Stretching across the multi-purpose room, you see an audience full of wide eyes and slight restlessness. The students at North Chatham Elementary are curious about the performance they’re about to see and anxious for it to begin. As soon as West African musician, Diali (pronounced “Jelly”) Cissokho, begins playing the kora (a West African jumbo spike-lute with 22 strings made from fishing line), the children become mesmerized by the beautiful music, all part of the Chatham Arts Council’s Artists-in-Schools Initiative. This residency is powered by Carolina Meadows.
The Artists-in-Schools Initiative brings professional artists into Chatham County schools to help make deeper curriculum connections through art, theater, and music – as in this residency with Cissokho. At North Chatham Elementary, Cissokho worked with fifth grade students, weaving math and social studies into an interactive performance with the kora, drums, and singing traditional West African songs. Having played the drums since age 10, Cissokho is at ease while he performs, often closing his eyes as he feels the rhythm, the beat, the music that his hands create.
In addition to the performance, fifth graders were treated to individual classroom workshops where they learned to play drums, sing in Wolof, and importantly, work together as a cohesive team. “Music is beautiful,” Cissokho tells the students. “Play together. Work together. Listen together.” This is a central theme in the workshop. After he teaches them the rhythm of several traditional songs, he groups students together to test their skills and prepare for a performance. They even sing out loud in front of their peers, sheepishly at first, then with more emphasis and delight.
“My students loved learning the drums and songs from Diali,” explained Liz Woods, 5th grade dual language teacher at North Chatham. “They were very nervous about the performance at the end, but left the performance feeling very accomplished and confident. The Artists-in-Schools program brings learning and experiences to students they couldn’t get from me. These are the kinds of school experiences you remember forever.”
In the workshops, unity is a critical component, especially as Cissokho begins to speed up the rhythms the students have learned. From a pitter patter of rain to a fast pounding of the hands, the students recognize the different sounds they’re creating. “Look at your team,” he tells them. “You have to play together.” This becomes increasingly challenging as he tells them to play at varying speeds – 55 speed limit, then 60, then 75, then 100! Some children look down at their hands, wondering if they can do it, but they do. And their pride is palpable. Cissokho knows this is hard work. Listening to him play a song, then repeating it from memory, then speeding it up – all the while concentrating on the specific rhythm and the words of a song in another language – it’s tough to accomplish. He thanks them for their effort after each round. And they know they’ve undertaken something pretty unique.
“Can’t we stay longer?!” bellows a student who is reluctant to leave the workshop. And with that, a future musician is born.
The Chatham Arts Council could not bring professional artists into Chatham County schools without the help of our partners: Chatham County Schools, Chatham County, and the North Carolina Arts Council.
A HUGE thank you to Carolina Meadows for powering this initiative!
The Chatham Arts Council is working to expand the Artists-in-Schools Initiative this year, bringing professional artists into 13 Chatham County schools. Click here to be part of this artistic endeavor.