Travel Tuesday Interview: ThisWorldMusic founder Jeremy Cohen on Dance-Drumming in Ghana

 In Travel Tuesday

Study abroad has always intrigued me. From the moment my teenage foot landed on foreign soil and unearthed the thrill of incomprehensible language tickling my ear and exotic customs unseating familiar rituals, I have been addicted to the lure of travel. When my college offered me the chance to gain course credit from a condensed cultural field study program, my interest was predictably piqued. My search for greater detail led me to Jeremy Cohen, an adjunct professor in the UMass Amherst Graduate Department of Music & Dance and the founder/director of ThisWorldMusic: Global Education through the Arts. TWM offers the award-winning Study in Ghana program featuring dance and drumming in the West African village of Kopeyia with twice yearly trips: a 12-day January program and a 3-week summer program.

My burning questions quickly turned to a discussion on the subject of sustainability and global footprint, including issues of entrepreneurship, collaboration, and business development in the arts. Here are snippets from a longer interview that ultimately revolved around the model of entrepreneurial preservation of culture and why a trip to Africa matters.

What does the TWM Study in Ghana program offer that cannot be gained by any other means?

Our participants get the unique opportunity to study traditional West African music and dance in Kopeyia, a culturally vibrant village in rural Ghana where these art forms are still very much alive. A student could spend morning dance class at the Dagbe Cultural Institute learning a particular movement, then attend a community gathering that very afternoon and use what she/he learned dancing alongside local residents.

The program combines equal parts dance and drumming. Tell us how dance-drumming is integral to African dance.

“Dance-drumming” refers to the notion that dance and music in West Africa are utterly interdependent. They are viewed (accurately, I think) as merely two ways of rendering the same essential gesture. Anyone who travels to a country like Ghana will get to witness this firsthand, as dancers respond in real time to changes in the accompaniment drumming.

What is the purpose of dance in the African society? Has this changed or is it changing?

Given Africa’s immense size (see image below) and diversity, it’s fair to say dance serves a wide variety of social functions on the continent. However, as with other parts of the developing world, indigenous culture in Africa is under tremendous pressure from the forces of modernization, especially in rural areas. The U.N. estimates that Africa’s urban population will increase from 414 million to over 1.2 billion by 2050, with most of those people migrating to cities to look for work. One thing I’m really proud of about TWM’s Ghana study abroad programs is that, by creating financial incentives for village residents to practice and teach their local culture, they not only keep these important traditions alive, but in many instances they can remain with their families in their home village.

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What effect has the TWM program produced for village residents?

Although traditional music and dance is still practiced in Kopeyia and elsewhere in West Africa, these art forms are endangered. Providing visitors to the Dagbe Cultural Institute — i.e., paying customers from the West — instead of direct financial assistance fosters independence and creates financial incentives for local residents to keep their own traditions alive, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the entrepreneurial preservation of culture.

It seems you are producing an intra-preneurial venture within a university system. Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur?

Initially, the Ghana course grew out of my teaching in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Music & Dance. After a couple years of growth, I made the decision to incorporate as ThisWorldMusic, thereby converting the Study in Ghana program from “faculty-led” to “third-party program provider,” both of which are standard arrangements in the study abroad industry.

I suppose I see myself as an entrepreneur, but for me it’s less about the label and more about just doing what I enjoy. In other words, if a program like ours had already existed, I may have just applied for the job!
While ThisWorldMusic is not technically a non-profit, it is very much mission-driven. The challenge I face everyday is how to grow the organization to the point where it’s sustainable, without it becoming unmanageable.

Why did you chose to incorporate rather than forming a non-profit status for TWM?

Initially, I decided against the non-profit route for two reasons: 1) I was excited to get started and didn’t want to get bogged down in assembling a board and dealing with all the fillings; 2) I wanted to have the option of selling TWM somewhere down the line.

Now that TWM has been up and running for over 5 years, this is something I might want to revisit. Then again, I really enjoy being “in business,” including the process of marketing to customers (as opposed to donors). In other words, I may just keep things the way they are, at least for the foreseeable future.

As you can tell by the name DIY dancer, we love seeing dancers and artists take on building the work they wish to see in the world. What would you like to see “more of”?

I’d like to see music and dance education continue to expand to include other genres and, as a consequence, new and different approaches to teaching and learning. Travel programs like ours are one way to achieve this, but there is so much amazing culture already within our borders that sometimes just going across town can expand horizons as much as crossing an ocean.

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