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Dancing to a Different Drum

Written by Rosemarie Zonetti '10
5/27/2008

Professor Baruch Whitehead

African treasures gathered from his trips to the continent adorn his office. Authentic xylophones and drums embellish shelves and cabinets, while a colorful, handwoven cloth brightens the room, and an African tapestry hangs on the wall behind his desk. But these souvenirs of Africa do more than simply decorate -- they symbolize the effervescent cultural awareness and the dedication to global understanding of Professor Baruch Whitehead.

After joining the Ithaca College music faculty as an associate professor of music education in 2002, Professor Whitehead eagerly set out to expand the realm of world music courses offered in the music school. Encouraged by his colleagues, he soon connected with Bernard Woma, the director of the Dagara Music Center in Medie, Ghana. Whitehead ventured to the center for the first time during the summer of 2004 to learn the art of African drum and dance.


“I felt like kissing the ground when I got there. To go to Africa -- for me it has just validated my being,” says Whitehead of his first trip.

Feeling as though his experience in West Africa would greatly interest students, Whitehead launched a short-term study abroad program in Ghana when he returned to IC. Soon thereafter, he created the African Drum and Dance Performance class.

As a classically trained oboist with a minimal percussion background, the transition to playing and eventually teaching a non-Western form of music posed some challenges that Whitehead enthusiastically embraced. “[Learning about] it was great. I went to Ghana the first year and had all these tapes, and I got back, and I thought ‘I don’t know what they’re doing,’ ” he laughs. “I really had to learn to process music differently. Of course now I understand a lot better.”

The success of his programs has followed from his success in learning the art himself. Now one of the most difficult music classes in which to enroll -- it fills almost immediately after registration begins -- the African Drum and Dance Performance class has grown exponentially.

“Students describe the class as a great release from the kinds of things that they are involved in at the College. They can come in and drum, and it’s therapeutic to some of them. And some of them find a greater appreciation of the culture through the music and learning about the people.”

A participant in the class himself (predominantly drumming), Professor Whitehead creates a unique, hands-on learning environment for his students and encourages everyone to experiment with each facet of the class: percussion, dance, and vocals. Students spend most of their class time learning new instruments, dance moves, rhythms, or lyrics as they collaborate and perform with the rest of the ensemble.

Whitehead integrates discussions about African culture and the current state of affairs on the continent into his class, often citing his trips to Ghana. “I tell them about my experiences there, with the children that I see on the side of the road who have no homes and no families and are trying to sell goods to stay alive,” Whitehead says. “I think students leave the class with a much greater sense of how they fit within the total picture of the global society.”

Though he would like to increase awareness about the Ghana trip and see more students taking advantage of the opportunity, he believes that the program has succeeded in offering many students an extraordinary ethnic experience. “The students who actually go there are forever changed,” says Whitehead. While in Ghana students spend the first two weeks of the trip studying African dance and drumming at the Dagara Music Center. The rest of the time is spent traveling, visiting remote villages and art museums, watching cultural groups, and, says Whitehead, exploring the “natural wonders of Ghana.” During the most recent trip, Whitehead and his students had the opportunity to go on a safari.

“[As a result of these programs] I’m more Afrocentric in my teaching, in my living, and in my being,” Whitehead says. The integration of this cultural awareness into his teaching extends to all of his classes. Primarily a professor of music education courses focused on elementary music, Whitehead emphasizes the importance of diversity in the academic world.

“I talk about how important it is to cover diverse lesson planning, particularly for those students who are coming from very sterile environments.”

Professor Whitehead’s commitment to cultural awareness is evident in his many other involvements and accomplishments. He founded and directs Unshackled, a Syracuse-based gospel choir, and directs the Ithaca-based multicultural chorus VOICES. In 2004, he presented a workshop dealing with African American and Native American music in Spain for the International Music Conference, and he has taught at the World Music Village in Helsinki, Finland. He will present a workshop on gospel and African drumming at the upcoming Russian Mosaic Music Festival and has also been selected to write a chapter as an international author for the upcoming book Music and Conflict Resolution.

In all of his roles -- teacher, musician, writer, performer, traveler, and citizen -- Professor Whitehead’s personal philosophy is clear. “I hope that we each can look at our own humanity and say that we’re part of a much bigger picture, if you will, and that it shouldn’t be all about us and our needs,” says Whitehead. “How can we impact the world? I think we need to wake up and think of ourselves as global beings.”



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