By Bhavana Gopinath –
Kathy Armstrong’s life beats to the rhythm of Ghanaian drums. Armstrong has trained as a classical percussionist and music educator, receiving her BMus. and MMus. degrees from the University of Toronto, and is presently researching drumming as music therapy. In the 80s, Toronto was a hotspot for world music, with Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD Festival (the first outside the UK). Exposed to several influences, Armstrong found herself drawn to Ghanaian drumming.
Unlike traditional Western classical percussion, Ghanaian drumming doesn’t have a downbeat. Rather than acting as an anchor, the drumbeats form a perpetual cycle that moves all the time. Different rhythms emerge; patterns overlap and shift. Performers need to be confident about their part in the overall sequence, and also fit in to form a cohesive whole. The music pulls in the audience, so the lines between audience and performer become blurry. The performers’ experiences as they play permeate into the audience.
Armstrong says that with its ebbs and flows, a Ghanaian drum performance is a metaphor for life.
Armstrong realized that she couldn’t approach Ghanaian drums with a classical music mindset. She had to involve her whole body and mind, and comprehend the music within its own cultural context. Seeking an immersive experience, she first visited Ghana in 1990 and trained with the master drummer Kwasi Dunyo.
“Rhythm is a basic human element,” she explains. “Certain cultures pay more attention to rhythm.”
As she immersed herself in the music, she felt deeply that music was just the kernel, a “vehicle for amazing things to happen.”
She and her husband Rory Magill established the Baobab Community in 1990 to teach West African drumming, dancing, and singing, and for those “amazing things” to occur. At Baobab, kids and adults appreciate the participatory and layered approach. Children love the tactile satisfaction of playing on the drums, and the calming repetition of the sound patterns. “Kids operate from their bodies, while adults have preconceived notions about their music abilities,” Armstrong points out. The act of drumming in a group also provides a lens for students to view and understand one another as well as another culture.
Baobab celebrates its 20th year in 2015. There are several events planned over the next few months, including youth-led pop-up events, and a guest performance by Armstrong’s mentor, Kwasi Dunyo. For more information, visit baobabtree.org/events, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (613) 729 0987.
Armstrong and Baobab have been part of life in Kitchissippi for two decades, but here are five things you may not know about Kathy Armstrong (plus one bonus for web readers):
She doesn’t know why she loves Ghanaian drumming.
Armstrong has been studying and teaching percussion for decades now, but she still cannot explain why the sound of Ghanaian drums tugs at her soul. “I’m Scottish, I should be playing the bagpipes, but here I am!” she marvels. After a performance in Oregon, a woman from the audience told her that she’d sensed a black man standing over her shoulder as she drummed – when there was actually no one there. To this day, Armstrong is not sure how that happened, and speculates jokingly that she must have been Ghanaian in a previous birth.
She loves funk music.
Given her classical training, one wouldn’t expect funk to be her first choice for any non-Ghanaian music, but “I love funk!” she exclaims. She listens to Bumpin’ Binary and D’angelo. “I love D’angelo’s fatter groove and looser sense of time,” she enthuses. She loves to dance, so anything with a dance beat is good too — her go-to is Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.
She is terrified of snakes.
“I’ve dealt with giant spiders and hippos in Africa,” Armstrong says matter-of-factly. But snakes terrify her with good reason. A four-foot long Massassauga rattler once confronted her at a music camp in Ontario. Panic and screams ensued. Afterwards, when everyone had calmed down enough to laugh about it, her friends and co-teachers at the camp ribbed Armstrong about her reaction. They even wrote, in her honour, a Maritime-style folk song, “The Ballad of Snake Hill.”
She is an avid gardener.
Gardening is Armstrong’s favourite summer activity. “I love the physical aspect of working with soil. It is a creative outlet and is very relaxing.”
She is a Type A personality.
“People are surprised when they hear that,” she says. “They assume that because of what I do, I must be a very laid-back kind of person.” Her everyday involvement with drumming calms, grounds, and soothes her. “Drumming is my meditation.”
BONUS: Kathy Armstrong’s socks have to match her outfit.
As in, they HAVE to. She is stylishly dressed and generally has an easy-going sense of fashion. With matching socks.
Read more “five things” profiles right here and learn about the people who make our community so great.