by Kelly Hyde
Devoting his life to music was the easy part for visiting assistant professor Samuel Elikem Kwame Nyamuame.
Nyamuame was born in Whuti, a town in the southwestern part of the Volta region of Ghana. There, each person is believed to reincarnate one of their elders, living or deceased, and follow in that elder's footsteps. The moment he was determined to be the reincarnation of his grandfather, a chief and African traditional musician, Nyamuame's path toward music was set.
However, throughout his childhood, Nyamuame found himself pulled between two diametrically opposed influences. His father, a Presbyterian minister, taught his son to perform in the Western classical vein; his grandfather taught him traditional African drumming. Nyamuame juggled both, joining the choir at his father's church and sneaking out to perform traditional music at night.
"I was a little stubborn," he said. "At church, I just sang hymns. There's more engagement in the community—you talk to people more, and it's much more live and interactive."
These traditional performances were a risk, especially for the son of a minister.
"The missionaries would send teachers to spy on traditional performances in town," he said. "You would be severely punished the next day in school if you were seen at one."
Today, Nyamuame leads an African traditional performance group and teaches classes in African drumming and dance to Harpur College music and theatre students—the very techniques he learned clandestinely in Ghana. His conflicted childhood has become an asset.
"Growing up, I was between the two (Western and African traditions)," he said. "I got my Western musical knowledge and way of thinking from my dad, and my African sensibilities, values and customs from my grandfather."
His father's focus on education and his grandfather's focus on learning by performance shaped the multiple facets—drummer, singer, actor, dancer, scholar and teacher—that ultimately paved Nyamuame's path in the U.S. academic world.
"A lot of people only talk about drumming," he said. "But it goes beyond that. When you talk about African music, it's not just music, or just drumming—it's composed of drumming, dancing, singing and theatrical elements. In the African concept, they are all one unit, like a constellation."
However, Nyamuame's ticket to America didn't become clear until later, when a roommate who went to Wesleyan University connected him to a faculty member with an opportunity.
"I was invited to perform at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts," he said. "I was excited. I was going to the U.S. for the first time. My dad was excited for the opportunity, but concerned because there was no money—so I went around and talked to all of my uncles and they encouraged me to do it."
He ended coming up to the festival in 2002, when a program was organized in honor of Katherine Dunham, a legendary African-American dancer from the 1940s. It was there that Nyamuame met entertainers Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte—only he didn't know it at the time.
"I performed with them (Glover and Belafonte) in a monologue," he said. "I took a photo with them, and then afterward I got to know who they were."
Despite this, Nyamuame still had a deeply meaningful interaction with Belafonte.
"I remember one moment—he tapped on my shoulder and said, 'Whatever you do, do it to the best of your knowledge,'" he said. "It reminded me of what my dad had always told me. That reinforced the way I would go with my life."
After the festival, Nyamuame received a full scholarship to study ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, where he earned his master's degree in world music. He completed his doctoral degree at the University of Florida and set off to join the Binghamton University Music Department faculty for the fall 2013 semester just three days later.
In addition to teaching, Nyamuame is an active researcher. Although most of his research up to now has dealt with religious musical traditions in sub-Saharan Africa and the Diaspora, he is considering a new avenue: popular music in sub-Saharan Africa and the musicians behind it.
"The people who make the music are not represented in the scholarship," he said. "Those in ethnomusicology talk about genres. We interview living musicians for our dissertations, but nobody talks about them. (I want to) look at people first and their works, and how they influence their period."
In his research, in the classroom and through his performances, Nyamuame hopes to teach people one main thing.
"African music and performance represents the individual lives of people," he said. "Movements express their emotions, culture and daily activity. It's not just throwing your arms. It means something."
Last Updated: 12/18/13