The beat of an African drum is not something that every child is familiar with. But for West African musician Diali Cissokho (pronounced “Jelly”), the beat was an integral part of everyday life. “Before we had a phone, radio, or a TV in our village, we used the beat of the drum to let people know what was going on,” he explained to a room full of students at Silk Hope Elementary School as part of the Artists-in-School initiative in Chatham County. This artist residency was made possible by a generous gift from John and Elizabeth Bonitz, as well as a grant from Chatham County.
As Cissokho sings and plays the kora (a West African jumbo spike-lute with 22 strings made from fishing line) his eyes dance with excitement, his soul comes alive, and the students nod along, bouncing up and down to the rhythm. Even though they don’t understand the words being sung, they’re mesmerized by what they hear. Cissokho watches the children as music emanates to see if they are as excited as he is. They are.
He holds two performances for the students from kindergarten through fifth grade. “Watching students engage, you see their paradigm of what music can be expand,” expressed Assistant Principal, Joash Chung. This is true. The children in the room have not heard a kora before, nor played an African drum. They are fascinated when Cissokho invites them to sit beside him and play their own drums with his guidance. He tells them to mirror his beat and asks the audience to support them, keeping the rhythm by clapping. The student drummers begin with trepidation, which quickly dissolves as they work hard in total concentration to keep the momentum going. Smiles erupt as they feel, and hear, their success.
Soon, Cissokho asks for more volunteers – but this time, it’s for a traditional West African dance. Even though the students have no idea what this entails, nearly every hand goes up and they all beg to be called upon. Administrators and teachers join in too. Cissokho provides one simple instruction to the volunteers – just follow his lead. Once his volunteers have mastered the dance, he leaves them confidently and returns to play the drum. He tells them that every song has a rhythm and a call, but in West Africa, no one writes down the song or key. It’s all by memory and feel.
Cissokho is at once educating, singing, playing, and engaging with the students in such a deep manner. He’s a natural teacher and he’s eager to share West African music and culture with them. “I always want to use my instrument to make people happy,” said Cissokho. It seems his wish has come true.
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Silk Hope Elementary School was not the only school to score big with a performance by Diali Cissokho.
As part of the Artists-in-Schools initiative, Cissokho also visited Chatham Middle School, where he met teenagers and turned them into West African drummers. Like the Silk Hope Elementary program, this artist residency was made possible by a generous gift from John and Elizabeth Bonitz, as well as a grant from Chatham County.
Working with two different eighth grade classes, each for two days, he taught students to understand rhythm and beat through the drum, but more importantly, how to become a strong team to make music together. “You have to have confidence and dignity as individuals to be a strong member of the team,” Cissokho explained. The teenagers were hesitant at first, but soon embraced the lesson and made beautiful music together.
To help CAC grow the Artists-in-Schools initiative and reach our goal of having professional artists in every single elementary school in Chatham County in the 2018-2019 school year, click here.