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Drumming to a new beat

Bemidji State University music chair, Janice Haworth, is adding some African musical instruments for students to learn. Seen here are two types of Kora, a harp like instrument made from a calabash (gourd) and cow hide with tree limb neck. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – When Janice Haworth, the newly elected chair of Bemidji State University’s music department, decided that a change in her life was in order, she took a chance on a big change.

She applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship to teach graduate music students at the Fine Arts Institute in Guinea on the west coast of Africa.

A professor of music education at BSU, Haworth said she first thought that she would essentially be doing the same kind of instruction that she does here: teaching music teachers how to teach.

Haworth arrived in Guinea in the fall of 2010 with syllabi in hand but no real idea of what she would be asked to do. The institute taught two different instruments: five-string guitar or electric keyboard. The students spent the five years learning how to read and play western music (classical notation).

“Guitars might or might not have all their strings,” said Haworth. “The director of the institute asked me to turn my eight graduate students into professors (of music), which I wasn’t really prepared to do. And after two years, I realized that what he really wanted me to do was to teach them how to read music.”

Haworth struggled with their desire to become “westernized” and her interest in getting them to learn how to play their own instruments: Djembe, the classic African drum, hour-glassed shape with a goat skin head; the Kora, a harp-like string instrument made from a calabash and cow hide; and the Balafon, a wooden percussion instrument similar in sound to the marimba.

Janice Haworth of Bemidji is shown With Moussa Sylla, the lead drummer for the touring group of musicians in Guinea.

Haworth had already begun to learn the complex rhythms of African drumming with her teacher Moussa Sylla and his friends Abou and Aguibo. Early in her arrival in Guinea, she purchased her first Djembe.

“What I had there was an illiterate people with an oral tradition whose music had not been successfully written down,” said Haworth. “I figured that I could just walk in there and it would be easy, but I was wrong.”

Haworth wanted them to retain their musical culture, which only a few, mostly older men in obscure villages could replicate.

To that end, Haworth created a circular system of music notation for African drumming. She took a board made out of cardboard, drew a large circle and spatially placed bottle caps.

Haworth said a bottle cap turned over meant a closed hit, a righted bottle cap was an open hit and a water bottle cap, a bass hit.

The system is named Sik Lik which means cyclical and it is being used to teach African drumming at the institute.

The genesis of her system is rooted in the desire to help her brother James play percussion without needing to learn how to read music per se.

Haworth and her band of musicians, which included Sylla, Abou and Aguibo, traveled the four regions of Guinea and played concerts for ambassadors to village folk.

The American ambassador at the time was Patricia Moeller, who invited Haworth and her group to perform many times for invited guests. Moeller was able to open many doors for Haworth and her group and opportunities to advance her new teaching method.

Haworth brought home two complete sets of African drums. She is excited about BSU’s forthcoming world music course this spring.

She and Eric Sundeen are already working on a drumming group and drum circles. This is a whole new world that Haworth is eager to share with her students in the upcoming months.

It is noteworthy that only two universities in the world are using this new notation method to teach African drumming, and BSU is one of them.

But it was the children of Guinea that took Haworth’s heart away. She took pictures of them and their families and gifted them with the prints. She always greeted the children first with a fist bump, which seemed to be the way they first wanted to touch. And there was always a child who wanted to sit on the gray-haired, white lady’s lap during church services each Sunday.

“When I needed help or had some kind of problem,” said Haworth, people would say to me, ‘I will help you because you help our children.’ ”

Bemidji State University music chair Janice Haworth is adding some African musical instruments for students to learn to play.