January 28, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 34°F


It takes a village

The images flicker in Baruch Whitehead’s glasses, and the rhythm pulses in his ears. Onstage in front of him, 18 bare feet flail and swirl. They pound in perfect time to a hollow drumming, a rattlesnake clatter and the pop-buzz of an African xylophone. These feet and legs and the dancers each belongs to — members of Ghana’s Saakumu Dance Troupe — are more familiar with desert heat and a dusty dirt floor than the strange wooden platform beneath them tonight.

Whitehead leads the Voices Mulitcultural Chorus at the First Unitarian Church downtown on Mondays. Natalie Best/The Ithacan

Whitehead has seen them all before, but never here, in Ford Hall.

So he watches them, and his eyes don’t leave the stage. He stares at the dancers, their bodies low to the ground, bent and twisting, muscles tensed and working hard. He knows their beats well; he’s been to the villages where their dances were crafted. He’s been changed by them, and by Ghana. And he’s brought change to Ithaca, inspired by these people and their land.

It’s Leap Year Day, 2008. Outside, it’s another February blizzard in Ithaca, but the dancers carry on, unbothered by the storm. The troupe’s leader, Bernard Woma, has just arrived from Ghana, and he jokes about the snow.

“We don’t want the snow — too cold!” he says. “We’ll give you Africa’s warmth.”

They are here, he says, to shake away the snow.

Woma thanks his hosts at Ithaca College, who’ve made a dance tour of the U.S. possible. It was an uphill battle, he says, that took years of dreaming and months of planning — but finally, his vision was achieved. He owes this to one person in particular: Whitehead. This tour was his idea. So Woma calls his friend up to the stage, and they hug.

“Dr. Baruch came to Ghana, discovered his soul,” Woma said. “Discovered his passion.”

Whitehead towers a foot above his African friend. The professor’s head, shaved bald, gleams in the bright theater lights, and he adjusts his glasses as he explains his connection to Woma. They met through a colleague a few years back, and the summer after they met, Whitehead traveled back to Africa with Woma. The trip was a defining life moment. Many times, Whitehead says, African Americans don’t think about having a homeland. He didn’t, until Ghana.

“I stepped off the plane and I saw these people who looked like me, who looked like my brothers and my sisters,” he says. “And it was so evident to me.”

He’s gone back every year since that first trip in 2003 and began to bring students with him as a study abroad program. Now, the students who study at Woma’s school, the Dagara Music and Arts Center, come back changed, too.

During a dance Friday, one of the African men hops to the stage’s edge and reaches out his hand. He pulls up Kendra Sundal, a junior at the college who studied with them in June 2006, and Dan Assael, a senior who went along that same summer.

Assael grabs a drum, and Sundal’s smile is radiant as she flips her long blonde hair and ties a teal African cloth around her waist over a pair of jeans. The two are back with friends, and they know these songs. Assael pounds his hands on a hide drum, Sundal pounds her feet on the stage. They keep perfect time with the beat, as if they’re back in Ghana, at Dagara, learning from Whitehead and the African culture.

“[Whitehead] sees the importance of sharing music across cultures,” Sundal says.

The learning that takes place at Dagara in Ghana fosters lasting connections. Sundal keeps in touch with many of the dancers and musicians at the center, despite the 7,000-mile distance to the village where they spent those three weeks.

“[The students develop] this idea of global existence,” Whitehead says. “That there are people in the rest of the world that we can be connected to.”

For three hours, the Saakumu troupe dances on the Ford Hall stage. But they could go on for hours longer — in the villages they come from, people dance all through the night.

“Have you ever seen ‘Roots’?” Whitehead asks.

It’s just what the villages in Ghana are like. Hundred and hundreds of years have passed, and nothing in the West African villages — the ones far removed from the cities — has changed. Dirt floors, straw roofs, clay-brick walls. It was unsettling to Whitehead during that first trip and he wanted to help them, to change things and make their lives better. But then Whitehead realized what they have there is working for them.

“Sometimes we’re so arrogant in this country to think that everything revolves around America,” he says. “And maybe things do, in a sort of capitalistic sense, but these civilizations are thousands of years old.”

Of course, he says, we have the resources in this world to end poverty, to help with heath care and clean water — and that is something that must be done. But these changes have to be collaborative.

“Not just saying, ‘Boom. Here’s western civilization. Get on board with it,’” he says.

Because, he says, just as there is a lot they can gain from us, there are things we can learn from them.

Whitehead has been in Ithaca since 2002, when he was hired at the college. He would later become the School of Music’s first black tenured professor. In the span of six years he has integrated global perspectives into every place he goes — at the college, in the community and across the globe. On campus, Whitehead teaches core curriculum and classes that incorporate global connections in music: African Drumming and Dance, Worlds of Music and Multicultural Perspectives of Music Education. The Gospel Festival he founded in 2006 incorporates the college’s live orchestra and hosts high school students from as far as Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

It’s a cultural bridge, he says. The festival participants experience a college music environment, and the college students learn from hosting the teens — who are generally economic and racial minorities. It forces everyone to branch out.

“If you’ve never lived in a community with people of color, what does that do to how you perceive people of color?” he says. “I think, ‘Man, if I can invite a person of a different culture or race into my home, man, how neat is that?’ To be able to learn and not be afraid of that.”

For most of Whitehead’s life, he’d always been in the situation where he was the only black person, or one of very few. But in Ghana, he stepped into the majority and that, he felt, almost validated his identity.

This self-realization, along with lots of travel, has helped solidify his global perspectives. He’s traveled the world to present papers, host workshops and do research on his areas of expertise: diversity in music education, especially in working with children.

During the summer, he runs programs for Ithaca children at Southside Community Center. Year-round, he leads an African drumming and dance ensemble at the Greater Ithaca Activity Center, a gospel choir in Syracuse and a local Ithaca chorus.

He spends his Monday nights directing this chorus, and every week during the cold months the coat rack in the annex building of the First Unitarian Church downtown overflows with a hundred winter jackets. When Whitehead first became director, the chorus only had about 20 members.

Now the chorus has become its own community, and members bring friends along and it bubbles over. People just love to sing, Whitehead says, and so for two hours every week, it’s what they do. The chorus members are anyone and everyone — an older man with white hair, a younger woman with long black dreadlocks, a middle-aged woman with reddish hair and a “Jail Bush!” badge.

Sometimes the chorus is shaky, and Whitehead is not easy on them. He drums along on top of the piano, and when he detects any small error, any off-key note, a sharp motion of the hand or a slap-clap cues his people to stop the song. It’s a rapid-fire stop-and-go. Still, energy in the room is high, and upbeat, and Whitehead commends his chorus.

In just six years he has left an indelible impression on the community.

“What he does is really amazing,” Assael says. “He really does try to help everyone.”

But he still has much more to do, and many more people to help. He wants to address the diversity issue here at the college, host a conference on teaching children of color and spend his sabbatical next spring in Africa. He wants to learn more about traditional music in the Middle East as a way of bridging a cultural gap from the U.S.

“I want to be an open soul,” he says. “My philosophy is that my philosophy’s always changing. So I can be a vessel for change.”

Onstage last Friday, one drummer motions for the audience to dance along. But the rigid, systematic American clapping clashes with the free-spirited energy of African song. Only when the audience goofs up and applauds too soon do their claps complement the sound of hide drums and wooden gourd xylophones.

It’s the end of Saakumu’s performance now, and Woma jumps to the front of the stage again. It’s time for the people to dance, he shouts.

“The ground will not complain,” Woma says. “So why you not dancing? If you can walk, you can dance.”

So he instructs his audience: first clap, then shake your body and sing these words. He and his drummers begin to play. Whitehead joins in.

On the other side of the stage, the Saakumu dancers arrange themselves in a line, and they clap and pound and sing in time with the African beat. They pull their friends onstage: ones they’ve danced with back in Ghana — Assael, Sundal — and others whom they’ve never met. Before long the stage is packed full. Black bodies, white bodies, young and old bodies. Students, professors, locals. Some are good, others are still learning.

Whitehead watches, and he smiles. His people — from the college, from the local community, from Ghana — shake their bodies. Together, they shake off the snow.