If you are a fan of West African Highlife, that most infectious of world music styles, you could travel to Accra, Lagos or Yaounde. Or you could walk over to Grusin Music Hall on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
At 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13, CU’s West African Highlife Ensemble will present a free concert directed by Ghanaian musician Matuto Mensa. And for world-music fans, that is only the first concert in Grusin Saturday: The Mexican Mariachi Ensemble will present another free concert at 7:30 p.m., directed by Francisco “Tino” Rodriguez, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Highlife and Mariachi are colorful and accessible styles, but they are only part of the College of Music worldmusic program. The college also supports groups from two Asian traditions. The Balinese Gamelan, directed by I Made Lasmawan, and the Japanese Traditional Music Ensemble, directed by CU ethnomusicology professor Jay Keister and Mami Itasaka-Keister, already presented their spring concerts in March.
All four groups present music that is attractive, intriguing and exotic to many Americans, but Keister makes it clear that he seeks a greater goal than entertaining local audiences. “While the ensembles make for nice public outreach and a colorful face to the college, there’s actually an academic purpose,” he says.
Just as a goal of a language program is to make students bilingual, one goal of the ethnomusicology program is to help students become “bi-musical” as a way of understanding other musical cultures. The students are also learning important aspects of those cultures along with the music. In traditions that lack written music, they have to learn by imitation, just as the music has been learned for centuries.
“Many people say, can I write this down?” Keister observes. “And I might say, no, I don’t have any notation. I just want you to imitate. That’s the way they learn in Japan. That’s the way they learn in Africa. Some students are fine with it, but music majors are very often challenged by this.”
Saturday’s concerts demonstrate that bringing the music to performance is an important part of the program as well. For the Highlife Ensemble, the program will include both traditional African music, with drums and dancing, and Highlife, an urban Afro-pop style that is heard in cafes and nightclubs across West Africa.
“For the traditional music, everybody’s dancing,” Mensa explains. “We use the hand drum and we sing to go with it. Me and my cousin Appaddo from Ghana are playing the drums, and then [one student] is playing the drum and one is playing the bell. And the rest, I think 18 or 20 people, are dancing.
“We’re doing two traditional dances, and then we’re doing seven Highlife songs, one from Congo, one from Guadalupe, one from Nigeria, and the rest of them from Ghana,” which Mensa says is the source of Highlife. “I have 22 students in the group, so guitar, horn, saxophone, trumpet, two keyboards, and then of course we have people who play percussion.”
The Mexican Mariachi Ensemble is also based in tradition.
“Right now I think we are 12,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve got two trumpets, three violins, one flute, a bass guitar we call guitarron, two vihuelas — the five-string guitar — and two classical [six-string] guitars. And one singer.”
As Rodriguez explains, that covers the foundations of Mariachi music.
“Trumpet, violin, bass guitar and vihuela — if you’ve got those four instruments, it’s all you need to make the music,” he says.
Like Mensa, Rodriguez likes to stress the origins of the style he is teaching.
“We always like to get the roots of Mexican music,” he says. “So it’s pretty much the music from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, because Jalisco and Guadalajara is where the Mexican Mariachi comes from. So I start with those kinds of music from Jalisco.”
The majority of the 12 pieces Rodriguez lists for the concert come from Jalisco, with a few pieces from other areas of Mexico added. The program includes the familiar “Jarabe Tapitio,” or “Mexican Hat Dance,” along with “Tilingo Lindo” from Veracruz, “Estos Celos” from popular Mexican singer Vicente Fernandez, and “La Charreada,” named for the Mexican version of rodeo, among others.
Both group leaders stress how much the students enjoy their work.
“When they come the first time and they enjoy it, they come again. They take the next semester class, they do that,” Rodriguez says.
Mensa mentions how hard the students work.
“It is really hard for them, who’ve never listened to African music before,” he says. “And they love it! After time’s gone by they’ll be like, ‘Wow! This is great!’ Dancing, smiling, moving their bodies in different directions, ‘Pow!’”
And, Mensa adds, audience dancing is encouraged, too. Pow!
The West African Highlife Ensemble plays at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13 at Grusin Music Hall. The Mexican Mariachi Ensemble plays 7:30 p.m. April 13 at Grusin Music Hall. Both concerts are free. Visit http://bit.ly/CUWorldMusic for more information.