Unlike professors who speak about their subject matters, master drummer Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng embodies what he teaches: he doesn’t talk about the drum, he becomes the drum.
Obeng, a professor of Ghanaian drumming at Brown University who guest lectured and performed recently for professor Michael Veal’s Sub-Saharan African Music class, seamlessly synthesized his performance with his lecture.
“I grew up breathing drums,” Obeng said of his African upbringing.
Obeng mastered his craft in the court tradition of Ghana where “you play for the chief to make him walk slow, to make him look majestic and vicious.”
He began his lecture on traditional Ghanaian rhythm with a powerful demonstration of the rhythm that declares “the chief is coming” and showed how that phrase can be sung and played on different drums. These translations of rhythm from instrument to instrument and from drum to voice were symbolic of Obeng’s linguistic theory of drumming.
“It’s all verbal,” he said. “Every rhythm has words.”
Obeng also focused on understanding drumming as more than just a beat.
“It’s all melody,” he declared, showing the class how a drum functions with the same harmonic inversions as the piano. “There is the male and there is the female. There is the high and there is the low.”
This sense of melody was especially alive when Obeng played the donno, a Ghanaian talking drum handed down from Muslims in North Africa. The talking drum is double-headed, shaped like an hourglass surrounded by strings. As Obeng squeezed the strings under his arm, he made the instrument sing a surprisingly lyrical version of Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight.”
Obeng came to Yale at Veal’s request.