Alumni “Drum Up” Support to Honor Adzenyah

July 20, 2016

When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The great teacher is not the man who supplies the most facts, but the one in whose presence we become different people,” he very well could have been describing Adjunct Professor of Music and Master Drummer Abraham Adzenyah, who has not only selflessly shared his vast knowledge of West African music, dance, and culture during his 46-year career at Wesleyan, but whose magnetic personality and constant attention to the emotions behind the music has left a lifelong mark on the lives of so many— a fact to which former students Doug Berman ’84 and Robert Levin ’81 can attest.

Adzenyah

“I know a lot of us had this kind of experience at Wesleyan . . . where we didn’t even know a certain field or art even existed when we arrived on campus. And then, due to one great teacher, we’re taken down this delightful rabbit hole, and from then on, we see, hear, or think differently,” says Berman. “For me, that was Abraham Adzenyah and the African Drumming program.”

Robert Levin agrees. “As a freshman, I was lucky to be admitted to the West African Drumming class from the large group that wanted to enroll. The very first time I beat a Ewe drum, I felt like a flash of lightning exploded with a puff of smoke. My life took a turn just then.”

After almost five decades at Wesleyan, Adzenyah will retire in May of 2016. To honor his cultural contributions and to recognize his rich professorial and performing legacy, alumni, students, colleagues, and friends are hoping to “drum up” enough support to raise $300,000 for an endowed scholarship in Adzenyah’s name.

“Abraham Adzenyah has left a long-lasting legacy that has made a deep impression on his students and Music Department colleagues,” says Professor of Music Eric Charry. “The Abraham Adzenyah Endowed Wesleyan Scholarship will help the university to attract outstanding music students who, in their own endeavors, honor that legacy of excellence and dedication.” Fundraising has commenced and the scholarship will be announced at Adzenyah’s retirement celebration on May 7, 2016.

“The scholarship will provide future students with the opportunities we had—to have their minds and ears opened by a musical experience at Wesleyan,” says Berman. “It will honor what Abraham represents about the Music Department and about the school: the opportunity to have these rare, mind-expanding experiences with professionals from different musical worlds—to come out of Wesleyan with a broader appreciation for the vast and delightful things people have created and continue to create, and the different ways in which they create them.”

According to another of Adzenyah’s former students, Megan Norris ’83, P’17, the scholarship will also serve to provide entree into Wesleyan for students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend the university. “The Abraham Adzenyah Endowed Wesleyan Scholarship will help us to maintain access and foster the community that for decades has been Wesleyan’s hallmark,” she says.

Adzenyah’s ability to attract students from a wide range of disciplines has extended his legacy well beyond the Music Department. “Thanks to Abraham, West African drumming has become emblematic of Wesleyan,” says Norris. “Nobody comes to Wesleyan knowing anything about West African drumming. The class attracts cellists, flute players, chemistry majors, students of East Asian studies, anthropologists—the list is endless. Bringing together so many people from so many backgrounds to learn something new is what Wesleyan is all about.”

Pam Tatge, director of the Center for the Arts, agrees. Adzenyah“The Center for the Arts is proud to be a partner in the Abraham Adzenyah Endowed Wesleyan Scholarship to honor a faculty member who is responsible for inspiring hundreds of Wesleyan students to explore West African cultural traditions through drumming,” says Tatge. “I’m looking forward to working with alumni and the Music Department to celebrate Abraham’s extraordinary contributions to the Wesleyan community.”

Before coming to Wesleyan in 1969, Adzenyah performed and taught drumming in his native Ghana and was one of the first artists to be named Master Drummer in the Ghana National Dance Ensemble. In the decades since becoming an integral part of the university community, Adzenyah has taught both novices and advanced postgraduates at Wesleyan; shared his passion as a visiting artist and teacher at dozens of workshops, colleges, and conservatories; and performed all over the world, both alone and with eminent musicians such as Ed Blackwell and Anthony Braxton. A past recipient of both the Afro-Caribbean World Music Symposium Achievement Award and the Percussive Arts Society Award, he has also influenced and inspired students and professional musicians through his recordings and as co-author of West African Rhythms for Drumset, a groundbreaking notation and adaptation to trap drums of traditional contemporary African rhythms.

“During his many years at Wesleyan, Abraham Adzenyah has represented and passed on some of the deepest and most sophisticated musical traditions of Africa,” says Charry. “He is a master artist who has inspired his students and colleagues alike.”

While today some of Adzenyah’s former students are professors and scholars of West African traditional music and outstanding musicians in their own right (including the members of the world-renowned percussion ensemble NEXUS), the greatest number of those past students are neither professional musicians nor music scholars—they are simply and profoundly grateful to Adzenyah for glorious days of listening, learning, and performing; for permanently expanding their senses; and for an introduction to African history and culture, which has become a passion for some, including Levin, who was inspired to found a public school in Ghana after visiting the country in 1988 on Adzenyah’s suggestion.

“Abraham opened the door to my understanding of how music is a humanly spiritual experience, and of how music carries great energy and unifying power,” says Levin. “He taught us how to be better listeners as musicians and the value of listening when you play any kind of music—a lesson that applies to better listening in all life situations, leading to better learning, communication, understanding, and unity.”

Interactive pages where photos, videos, and remembrances of African drumming at Wesleyan through the years can be posted and shared can be found on Facebook and Wesconnect. For more information about the scholarship, to join the steering committee, or to share your story, please contact Wesleyan scholarship liaison Marcy Herlihy (mherlihy@wesleyan.edu or 860/685-2523).

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