In the United States, most music classes focus on the fundamentals of music theory. Music education involves the practical discipline, namely how composers create music using composition methods, tuning systems, and musical notation. Musicology, on the other hand, is its undervalued sociological counterpart: the study of musical culture and history. Although it is a fundamental aspect of music, it is often overshadowed by technical elements of music.
Sebastian Dakey, an exchange student from Accra, Ghana, has conversely only been exposed to musicology. He has chosen to study at Swarthmore this fall semester in order to learn music theory for the first time.
“From age nine up to now, I haven’t had the opportunity to take music theory,” Dakey explained. “Here, I have the opportunity to take music courses and understand the theory behind what I do.”
During Swarthmore’s orientation open-mic, Dakey performed three songs: Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” the theme song of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf.” An American music student may categorize the songs into relevant genres or critique each flat or sharp note, but will seldom consider the performance’s contextual background. In a culture in which a performer’s personal significance is minimized, it can be constructive to learn about an artist’s story, and through his story, Sebastian Dakey demonstrates how exposure to different cultures allows us to recognize a performance’s various intentions.
Dakey’s musical background is a result of various influences, including religion. The eldest of six children, Dakey was introduced to the keyboard at age nine by his musician father. After learning the keyboard, he eventually joined the church choir.
“Religion definitely influences my music. My dad introduced me to music that was consistent to the Catholic tradition, and as a result, I do a lot of choral music,” Dakey said. In high school, Dakey was the principal keyboard and assistant choir director at a Ghanaian choir, Tema Youth Choir. He acted as full time keyboardist for two years, and had the opportunity to tour the United States for several weeks. After high school, Dakey was accepted and offered a full scholarship to Ashesi University. Upon matriculation, however, the lack of a music department made Dakey uncertain about his musical career at Ashesi.
“One thing that Ashesi lacked was the vibrancy of choral music, and I was skeptical if [the university] was the platform for me to grow my music,” he said. “I then figured it was the opportunity to start something. That is how we came up with the program.”
On November 6, 2018, it will have been two years since his foundation of Ashesi’s school choir. One of the first concerts that the choir held was called “A Night of African Traditional Folk Music.” Before each piece, members of the choir read aloud the background of the song. Dakey articulated the purpose of the commentary: “In the olden days in African culture, grandmothers used to sing certain songs to the community. As a result, there are so many life lessons in each piece.”
This background in musicology allowed Dakey to place emphasis on intercultural connection, but he feels that this has resulted in a lack of technical knowledge. When asked about his enrollment at Swarthmore, he answered, “I figured it was high time that I understand and communicate in the music language. I feel that it is imperative to be here. Back home, virtually nobody is musically inclined; whatever you play, nobody can critique it. It’s important that you enhance what you do. Here, I’m a small fish in a big pond. The impact I can make is limited, but the main purpose to acquire knowledge and improve what I can do back home. That is the link.”
Dakey later identified other links between the two cultures. He said, “One thing that continues to surprise me is the appreciation that the community showed, and the feedback demonstrated that there is a place for choral music at Ashesi. The impression I get here is the same. Either way, [music] provides an opportunity for you to come and listen to good songs and forget about academia for at least two hours.”
He currently has plans to utilize what he gains from his experience at Swarthmore back home for the choir: “It is an opportunity for me to learn theory and improve what I can do back home. Starting the choir was only the first step for Ashesi in creating a music department. They will see the impact that it’s having and this will have contributed to the long time goal of starting the music department and having our chorus recognized internationally.”
“Getting into Swarthmore as an exchange student has been a dream come true,” Dakey concluded. “I’m really, really excited for the future.”
Image courtesy of Emma Chiao for The Phoenix