Kaleigh Wilder heard about the Graduate Certificate in World Performance Studies soon after arriving on campus to begin her Masters in Improvisation as a baritone saxophonist. Fellow SMTD grad students were still buzzing from their recent summer research projects - including trips to the Netherlands, India and Bali - and it did not take much to convince Kaleigh that she should apply to the Certificate program, even if it took a few months to identify the right research project. A previous trip to Costa Rica to teach and play music had proven personally transformational for Kaleigh, and she was hungry for more travel abroad. She was also venturing into new territory by coming to U-M for a degree in improvisation, after spending most of her musical career in classical saxophone performance. For her CWPS research project she reached just a bit further beyond her comfort zone, deciding to immerse herself in West African percussion practice. Kaleigh described her attraction to percussion as “an old itch” - before she settled on the saxophone, she always wanted to be a percussionist. Because of the strong ties between black American improvised music and West African performance traditions, and with questions brewing about gender, race and identity in both of these performance practices, Kaleigh set her sights on a research project in Ghana for summer 2018.
Even the best laid plans encounter challenges, and Kaleigh’s first big hurdle came before she departed. Having made arrangements to study at the Dagara Music Center (DMC) outside of Accra, she learned that legendary percussionist Bernard Woma, head of the Center and her would-be mentor for three weeks, sadly passed away just a couple of weeks before she was scheduled to leave. The DMC was able to make alternate arrangements for lessons, but many of the research questions and lines of inquiry she had been prepared to explore with Bernard, specifically about his experience as an African musician living in the diaspora, would have to go unanswered. Nonetheless, Kaleigh spent her first three weeks in an intensive drum and dance program, learning to communicate with her teachers in both familiar and unfamiliar ways, while learning a new musical language by ear.
After her stay at Dagara Music Center, she headed to Cape Coast for a week of study with former U-M African Presidential Scholar (UMAPS) Senyo Adzei, and Charlotte Amonoo, one of only two female master drummers in Cape Coast, as well as Queen Mother of Cape Coast. This leg of the trip proved invaluable, both in deepening her study of Ghanaian drumming and dance, and also providing an opportunity to further explore the role that gender plays in the performance traditions. Though her teacher Charlotte declared “Everything a man can do, a woman can do better,” there was a glaring disparity in the kinds of work and performances she witnessed women participating in. At the DMC, while some helped teach dance classes, most of the women were involved in household labor throughout the day, while the men taught classes. It was a subject that Kaleigh approached with delicacy, learning about some of the taboos and superstitions that prevent women from playing sacred instruments, as well as pre-conceived notions of physical strength and endurance that prevent young women from trying percussion instruments. This particular line of inquiry is something Kaleigh would like to explore further, as she questions what part of these ideas are interwoven with more general gender roles, versus how some of the ideas may be intrinsic to the actual music itself.
Back stateside, Kaleigh is already working on plans to return to Cape Coast to further her work with Charlotte. She hopes that a longer stay in Cape Coast would be a chance to continue to develop her percussion skills, but also to work alongside Charlotte in the all-female grade school where she mentors young women. This would provide an opportunity for further study in using musical practice as a community building strategy, which Kaleigh hopes would inform future projects as a musician and educator in the US. She is also interested in performing as a saxophonist in some of the local groups that blend afropop and jazz. In the meantime, Kaleigh is processing the experience, and plans to incorporate Ghanaian drum and dance, alongside themes of storytelling, identity and diaspora, into her final recital for the Masters in Improvisation. Kaleigh approached this experience with an acute self-awareness of the balance of power structures, and problems of appropriation; what she was surprised to hear from several of her teachers is that they genuinely wanted her to share and perform what she learned with a Western audience, calling her an “ambassador” for Ghanaian music - a description she carries with great honor.