Saturday, June 25, 2016


Greetings! My name is Maya Cunningham. I am an ethnomusicologist, music educator and vocalist. This year I am traveling around the world to study music traditions in Ghana, West Africa, India and Botswana, in southern Africa. I received two fellowships for Ghana and India, from Fund for Teachers and Teachers for Global Classrooms. I received a Fulbright Award to go to Botswana. I will also be starting advanced studies in Ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland School of Music this year. Through Ethnomusicology in Action I will bring live updates, unique video footage, photos and reflections on my experiences with each culture. The curricula that I write based on my field work will available through The Diaspora Institute, a research, curriculum development and educator training firm that I launched this summer. (Check soon back for more information)

At this very moment, I am here in Ghana West Africa on an ethnomusicological adventure and a cultural homecoming. I am in the Orff Afrique workshop, led by Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo, an ethnomusicologist and a Ghanaian musician. Yes, I am here in Ewe land in the Volta Region to learn dance, drumming, the African xylophone and the Anteteben flute. Even more than that, I am also here to meet my Ghanaian family…the people of Ghana who have warmly embraced me as an African – American of the Afro Diaspora and as a daughter of Africa.

Live from Ghana June 20, 2016

Well. I officially have a village, a town to which I belong. The name is Dzozde (pronounced Jo - jay). It is located about three hours east of Accra, in the Volta Region of Ghana. I was welcomed and recognized by the chief as an African – American whose ancestors were taken away. Now I have returned and I have been given a village in my ancestral homeland. I am here where I belong. My first intent for writing this blog was to document and share my ethnomusicological research. However, considering the events that transpired today, it is impossible for this to be anything but an introspective reflection, an exploration of my cultural identity and a documentation of a profound experience. First I will recount the facts.

As an African – American, my identity is in the name. The beginning of my family blood lines span back about five generations to those who were captured here on the Continent, perhaps even from Ghana. With that in mind, I live a long way from my homeland. The flight from New York to Accra, Ghana’s capitol city, took 9 hours and 45 minutes. And this is with 2016 jet engine technology helped along by a 21 mile per hour headwind. The journey is long, not to mention the intermediary flights that travelers take to get to the primary one going to Accra. It took hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean. It took hours to fly southward from the top of West Africa to Ghana. 

I cannot help but reflect on the tortuous journey that those first mothers and fathers in my family had to endure when they were captured and brought to the New World. I know of two by name, and only their English names. Nancy Ann and Molly Motley. Nancy Ann was brought from West Africa, I assume, to the Bahamas: maybe to the Bahamas via Jamaica. She married my great grandfather’s father, William Wake. It is said that she had the facial markings that identified her with a certain tribal nation or clan. These marks are sometimes called scarification. While my knowledge of Nancy Ann is limited, I know a  little more about Molly Motley.

Molly Motley was captured and taken by ship to the US. She came in on the Potomac River. (She pronounced it Pa – ta – mak). Somehow, she ended up enslaved on a Georgia Plantation, near Fitzgerald or Tifton, close to where Jackie Robinson was originally from. She worked for a slave owner name Jacob Motley.  She was forced to have six children by Jacob, one of whom was my great grandmother’s grandmother. She died an early death. My Auntie told me that she was an African princess. It might have taken her weeks or months to cross the Atlantic to get to the Potomac. It took me hours, many hours, to get back. 

I am here to study Ewe music. The course is called Orff Afrique, led by Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo. Dr. Kofi is an ethnomusicologist and musician. We are in his home village, to which we have been welcomed. Dzodze is in Ewe land in Ghana, about half a mile from the Atlantic Ocean and fifteen minutes from Togo. It was considered to be a village, but is now deemed as a town. In Ghana, a town must have a police station, a high school and a few other institutions.


 Everywhere I go, from the division chief to people selling wares on the street, I see familiar faces. The chief looks a little like Pastor G. Craige Lewis. Dr. Kofi’s uncle like my uncle Kenny. Dr. Kofi himself a little like Danny Glover. He will teach Ghanaian children’s songs, xylophone, flute and dance to our group of 31, people from nations all over the world. He explained that it is proper for him to present the visitors that he brought to the division chief. We arrived to a sort of pre-ceremony to some of the most powerful music I have ever heard. It was an ensemble of women, many who were playing shekeres, clappers and singing in a call and response pattern. They were singing what I think is a minor pentatonic melody. The lead singers let their voices go full throttle in one booming melodious line after the other.  

There is a dance that the women and several men did to accompany the song. I am traveling with Allyson Chamberlain, a friend, fellow music educator and a powerful gospel vocalist. We received a full fellowship from Fund for Teachers to come to Orff Afrique this summer. Dr. Kofi tried to teach us the dance, and we tried to keep up. 

After a few minutes with the music, we were led to the chief, who was waiting for us. His formal title is Togbe (It is pronounced To-by). He was sitting on a covered platform, with rows of chairs in front of him and on the side. He was draped with Kente cloth and was wearing a black velvet crown that was affixed with golden pendants. Three long strands of coral beads were draped around his neck and he wore three beaded bracelets on his right hand.  He wore royal sandals that were centered with a circular golden ornament. He was also the most handsome man in the room. He had very lustrous, smooth and dark brown skin. His dress was similar to the Asentahene’s, the king of the Ashanti nation. The kings and chiefs in Ghana, and surrounding areas, have similar royal accouterments. Dr. Kofi explained that the chief has to be born into a royal family.  Another family, Dr. Kofi’s in this case, chooses the succession of chiefs. The eldest woman of Dr. Kofi’s family chooses one of the men in the royal family to be the chief: once a proceeding chief passes away. This has been going on for generations. The choice is based on his character, morality and other factors. 

The elders were sitting behind him. His interpreter was sitting beside him, holding a wooden staff topped with a silver carving. On the wall behind him were paintings in blue of low curved wooden stools, a symbol of authority. There were several men on the side of the platform playing very tall drums. Each of us in the group, as a guest of Togbe, was given one of the many chairs in rows in front of Togbe, all bearing an adinkra symbol. Dr. Kofi spoke only in Ewe, and his brother Prosper interpreted in English. There is strict protocol when interacting with the chief. This is true of most chiefs and kings in Ghana, and throughout much of West Africa. (Or any king for that matter) One does not speak directly to the chief. Nor does he speak directly to anyone. You must speak to his interpreter, who speaks to the chief on your behalf. This was the young man holding the staff. When Togbe desires to speak, he speaks through the interpreter.  It is inappropriate for anyone, especially visitors, to speak to the chief or approach him. We were told to wear shoes, not flip – flops, which are considered to be “bathroom shoes” in Ghana. Allyson and I changed into more formal dresses, with sandals for her and short wedge heels for me. 

The formal ceremony involved Dr. Kofi sharing with Togbe our purpose in Dzodze and Togbe then giving his approval for us to be here. Each visitor was then invited to receive a gift from the chief. A beautiful beaded bracelet. In Ghana, beads are highly valued and expensive. They are worn on special occasions, like weddings, funerals, installations of chiefs and other ceremonial events like the one today. Many women in Ghana collect beads, as many women in the west collect other kinds of jewelry. If they need to raise funds quickly they are able to sell their beads for much cash. Togbe and the elders honored us by giving us these beads.  We were instructed to shake hands with Togbe with our right and allow him to put on our beads on the left.

After this portion of the ceremony, came the biggest surprise and blessing for the four African – Americans in the group. Dr. Kofi asked Togbe for permission to speak English, which was granted. He began to reference a lecture on African history that he gave in the morning. Africans were taken captive and enslaved by several European nations: the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch and English. This is a part of Ghana’s history and our own. He told us that since our ancestors were taken away, we have now come home to Dzodze and could consider Dzodze our home village. Each of us went before the chief. Togbe kissed the top of a necklace of beads, put them around my neck and another bracelet on my left wrist. After I received my beads, I began to laugh with exhilaration and joy. Do you know what it feels like to be ceremonially welcomed back to your homeland after being away in a hostile country for generations? It feels wonderful. It was delicious. All four of us were crying. Dr. Kofi was crying. The others in our group were crying. 
The chief, Dr. Kofi’s eldest sister, random men on the street, and other elders all really embraced a Black man from the Bronx via DC named Tom. He indeed looks like many men from Dzodze. I have no doubt that one or many of his ancestors are from this town. Togbe told him that he looks just like their grandfather. They might be blood relatives. 

Dr. Kofi told Allyson and me that the women were coming up to him, remarking about us "doesn’t she look like, so and so…my mother’s sister….my father’s cousin.” ... No one inherits so and so’s nose and so and so’s hairline. We get a whole face. It was in our faces that they recognized us and us them. The faces that our ancestors passed on to us because they chose to stay alive in the most brutal conditions, perhaps knowing that we would come back someday and be welcomed home. Through us, they have been able to return home as well. Considering our short stature, we very likely could have Ghanaian ancestry. Kathleen, a black music teacher from the LA area, did her DNA test and found out that she has twenty – percent Ghanaian ancestry.

Dr. Kofi interpreted the ceremony for us later in the evening. Togbe kissing the necklaces was a symbolic gesture from our ancestors. He said it was them saying "we regret what happened."(Referencing the alleged part that some Ghanaians and other West Africans in selling their countrymen into the Trans – Atlantic slave trade.) It was beautiful. He also said that there is an ongoing national conversation amongst Ghanaians about what they can do to make African  - Americans and other Diasporans to feel more welcome. I have been having the same kind of conversation with forward thinking Diasporans on the other side of the ocean. How can African – Americans come back to our homeland and build? How can we stand upon the economic gains and opportunities that were won for us by those who propelled the Civil Rights Movement and move our people forward using our land here in Ghana, and other areas of Africa? When he said that I knew we are on the right track with our thinking. I think it is our destiny as Diasporians to connect with each other in the Western Hemisphere and with our countrymen here on the Continent, particularly in Ghana. In Ghana, an African – American has the right to buy land, to run for office and a law is in the process of being passed to allow us to become citizens. This precedent was set by Kwame Nkrumah, the first president in the era of independence. What if we use these welcome home privileges to help the thirty percent of us who are still living in poverty in the US to get out of it? What if we raise this generation of children to unite the Blacks in the Diaspora with those in Ghana. The Bible says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. This verse instructs us to start small, within our circle of influence, and the Homeland Movement will grow. Consider the four of us here now. We have a village, a homeland and a home here in Dzodze. We are talking of building houses here. Inviting others to join us. The Homeland Movement will grow and so will we.