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Sounding a new chord for Africa

VICTOR Dogah bobs his head and smiles, quickly getting the hang of the Puerto Rican rhythm written on the whiteboard behind his professor. He and his classmates hit their fingers and palms on their drums in near perfect unison.

Suddenly, their professor stops the beat and asks Dogah to become the teacher.

He discards his socks and shoes by his chair and shows his fellow percussionists a traditional dance from his home in Ghana. He rocks on his heels and toes, flaps his arms and lifts his hands up to the ceiling.

"You see how it goes?" he asks. "Yeah, we see how it goes," one of his classmates replies in laughter, as he fumbles through the movement.

Such moments during a routine Afro-Caribbean Rhythms class are exactly what the Berklee College of Music envisioned when it created the Africa Scholars Program, which gives scholarships to musicians from Africa to study at the prestigious school in Boston, the United States.

Dogah, a traditional Ewe drummer and renowned dancer in Ghana, was the first scholar chosen after the initial round of auditions in Africa last summer.

"My main purpose here is to learn how to read and write music," Dogah said. "If anybody is ready to learn from me, he or she is welcome."

Berklee, with 4,000 students, focuses on the study of contemporary music and has been a launching pad for dozens of influential artists, from producer Quincy Jones to jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis to pop star John Mayer.

But African nations have largely remained underrepresented at Berklee, despite the college's long tradition of recruiting international students. Twenty percent of its student body comes from outside the United States, which is among the largest percentages for any US university.

Many of the continent's most talented musicians don't have the means to afford the school without scholarships. Berklee President Roger Brown, who made a US$500,000 donation with his wife to help fund the program, said so much of the music taught and played at Berklee can be traced back to Africa.

For example, slaves brought to the Caribbean heavily influenced the Puerto Rican music being learned by Dogah and his classmates.

The Africa program offers one full-ride scholarship and other scholarships each year. And the response has been tremendous. After the first auditions last year in Accra, Ghana, and Durban, South Africa, Berklee had to add a third day of auditions in Nairobi, Kenya, because of high demand this year.

Many of those who auditioned are masters of their traditional music, but can't support themselves through music or pursue more education, said Joe Galeota, an associate professor and director of Berklee's West African Drum and Dance Ensemble.

"I know some of the applicants who auditioned last year learned how to play on YouTube," said Galeota, who heard Dogah audition. "They're great with their own cultural ideas and traditions and music, but they don't have the mainstream and the materials to learn."

Angelina Mbulo, a 31-year-old vocalist from Mozambique, said she nearly gave up her dream of pursuing music. She had worked for nine years with children and families infected with HIV or AIDS and received a promotion the same month she was given a partial scholarship to Berklee.

She turned down the promotion and came to Boston.

"Without it, I basically wouldn't be here," she said.

Dogah, or "Blue," was also pursuing a different career - clothing design.


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