Jeremy Cohen is a Boston-based musician, educator and arts entrepreneur. In his dual role as founder/director of ThisWorldMusic® and adjunct professor at The University of Massachusetts Amherst, he leads the top-rated UMass Study Abroad in Ghana program. We caught up with Jeremy recently to find out more about what is unique about studying in Africa in general, and about the ThisWorldMusic/UMass Music, Arts & Culture course in particular.
Tell us about ThisWorldMusic
ThisWorldMusic was founded to provide professional development opportunities and curriculum resources to educators interested in teaching world music, with a special focus on West African drumming. Through partnerships with organizations like The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Memphis City Schools, we have been helping to lead the (still nascent) effort to develop best practices in the field of world music education. After I began teaching at UMass Amherst in 2008, we decided to expand the scope of TWM by creating the Ghana study abroad program.
How did you come up with the concept for this program?
My first job out of graduate school was working as a middle school music director in a large urban school district. The principal gave me quite a bit of leeway, so I was able to design and implement a comprehensive African drumming curriculum. The way the students connected with traditional drum ensemble music was so amazing, I knew I had to find a way to share what I had learned. Not long after, TWM was born.
What do you see as the biggest advantage of this program over traditional study abroad programs in Africa?
It has become such a cliché, but music, dance and other forms of cultural expression are central to the functioning of daily life in much of Africa. One has to participate in the cultural life of the place to even begin to grasp how people there think and feel. There is no substitute for this kind of experience, it is something that has to be lived. Our program provides that.
What type of experience do you bring to this program?
I honestly can’t imagine another project — or career — that would weave together all of my different interests and experiences the way TWM does. When I started out as a graduate composition student at The New England Conservatory of Music, I could not have envisioned a future passion for African music and culture. Later when I traveled to Ghana on my own to study traditional music and dance, I never thought it would lead to designing and leading a university study abroad program. I just kept following my passion, and tried to remain flexible enough to walk through whatever doors opened for me.
Is this program just for music or arts majors?
Not at all! The instructor/student ratio at the Dagbe Cultural Institute & Arts Centre where the group lives and studies hovers around 1:1. This means we can break the group up into smaller classes based on different ability levels and learning objectives, thereby accommodating everyone from top-flight professional drummers to dancers with no drumming experience to adventurous business majors excited about studying African culture at the source.
Is this program limited to college students?
There again, no. Our Africa study abroad program is unique in that enrollment is open to students and professionals worldwide, yet it still confers academic credit (undergraduate or graduate) from UMass, or the equivalent in professional development credits (PDPs/CRUs/PLUs/CEUs).
Participants do not need to be enrolled at UMass or any other college or university to attend.
What do you see students gain when they complete the program?
From what I’ve observed, students come to Africa thinking they’re going to learn drumming, dancing & singing. Which they do, except that what they often report makes the deepest impression on them is simply the experience of living in Africa.
What else would you like to tell us about your program?
The Ghana study abroad course, like all of TWM’s offerings, is about inclusiveness. Not coincidentally, this is also a hallmark of the cultural art forms we focus on, and is therefore woven into our Mission: “To create a cultural bridge between West Africa and North America through a shared love of music and the arts.”
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