want to deal with this, it’s not art music.’ Just like the people who looked down on jazz and said, ‘This is not real music.’”
Mr. Alorwoyie with the atsimevu, a tall drum that is used as a lead instrument in many Ghanaian songs and rhythms. Credit Allison V. Smith for The New York Times
Kobla Ladzekpo, who taught for 38 years at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Abraham Adzenyah, who was at Wesleyan University for 46, are both master drummers from Ghana who enjoyed strong support from their academic communities, but neither ever had a title above adjunct professor.
“African traditional performance arts have no conventional place in higher education schools of music or music conservatories,” said David Locke, the chair of the music department at Tufts University, who has known Mr. Alorwoyie for four decades and collaborated with him on a research project on the Ewe drum language that resulted in a 2013 book. “I wouldn’t necessarily think that bias is actually capturing that, it’s more of a historical condition that seems to make natural sense. On the other hand, there is a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding of African arts and performance arts and African ways of life.”
Without a notational system, the rhythms must be passed directly from generation to generation.
“There’s not a classroom that’s going to teach you,” Mr. Alorwoyie said. “In the villages and towns and cottages, you’re not going to see nobody teaching nobody how to drum.”
He and the performers he brought to Denton for the festival are part of the group trying to transmit this fragile knowledge. “It’s here,” said Godwin Abotsi, 37, a Ghanaian drummer and dancer who lives in Fort Collins, Colo., pointing to his head.
Mr. Alorwoyie, center, dancing at National Sawdust in December 2016. Credit Stephen Speranza for The New York Times
In December, Mr. Alorwoyie and several of his students traveled to New York for a performance of “Drumming” with the ensemble Mantra Percussion at National Sawdust. The Ghanaian ensemble presented traditional compositions and dances, alternating with Mantra’s performances of works by Mr. Reich. For “Drumming,” the two groups played in tandem, with Mr. Reich’s piece fitting like a skin over a complex rhythmic skeleton led by Mr. Alorwoyie. The staggered bell pattern that anchors many Ghanaian rhythms became a beacon amid the phased bongo cycles of Mr. Reich’s composition — an indigenous form cradling a modern one. (Through a publicist, Mr. Reich declined to comment for this article.)
Even in Africa, the sacred songs and rhythms that Mr. Alorwoyie teaches are struggling, with the drummers and dancers of Ghana’s national ensemble earning salaries that barely sustain them. Hiplife, a form of popular music heavily influenced by reggae, has some strands of traditional drumming, but in general those traditions are not highly valued by younger people.
“It’s associated with the past, it’s associated with rural areas, you don’t make money from it,” Mr. Locke said of the traditional style. “You go to a funeral, and the D.J.s have their sound systems, and they’re blasting the music at very, very high volumes, and the traditional folk are playing their traditional drums right next to where the D.J.s are set up. It’s like the Industrial Revolution versus the preindustrial world.”
Mr. Alorwoyie travels to Ghana several times a year to attend to affairs that concern his chieftaincy, but he also is attempting to pass his library of music on to people who can sustain it. Rather than update the old patterns, he said that at this point in his life, he must return to the rhythms he knows; history demands it.
“If I am trying to teach something else creatively,” he said, “I’m going to lose those very important messages.”
With this sense of reverence comes a teaching style in which anything less than what is expected is unacceptable. At a dress rehearsal for a festival performance, Mr. Alorwoyie gave a thorough dressing-down to both undergraduate students and veteran Ghanaian drummers.
“Why are you talking?” he asked sharply, after entering the backstage area and finding his dancers and drummers joking around at a moment when he wanted them to be entering for a procession.
The ensemble fell silent. Mr. Alorwoyie — who is said to have been born with his fists curled tightly, marking him for life as a servant of rhythm — led them onstage, his body bouncing lightly to the beat of the squeeze drum under his arm, his eyes fixed intensely upon his charges.