Friday, December 18, 2009

Abraham Adzenyah "Let Your Voice Be Heard"

During the summer of 1997 I attended my first jazz workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts located in the mountains of Banff, Alberta (Canada). For those who don't know, the Banff Centre has hosted a very unique series of annual jazz workshops since 1974. For more information about the excellent jazz opportunities at the Centre, this link will get you started:


Now, I've have since returned to the Banff Centre on numerous occasions since then and I've always left inspired and recharged afterwards. However, my inaugural experience in 1997 was really quite special, especially because I had the opportunity to learn from one particular individual that summer: Abraham Adzenyah

Abraham is a Master drummer from Ghana who teaches West African drumming and dance at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Dave Holland was the artistic director of the Banff Summer Jazz Workshop during the 1980s and introduced Adzenyah and his rhythmic teachings into the program.

Years ago I read an interview with Dave Holland about the workshop and why he felt it was so important to include a faculty member such as Adzenyah and the study of West African drumming. I'm paraphrasing here but I remember Holland expressing that he felt that is was crucial that students of jazz music understand the African rhythmic roots of jazz music, study rhythm from a perspective of physical expression and, finally, to balance out all the study of contemporary jazz harmony that was occurring. Additionally, Holland felt that the drumming and dance component was a great way to "break the ice" among the participants and bring everyone together (seeing as people would come from different parts of the world and different musical communities to attend.)

Here is a clip of Abraham Adzenyah with his Wesleyan ensemble and I think you can really sense the energy and great spirit that he brings to the music:

*If you search youtube you'll also find several examples of Abraham demonstrating various traditional Ghanaian percussion instruments for a project known as the "Virtual Instrument Museum" (unfortunately the embedding was disabled so I can't link them here!)*

In 1997, while Hugh Fraser was running the show, studying West African drumming AND dancing (!) was a great experience for me and one that I greatly value to this day. My teacher at the time at McGill University, Chris McCann had studied with Adzenyah and I later found out that jazz drummer Ed Blackwell had also collaborted with him during his tenure teaching at Wesleyan. The members of the world-renowned percussion ensemble NEXUS had also been serious students of Abraham's teaching so I knew I was in good hands !

In the following two video clips, you can see drummer Ed Blackwell playing and,I think, you can get an idea of how Blackwell infused a West African vibe into his contemporary/New Orleans/Bebop jazz drumming sound:

Lots of Max Roach in there too... : )

Abraham Adzenyah also co-wrote an excellent book with Royal Hartigan entitled "West African Rhythms for Drumset". This book is a great resource that breaks down various Ghanaian rhythms and demonstrates how to apply them to the drum set. I would recommend this book as a great place to start if you are a drum set player and interested in learning about African rhythms:

I would highly recommend that any serious student of jazz music (not just drummers!) check out some West African music and it's rhythmic language. These rhythms are the roots of what we do as jazz musicians. I have since continued my studies of West African drumming and spent last year working with another Master drummer, the great Kwasi Dunyo, at the University of Toronto while completing the residency portion of my Doctoral degree at the U of T. Kwasi was another inspiring musician that I feel very fortunate to have studied with and I view my time with him as somewhat of a continuation of my experience of studying with Adzenyah.

Abraham Adzenyah was an inspiring person to learn from and I will always remember the passion and dedication that he expressed behind the words of the traditional Ghanaian folk song that he taught us:

"Let Your Voice Be Heard"

Great words to live by !

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