Gabrielle Misiewicz, '11

Student majoring in African diaspora studies researches roots of music traditions

March 16, 2010

Every December and July, thousands of Bahamians crowd onto the streets of Nassau to see colorfully-costumed bands celebrate Junkanoo, a national dance and music festival. Gabrielle Misiewicz, ‘11, is usually among the revelers, feeling the beat of the drum and its connection, she says, to “something much larger, and far older” than herself. Junkanoo has been celebrated for hundreds of years and was started by African slaves as a tribute to freedom.

Misiewicz has extended this personal experience to an academic one by concentrating in African diaspora studies, an interdisciplinary major she designed by connecting courses in anthropology, music, and related departments. She focuses on cultural connections between West Africa and the Anglo-Caribbean, including her native West Indies. She is also a member of the Women Involved in Living and Learning (WILL) program, and will earn a minor in women, gender and sexuality studies.

Misiewicz spent the fall semester in Ghana through the School for International Training’s program on “History and Cultures of the African Diaspora.” For four months the program's students traveled around Ghana, learning to speak Fante, touring Ghanaian villages and slave castles (coastline fortresses that were the last stop in Africa for America-bound slaves), and learning Ghanaian history.

She wasn’t surprised that Ghana felt familiar even though this was her first time in Africa. “Hundreds of years have passed [since African slaves were taken to the Caribbean] … but some things have stayed the same,” she says, referencing familiar eating habits, laid-back attitudes, plants, and the use of sauces in cooking. This realization reinforced her academic interest in cultural connections with the diaspora.

Rhythm Nations

During her final month in Ghana, Misiewicz took drumming lessons from Antoinette Adwoa Kudoto, Ghana’s only female master drummer, for two hours a day, five days a week, learning drumming traditions from throughout the country.

While Misiewicz seeks to uncover the roots of traditions in the diaspora, Kudoto wants to bring these traditions back into the awareness of modern Ghanaian society itself. She leads the drumming and dancing troupe Nyame Tsease African Traditionals, with which Misiewicz practiced for two to three hours after each lesson.

Misiewicz explains that in Ghanaian traditions, “Dancers and drummers go together – you wouldn’t just play the drum.” There are dozens of ensembles – choreography and accompanying compositions – stemming from major events in each group’s history, like major battle victories.

Misiewicz plans to continue her study of drumming at Richmond, tie it into her major, and bring these experiences home to Nassau. She’s considering two opportunities for this summer – interning with the Young Women’s Drumming Empowerment Project in Washington, D.C., or researching the ways Junkanoo reflects West African traditions, including drumming roles and rhythms.

Ultimately, she would like to tie together the two projects, perhaps by starting a women’s empowerment-through-drumming program in the Bahamas. She says that as an international student, “I am really aware of the opportunities I have here [at Richmond] because I can bring these home.”