Road Scholars

By 
Margot Edwards
July 1, 2008
Ron Savage and Carolyn Wilkins took a break from the auditions to play with local musician Daniel Akornor.
Joe Galeota performs with local musicians.
Ildo Nandja, Albino Mbie, Jonathan Durrant, and Dane Francis jam together before their Berklee auditions in Durban.
Laurent Mvondo Noah and Karen Sahiry from Cote D'Ivoire performed at the Jazz Tone nightclub in Accra after their auditions.
Photo by Margot Edwards

Ghanaian pianist Makafui Kwame didn't have a piano at home, so he drew black and white keys onto a piece of wood and used it to practice the finger movements. Said drummer Gilbert Awunor, "In Ghana we don't always have the ability to get lessons. So I learned by listening to music and I sat in a room and used the floor to rehearse." Another drummer played with a broken pair of sticks because he didn't have the money to replace them. The musicians' pure determination to play despite overwhelming obstacles was evident. All of this effort was in preparation to audition in Africa last month for a Berklee scholarship.

"This trip to Africa was by far the most intense one I've ever done, emotionally, physically, and spiritually," said Carolyn Wilkins, professor of ensembles, who has done several audition trips for Berklee. "The main thing that stands out in my mind was how hungry the people who auditioned were for the opportunity to come to Berklee."

Berklee's recent audition and interview events in Accra, Ghana, and Durban, South Africa, were the first under the newly instituted Africa Scholars Program. The initiative offers opportunities for African musicians who lack the financial means to study at Berklee on a full, four-year scholarship that covers tuition and room and board. Musicians who audition in Africa will also be considered for other scholarships that Berklee awards as part of its World Scholarship Tour that visits more than 40 international cities.

This groundbreaking program was established and funded by Berklee President Roger H. Brown and his wife Linda Mason to increase the number of African students at Berklee, to raise awareness of the college among African musicians, and to promote a significant cultural exchange.

A team composed of Wilkins; Ron Savage, chair of the Ensemble Department; Joe Galeota, associate professor of percussion; and Michael Shaver, assistant director of international admissions, traveled to Accra and Durban in June to conduct the interviews and auditions.

More than 100 musicians turned out at both sites. While the Berklee team was able to take several walk-ins, a few aspiring students left without getting the chance to audition, but with the hope that Berklee would someday return to the area to hold more auditions. Some hopefuls came from regions in Ghana and South Africa near the audition sites, but many traveled long distances from Botswana, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Côte D'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.

Displaying high levels of musical ability, the musicians played a variety of styles, including blues, jazz, pop, gospel, highlife, and hiplife. In addition to guitar, bass, drums, vocals, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, and piano, traditional instruments djembe, sogo, kidi, and mbira were also represented. One percussionist was already considered a master drummer in the Ewe tradition. The mbira player was a 16-year-old who had traveled 1,200 miles by bus—over a day and a half—from war-torn Zimbabwe with his mother. Wilkins added, "Quite a few of the people we heard had not had the opportunity to study formally with a teacher or to learn to read music, but their drive, motivation, and level of raw talent were extraordinary. I would love to see several of these wonderful young people come to Berklee."

The musicians also came from different walks of life in pursuit of their dream. In Accra, one vocalist had fled war in his home country and is now living in a refugee camp, while another vocalist is the reigning Ghanaian Pop Idol. Sarah Bein '08, who is in Ghana for the summer studying medicinal horticulture, volunteered to help facilitate the auditions and interviews in Accra. "It's a really humbling experience to see these people who want it so badly, that they'll drive here from Nigeria to have even a slight chance to audition for a scholarship," said Bein. "People here are so grateful for everything they have, it will put you in your place very quickly, and make you not take what you have for granted."

Galeota, who has made Ghana his second home since studying at the University of Ghana in 1979, continues to be inspired by every visit. "With all the disease, poverty, and civil unrest, Africans continue to forge a hope for a better future," he said. "The opportunity to improve the quality of life not only for themselves, but also for their families, was a common theme. The strong work ethic displayed was unprecedented. Most of all, the respect that they have for each other is awesome. These students will add much success to Berklee's mission of fostering unity and respect between departments, styles of music, and the diverse ethnic community at large."

Pianist Tandi Ntuli, who came from Cape Town to audition in Durban, summed up the ambitions of many of the auditioners: "When I was in high school, every musician I knew, it was their dream to come to Berklee. The opportunity doesn't come every day, so it's really exciting. I wanted to study overseas but financially it would be impossible without a scholarship. This would be a huge opportunity and I would make the most of it."

It appeared some of the students were getting a head start on the networking for which Berklee is well known. Musicians from different countries jammed together before and after the auditions, exchanged contact information, and even made plans to play together again when they had the chance.