When he’s not making custom drums for artists like Vinx and Mickey Hart, Professor of Percussion Joe Galeota teaches classes that introduce students to the culture and advanced ensemble playing of African music.
After attending the Hartt School and touring, Galeota came to Berklee as a performance major in percussion. He honed his chops playing with ballet and opera orchestras, and at jazz gigs. Then Galeota left Berklee with a yen for travel. He mentioned to a classmate that he’d like to visit another country and learn more about percussion—unaware that this offhand remark would shape his career.
“Oh,” said the classmate, “I just got back from the University of Ghana, and they have a really good program. You should check it out.” Galeota applied, but didn’t receive a response. He went back on the road for a year and a half before a telegram arrived telling him he’d been accepted.
“I bought a one-way ticket—which was really foolish—to this place I knew nothing about,” Galeota says. “I was just excited to have an adventure.” He certainly got one—stolen luggage, stark living conditions, and a coup led by his classmates. Everything was a surprise, including the music.
“I was a professional when I got to Ghana,” Galeota says. “I had been working with the opera and the ballet and doing all these jazz gigs. I could really play.” But he soon found out what the locals meant when they told him, “This music is no joke, man.”
One evening Galeota joined an ensemble. “They gave me this little bell part to play. It seemed simple, but I couldn’t play it!” Fortunately, an old man sat behind Galeota and touched him on the shoulder every time he got lost, wordlessly guiding him back to the beat.
“Everything is about community [in Ghana],” Galeota says. “You don’t get to go shed in a practice room until you know what you’re doing. You learn and make mistakes right there in the group, in front of your peers. You feel very vulnerable.”
This experience informs Galeota’s perennially popular classes and ensembles. “There’s no room for ego,” he says. “I don’t teach with handouts or written music; it’s strictly oral tradition. I sing the rhythm and make the students clap the pulse and tell me where ‘one’ is.”
Once students find the beat, Galeota calls “switch” and has them sing the rhythms with syllables analogous to a rhythmic solfège. “I have them sing everything first before they pick up an instrument. That way they have internalized the music before they try to present it.” Galeota stresses that these approaches enhance rather than replace Western learning techniques.
A focus on artistic intangibles gives Galeota’s classes a unique vibe. “An African ensemble is only as strong as its weakest player,” he says. “And the better players see it as their responsibility to bring novices up to their level. The music is very egalitarian.” Students enjoy this collaborative atmosphere. Galeota says this frees them from ego, which is really a by-product of insecurity, and leaves them feeling more secure as musicians. It’s no wonder his classes are so popular.
Also popular are Galeota’s annual trips to Ghana, on which he immerses students in the culture, customs, and the music of Ghana. “I started taking kids over there in 1997,” he says. “They come back totally changed. It’s hard to say which aspects of the trip have the greatest impact—whether it’s the music, the rich cultural traditions, the starkly different socioeconomic conditions, or the Ghanaian emphasis on human connections over material possessions.” Scores of Berklee students’ parents have written to Galeota to extoll the changes in their children after his trips.
“[These trips] definitely change the way students think about the place of music in their lives,” he says. “[In Ghana] music doesn’t belong to any one person; it belongs to everyone and is part of life. You’ll see guys working on a roof and they’re all singing.”
Once students understand that in Ghana, music is the lineage of family, a means of public satire, and a form of history keeping, Galeota urges students to consider what their own music means to them.
Galeota’s love of Ghanaian music led him to found JAG Drums in the 1980s. “I was making the first professional-quality African instruments in America,” he says. A fan left one of Galeota’s brochures on the stage after a Grateful Dead show, and Galeota received a call from Mickey Hart’s manager requesting five drums. Hart loved them and called for more. “Mickey Hart played a 20-minute drum solo on my drums in every show for 20 years,” Galeota says.
Galeota made drums for many industry A-listers but formed a special relationship with Vinx. “He asked me to design something for him, and I came up with the ‘Vinx drum.’ It’s basically a djembe with tensioning ropes that go all the way to the leg of the drum. He can squeeze it between his knees and change the pitch of the drum as he plays.”
Galeota now splits his time between teaching, making drums, and gigging. “It’s a balanced diet,” he says. “Teaching is emotionally rewarding, but it’s kind of sedentary. Making drums is very physical—as is gigging. It’s good to get a workout.”
Galeota recently finished shooting his first instructional video for Berklee Press, and he is pondering writing a book that captures the musical and cultural lessons he’s learned in three decades of studying the music and people of Ghana. Whatever his next project is, he’ll infuse it with his enthusiastic spirit, and it’s sure to make an impact.