Audience participation – no matter how young the audience member – is a built-in part of the performances orchestrated by musician Ekpe Abioto. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Ekpe Abioto and Company staged a colorful spectacle of African drumming, dancing and singing that brought some joy back to Cummings K-8 Optional School, according to principal Dwana McGuire. 

Traditional native dances by two women in the troupe interpreted the drumming of Abioto and the other musicians. The movement roused many of the students from their seats as they sang along and interacted with the performers. 

McGuire said the Nov. 30 program was good for her students’ well-being.

“We felt the children should have this experience because we wanted the opportunity to bring some joy back into the building,” said McGuire. “We have been through a very traumatic time. And so, this is a way for us to combine the music and learn some history about the music and drumming that we don’t necessarily know in a fun way.”

Cummings was the scene of a Sept. 30 shooting involving two 13-year-old male students. The victim did recover from his wounds.

Referencing the tragedy of one young student shooting another, Principal Dwana McGuire said it was “a very difficult time” for Cummings K-8 Optional School, adding, “… We’ve just been keeping our eyes on the prize.” (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

“It was a very difficult time, but I would say we are 100 percent back to ourselves,” said McGuire. “And so, we’ve been able to navigate those waters very carefully, but really focusing in on making sure we are improving, learning and growing every day. We’ve just been keeping our eyes on the prize.”

Ekpe Abioto: “It is disheartening what is happening to our children. … Gun violence is destroying them, but the cure is in the culture.” (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Abioto used the drums to lead the children in a call and response of affirmations:

“I am a genius. I respect my teachers. I love my parents…”

Students repeated the words and danced to the drums. There was comedy and laughter; lots and lots of laughter. 

Abioto said drumming brings happiness because children understand it.

“Children, by nature, even though they are not exposed to drumming, gravitate to it,” said Abioto. “We have traveled all over the country, and it is always thrilling to see. Our people respond, especially children, because culture is the cure. 

“We recognize the language of the drums in a deep, primal place within. Drumming is the language of the village. It is universal to African peoples, and we respond with dancing. The drums are purveyors of joy.”

Tuesday’s early afternoon program also featured a pledge, composed by McGuire, that students took, repeating after their principal line by line. They promised to never touch a gun, always respect other people, and to be obedient to their parents and teachers.

(Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

“I wrote the pledge for our children,” said McGuire. “My thing for Cummings is love. So, in everything we do, we make sure that the students are at the forefront of our decision-making. It was easy to get back to our routine since we are here because we love them. This is a trauma-informed school. Cummings is a safe haven for them, a place where they know they can come and be loved.”

McGuire said there are a number of sources for assistance, not only to the students but to the parents as well.

“If the parents are not doing well, it’s very difficult for the students to do well,” said McGuire. “We want to help address issues with the parents which may adversely affect a student’s ability to learn in the classroom.”

Abioto’s motivational learning workshops for children have been facilitated all over the nation. Their positive messages of developing self-esteem, creative thinking, drug prevention, gang awareness and anti-gun violence have been well received by students and administrators, alike.

Switching instruments, Ekpe Abioto kept the musical energy flowing at Cummings K-8 Optional School. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

The versatile musician plays a number of instruments, including the flute, saxophone and the kalimba (African instrument, better known as the thumb piano).

Abioto is presently promoting two CDs: “I Am a Genius” and “The Spirit of African Music.” His interactive music video, “Don’t Touch A Gun,” has been recognized and used as an effective tool in teaching students of all ages to stay away from guns.

It is disheartening what is happening to our children,” said Abioto. “Gun violence is destroying them, but the cure is in the culture. I have traveled throughout Africa, and there is a zero murder rate because people don’t have guns. Only police officers have guns. And all I have ever seen them do is direct traffic. It is because of the culture. Our cure is in our culture.”

While a student at Shelby State (now Southwest Tennessee Technical College) in the mid-1970s, Abioto was a music major, with a minor in drama. He later studied with African musician and master drummer Souleymane Diop of Senegal.

For Ekpe Abioto and this band of musicians, performing at Cummings K-8 Optional School was a labor of love. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)