Bata. Djembe. Dun dun. Dunno. Conga
. In all its shapes and varieties, the African drum is an extraordinary utilitarian instrument that serves as more than just a musical tool. For centuries, throughout the African continent (particularly West Africa), the drum has been used as a source of communication. Made of natural resources and materials found in the surroundings, the drum has been used at ceremonies to pay homage to the Creator and the ancestors, to herald the homegoing of a loved one, to spark courtships, to announce marriages and births, to accompany religious rites and initiation rituals, to herald political and social events, the onset of war, the triumph of battle, to announce emergency gatherings, and more.
Today, we find the captivating rhythm of the African drum resounding throughout the world. Of particular interest is the presence of the drum and specific African rhythms in the Caribbean (in places like Cuba and Puerto Rico) and among African-Americans and Latino groups in the United States. How did those rhythms find their way to these places? Is their presence an indication that there is a connection between African and Latino cultures?
Listen to the Rhythm
is a curriculum resource that supports the contention "Yes! There is!"
Listen to the Rhythm
serves as an ethno-musicological adventure, taking young learners on an up-close, historical look at the interconnectedness of West African, Cuban, and Puerto Rican cultures by way of the rhythm of the drum. Targeted at students in grades two and three (and indubitably modifiable to all grade levels) it will help students comprehend that the drum and its various rhythms serve(d) as a source of communication, a "telephone" used to convey cultural mores, societal views, and the history of a people. Students will take a look at transcontinental slavery as imposed by European slave traders to understand the trek of African people and the journey of the drum. The unit reinforces that despite the dehumanizing institution of chattel slavery, the drumming tradition brought to Caribbean shores via the Middle Passage, is reflective of survival coupled with a rich heritage of diverse people. The unit heralds one of many common threads that exist between African and Hispanic cultures, with an emphasis on Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The Need Is Clear
I made a conscious decision to develop this unit based on two dramatic teaching experiences I encountered during the course of my career. (These episodes have resurfaced from time to time in ensuing years.)
In 2001, while teaching a summer school Geography/Literature course at a LEAP Program in the Fair Haven section of New Haven (a predominantly Latino community), I worked with a small group of African-American and Puerto Rican third and fourth graders. I had developed an eight-week curriculum on Ghanaian culture; I share it with my students, advising that through the use of photos, literary resources, and hands-on artifacts, we would be learning about this West African country as it relates to the Caribbean and the Americas.
"Why do I got to learn about Africa!" one disgruntled student grumbled. "I'm Puerto Rican! Me and Africa ain't got nothin' to do with one another." Her classmates chimed in.
In yet another instance, a second grader, Giovanni, made a connection while our class read Jane Yolen's extraordinary historical fiction work,
, a tale that highlights Columbus' voyage from a Taíno child's perspective. She noticed the skin tone of the child depicted in the illustration.
"Mrs. Mullins," she commented, raising her hand. "The boy in that picture is reddish brown, the same color as my
. My mother is dark brown like chocolate, and my sister is light like milk. My mom told me that's because people mixed with each other long, long ago." Giovanni added that her family came from Cuba. "My mommy says we are a musical rainbow!"
Giovanni's classmates were puzzled. "How can a rainbow be musical?" another student questioned.
Giovanni proudly responded, "Because that rainbow of people plays drums that tell our story!"
Wow! Through engaging dialogue, literature, and hands on interaction, my students became engaged. They began to embrace one another across cultures: they were fascinated to learn that the rich heritage of Latino and African culture is often intertwined, that many customs and aspects of day-to-day living among specific ethnic groups can be traced to cultures unexpected of which we are in some way very often a part.
Listen to the Rhythm
thus has been created to serve as a catalyst for young learners to embrace various aspects of a culture (with emphasis on the African, Cuban, and Puerto Rican culture) on a deep and meaningful basis. Students are encouraged to question why and how various cultures came to be and what we may very well have in common. They too soon discover that our experiences and history are more united than we realize: music--particularly the drum--is but one aspect of the common thread between African and Hispanic cultures, a concept that can be expanded into all facets of social studies.
Created for implementation during any time throughout the school year, for a 6 through 8 week duration, this curriculum unit can be used to accentuate culturally specific holiday celebrations or thematic unit studies (e.g., Hispanic American Heritage Month, Puerto Rican Heritage Month, and/or Black History Month).
Information contained herein aligns with New Haven Public School Curriculum Unit Standards, i.e., Language Arts/Writing Content Standard 2.0; SSCPS (students will demonstrate their understanding through written, verbal, visual, musical and/or technological formats and will pre-edit, draft, revise, edit and publish/showcase one or more final literary products); and SSCS 3.0 (using maps, globes, and related resources, students will identify different parts of the world and examine the traditions found therein.)
SSCS 5.0 Students will read, view, and listen to multiple sources concerning history, and they will use information obtained through stories to identify problems, suggest solutions, and predict outcomes. A hands-on drum-making activity and complementary drumming/interactive storytelling activities make the unit both interdisciplinary and engaging for students with diverse learning styles.