Coming Around Again

  Faculty members Ron Savage (left) and Carolyn Wilkins take time out from the auditions in Ghana to play with a local musician.
  Margot Edwards

Recently, Berklee launched its Africa Scholars Program by holding audition and interview events in Accra, Ghana, and Durban, South Africa. Established and funded by Berklee President Roger H. Brown and his wife, Linda Mason, the groundbreaking program is intended to raise awareness about the college among African musicians, increase the number of African students at Berklee, and promote a significant cultural exchange.

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, room, and board. Musicians who auditioned in Africa will also be considered for other scholarships that Berklee awards as part of its World Scholarship Tour, which visits more than 40 international cities.

Comprising Ron Savage, chair of the Ensemble Department; Carolyn Wilkins, professor of ensembles; Joe Galeota, associate professor of percussion; and Michael Shaver, assistant director of admissions, international recruitment, the Berklee team conducted the interviews and auditions in Accra and Durban in June.

Some hopefuls came from regions of Ghana and South Africa near the audition sites, but many traveled long distances from Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. In total, more than 100 musicians turned out at both sites, which unfortunately meant there was a greater volume than there was time to accommodate. While the team took several walk-ins, a few were turned away and left only with the hope that Berklee would return to the area for future auditions.

"I have been on several audition trips for Berklee," said Professor Wilkins, "but for me, this trip to Africa was by far the most intense one emotionally, physically, and spiritually. What stands out in my mind is how hungry those auditioning were for the opportunity to come to Berklee. Quite a few of the people we heard had never studied formally with a teacher or learned to read music, but their motivation and raw talent were extraordinary. I would love to see several of these wonderful young people come to Berklee."

Those auditioning were from varied walks of life, age groups, and musical abilities. They played a variety of styles, including blues, jazz, pop, gospel, and Ghanaian highlife and hiplife styles. One vocalist had fled war in his home country and now lives in a refugee camp in Ghana, while another is the reigning Ghanaian pop idol. Several played such traditional instruments as djembe, sogo, kidi, and mbira nyungwe nyungwe. The young man who played mbira had traveled with his mother 1,200 miles by bus from war-torn Zimbabwe.

Alumna Sarah Bein '08, who is in Ghana for the summer studying medicinal horticulture, helped facilitate the auditions in Accra by escorting musicians to the interview and audition rooms. "It's a really humbling experience to see these people who want it so badly that they'll drive here from Nigeria even if there is only a slight chance they can audition for a scholarship," Bein said. "People here are so grateful for everything they have, it puts you in your place very quickly, and makes you not take what you have for granted."

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

She explained further, "[Berklee] has good facilities and networking [opportunities]. It's the whole package and has a focus on the business side of music." Some of the audition candidates got a head start on the networking for which Berklee is well known. Musicians from different countries took the opportunity to connect with one another. They jammed before and after the auditions, exchanged contact information, and even made plans to get together to play again.