By: Emmaline Rogers
Last Friday, St. Mary’s had the honor of having West African drummer Dr. J. S. Kofi Gbolonyo speak in Chapel and teach a workshop for the students. Read more to learn more about his amazing story and the things he had to say about music in his life.
Dr. J. S. Kofi Gbolonyo can’t tell his life story without music; it “punctuates” his life. He was raised in a remote village in West Africa, where he learned traditional cultural music from the games he played as a child, as well as from his parents and twelve siblings. Raised Catholic, he learned western music from the hymns he sang in church, and also from his school band. Dr. Gblonoyo learned to play traditional and western songs with both cultural and western instruments. Using instruments interchangeably like this was far outside what normal musicians could do, so Dr. Gblonoyo used this skill to help him get into college and to “be the best.”
Instead of going to high school, Dr. Gblonoyo went to a missionary school to learn how to be a teacher. He says that it feels almost as if he “cheated on high school,” as he passed the high school exams without going through high school. In order to pay for college, Dr. Gblonoyo taught music to children. He used the games he played as a child to teach these children, pounding out rhythms with his feet and clapping with a broad smile on his face.
When he finally earned enough, Dr. Gblonoyo was able to attend college in Pittsburg where he majored in music education. Here, his immense knowledge of music became intertwined with dance. To Dr. Gblonoyo, “music always comes with dance, so you cannot separate one from the other.” Music continued to define his place in college as he became the school’s choir director, and led the choir in movement while they sang.
Dr. Gblonoyo’s story is truly amazing and inspiring, so having him tell it in chapel was an enormous honor. He even lead a drumming workshop after chapel open to all students. During this workshop, we were told to stand up and beat out a rhythm with our bodies, then put that rhythm to words. Then Doc Millen broke out buckets and drumsticks. Together, we sat and pounded out a rhythm with the ends of the sticks. The beats that we had originally made with our bodies were transferred onto the drums, creating a more prominent sound for our rhythms. Dr. Gblonoyo wanted us to learn how to be connected to the music that we play, teaching us that music that begins from the body will never leave.