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Rhythms of peace

By Katie Merx Sarver

Ghanaian fontomfrom drums.

Ghanaian fontomfrom drums, the musical instruments of Ghanaian state and royal events, will represent the long relationship between the Peace Corps, U-M and the West African nation Oct. 11-14 when they sound the call to gather at several of the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary events.

Even before John F. Kennedy formally proposed a Peace Corps, he asked U-M students how many were willing to spend their days in Ghana. And Ghana and the nation now known as Tanzania were the destinations of the inaugural Peace Corps volunteers.

Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs and professor of ethnomusicology, along with the African Studies Center’s Heritage Project and the President’s Initiative on Africa commissioned a set of the drums to be made for U-M in conjunction with the Peace Corps 50th anniversary celebration.

The drums, which will remain in the permanent collection of the percussion department, have traditionally symbolized the presence of a chief. Great care was taken in the making of the drums for the U-M with the drum-maker following the ritual of paying homage to the spirit of the Tweneboa tree from which the wood was taken.

Historically, fontomfrom drums have been used by the Akan people of Ghana to mark special events and are occasionally played at the opening of parliament.

So, as a tie to the historic relationship, fontomfrom drums will proclaim the beginning of several events next week on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy visit to U-M that inspired the formation of the Peace Corps.

Visiting professors and renowned Ghanaian musical specialists from the Center for National Culture in Ghana and elsewhere will travel to Ann Arbor next week to share information about the care, use and rituals of the fontomfrom with percussion students in the School of Music, Theater and Dance.

Screenings of the movie, “Alumpan: The Talking Drums of Ghana” are planned at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance during the week.

Michigan students together with the Ghanaian drummers will then perform with the Fontomfrom drums:

  • For international dignitaries on the occasion of “A National Symposium: The Future of International Service” on Oct. 13.
  • Before the commemoration of John F. Kennedy’s remarks on the steps of the Michigan Union, at 10:45 a.m. Oct. 14.
  • In advance of the Ghanaian Symposium, at 1:15 p.m. Oct. 14 on the Michigan Union steps.

“These drums play a very central role in the Akan society of Ghana,” Monts says. “The permanent addition of these drums to the university’s percussion collection in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance contribute to the global diversity in our academic offerings. Their inclusion in the events surrounding the celebration of the Peace Corps provides a musical nod to the shared histories of American and Ghanaian cultures.”

Now the drums will play a central role in the education of Michigan percussion students, says Joe Gramley, assistant professor of music and coordinator of the percussion program.

“This is a unique opportunity for UM percussionists to gain access to instruments of real historical significance,” Gramley says. “As 21st-century artists, we are always looking outside our borders in order to absorb new traditions.  The chance to accomplish that on authentic musical instruments is an amazing windfall that we plan to take advantage of for years to come.”