“I’m as white as a white girl from Scarborough can be,” quips Kathy Armstrong, 37, an internationally acclaimed specialist in West African drumming. Her particular interest is Ghanaian drumming, and she trained in the remote village of Dagbamete, Ghana, for the first time in 1990 with Fred Kwasi Dunyo, now a part-time instructor in African drumming at the University of Toronto.
Armstrong entered U of T in 1984 as a percussion major, but it was the West African drumming class of Professor Russell Hartenberger that excited her imagination. Study trips to Africa convinced her that this art form must be her life’s work. “The sound of these drums stirs something inside of me,” says Armstrong. “The combination of the circular rhythms played on antelope- or goat-skin heads, the humid conditions – either the air in Ghana itself or the sweat-drenched state of the performers – and the total body, mind and spirit involvement is truly intoxicating.” To develop and express her creativity fully, she has immersed herself in the Ghanaian arts, becoming an accomplished singer and dancer.
A teacher as well as a performer, Armstrong earned a master’s degree in music education in 1992. She teaches African drumming and dancing part time at Carleton University in Ottawa, but her main focus is on multicultural arts education: Armstrong founded the Baobab Tree Drum Dance Community in Ottawa, a multi-ethnic organization that has established two performing ensembles, offers public classes in drum and dance, and raises money for projects in Dagbamete. “It’s kind of a wholistic, community approach to learning and performing,” she says. “In the West, we tend to compartmentalize. In Ghana, dance, music and singing are learned all together, and it’s this sense of community that I want to instill in my Canadian students.”
To honour Armstrong’s work in championing the arts of Ghana, a new residence at the West African Cultural Exchange Centre in Dagbamete was named after her. Last July, she travelled to Ghana for the ceremony, accompanied by the Baobab Youth Performers.