Meet the Equators

 By Carolyn Cruze Photos by Erin Zysett

Longfellow once called music “the universal language of mankind” for its ability to connect all people, regardless of their origins.

Music has become one of the University of Oregon’s major calling cards in Africa as well. 

Through the international exchange  of School of Music and Dance faculty members, students, and alumni, the UO is creating a deeper connection with communities on the continent of humanity’s birth.

The School of Music and Dance is at the forefront of demonstrating how music unites people the world over, from the 42nd parallel to the equator.


Hailing from a family of court musicians, Habib Iddrisu, assistant professor of ethnomusicology and dance, grew up practicing the traditional performing arts of his native Ghana.

Now Iddrisu is facilitating a similar experience for UO students through the creation of a new ensemble called Dema, a succinct word in the Dagbani language spoken by the Dagbomba ethnic group of northern Ghana, a term that encompasses the concept of a total performance experience interweaving multiple modes of visual and physical storytelling.

In short, this means that the ensemble combines the study and performance

of these traditional arts, layering elements of African song and dance with storytelling. After a winter term rehearsal period including drumming, dance, singing, and storytelling, the group’s premiere performance is scheduled for May 20–21, 2016, in a concert entitled “The Rise of the New Dawn.”

While no performance experience can  be replicated in full, Iddrisu is creating what he calls a “stage representation” of the performance modes of African ethnic groups. “We train to represent Africa and honor the elders, but we own everything we do,” says Iddrisu. “The ensemble’s foundation is built on one of the basic principles of traditional African performance—that of community-building—with the intent to educate, learn, and entertain.”

Through the creation of their own instruments, clothing, and stage sets, the students have prepared for their own performance just as members of the original communities would. Through this experience, Iddrisu explains, students are not only developing an appreciation for African music and dance, they are expanding their mind to think with a greater global perspective.

“It’s about more than just entertaining people,” notes Iddrisu. “It’s about informing them and keeping our history alive.”

Iddrisu explains that with little access to libraries or books, the musicians of small African communities are the historians for their people, and that performances pass stories from generation to generation.


In the fall of 2015, Lydia Van Dreel, associate professor of horn, had a similar cross-cultural music exchange—but in reverse, bringing the Western canon and European composers to a school in Africa.

Van Dreel was invited to teach and perform at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music in Nairobi, a school founded in 1944 by British colonists and European war refugees. Since its inception,

the school was open to all races and ethnicities, and currently the majority of students and teaching staff are Kenyan.

Along with providing her expertise in horn, Van Dreel brought four donated French horns as well assorted mouthpieces, oil, slide grease, and music recordings as gifts to the school.

“It’s hard to learn how to play when you don’t have enough instruments for each student,” says Van Dreel, acknowledging that the donation of the horns helped create an environment in which more students can experience and learn an art form for which there is great interest, but not adequate materials for learning.

Introduced to the conservatoire by an oboist friend, an American who has taught at the school for several years, Van Dreel spent her week in Kenya teaching conservatoire beginners in private and group lessons, and teaching group lessons at the Starehe Boys’ Centre and School and the Nairobi School.

“My biggest takeaway is that education is incredibly important, and we should look for any way we can help developing nations increase access to education,” says Van Dreel.

“There was a great interest among the Kenyan brass teachers to learn details of horn pedagogy, as many of them were unfamiliar with the particular challenges of the horn,” she adds.

While students at the conservatoire may face greater challenges when it comes to learning a new instrument, Van Dreel reports, they were just as enthusiastic to learn as her own students at Oregon.


These positive effects of cross-cultural music study are reinforced by the work of alumnus Stacer McChesney, BMus ’14.

On assignment for the Peace Corps for 27 months as an English teacher in Assanté, a small town in the nation of Bénin, McChesney says that the lessons he learned from faculty members such as Phyllis M. Paul, associate professor of music education, and Michael Grose, associate professor of tuba and euphonium, serve him in good stead in West Africa.

“Without the guidance of the passionate professors and staff on campus, I would not be where I am, living one of my greatest dreams,” says McChesney. “I had the advantage of coming to Bénin already thinking like an educator.”

Besides instructing seventh- and eighth-grade students in the English language, McChesney engages in lessons and workshops on children’s rights, gender-based violence, and sanitation.

McChesney founded a nonprofit project called Classrooms for Equality, partially funded by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative. The project will produce two classrooms and two female latrines to facilitate the addition of the final years of high school in an environment in which many students, especially girls, stop attending school, all while highlighting gender equality on campus and in the community.

McChesney’s training in music education has also helped him incorporate music into his teaching. To aid the retention of his English Lessons, McChesney has adapted his teaching style to approximate the way village children learn syncopation for polyrhythmic performances.  While his work for the Peace Corps

has significantly benefited the Assanté community, McChesney says the experience has been every bit as transformative for him personally.

“Visiting other places and other cultures in and outside the United States, I am beginning to see that the similarities between us are countless,” says McChesney, “perhaps even more so than our differences.”