In a basement practice room at Berklee College of Music on a recent weekday, Victor Dogah was learning the fundamentals of Cuban drumming from instructor Ricardo Monzon. Each in his own way, student and professor, is a master percussionist. The work was nevertheless intense, the goals they set for themselves ambitious ones.
For Monzon, a native of Guatemala, it was teaching the montuno style to a young man steeped in the West African musical idiom known as Ewe. “Victor has to know not only what grooves to play but where to come in,’’ Monzon said during a brief break, “because that’s how he’ll be tested later.’’
Dogah, 25, cannot yet read music, a skill he hopes to acquire in the months ahead. But, as Monzon noted, “Sing something for him, or show him how to play it, and Victor gets it.’’
For Dogah, who hails from a small village in southeastern Ghana, the tutorial was part of a steep learning curve, academic and cultural, that he’s embarked upon since arriving in the United States four months ago. American food and currency, college classes and dorm life, the bustling pace of city life in Boston - all have challenged Dogah, one of three African Scholars brought to campus this year for the first time in the college’s history.
Boston is very strange and overwhelming, totally different from African cities I’ve been in,’’ Dogah said during an interview at a Back Bay cafe. “Everyone looks busy all the time. Back home, people are in less of a hurry.’’
Between classes and practice sessions, Dogah has been walking all over the city, he said, sometimes accompanied by his summer-session roommate, Danny Roberts, 29, a bass player from Delaware, and sometimes alone. He was invited to a picnic in Concord this past August hosted by members of the local Ghanaian community. One of his happiest moments was a 25th birthday party thrown for him at the home of Berklee faculty member Joe Galeota, where the guest of honor cooked a traditional Ghanaian fish stew for the assembled guests.
Otherwise, Dogah has been spending much of his free time listening to American music - pop, jazz, blues, and his new favorite, country - on a laptop computer provided by the college. Raised in a house without running water or electricity, Dogah has plugged himself into a brave new world of technology, including use of a cellphone, another first for him.
“What’s amazing is Victor’s appreciation for small things,’’ says Roberts, recalling Dogah’s first encounter ever with a coin-operated washing machine and his learning to navigate iTunes, the popular music website.
Even in Boston, a city with a long tradition of attracting college students from around the world, Dogah’s journey here has captured the imaginations of both those who’ve facilitated it and those who’ve gotten to know the affable young musician. His nickname is Blue, short for Danger Blue, bestowed upon him at an early age because, as Berklee folks enjoy repeating, "He’s so good, he’s dangerous".
Among those most responsible for Dogah getting here is Galeota, who studied at the University of Ghana in the 1970s and helped establish an early connection between the college and the West African country. Ghana is famous for producing world-class drummers and dancers, many of whom studied at one point with Godwin Agbeli, a renowned Ewe drum master. Agbeli, who died in 1998, taught at several American universities (Tufts, Boston University, Berklee) and was a father figure to Dogah, helping raise the young man in the village of Kopeyia (pronounced ko-pay-EE-a), a farming community with its own rich musical tradition.
Galeota began taking Berklee students to Ghana in 1998; he had met Dogah, who was a boy of about 5 at the time, years earlier through Agbeli. Dogah’s talents stood out even then, Galeota says. When Berklee embarked on an ambitious outreach program last year, Galeota rooted for Dogah to make the cut, yet says he tried not to influence the final decision process.
“They all loved Blue, though - he had a great audition,’’ Galeota says. “He’s right out of the village. Incredibly talented and charismatic.’’
Vermont artist Rory Jackson is another American with a longstanding connection to Dogah. Jackson, who greeted Dogah at Logan Airport when he landed here on May 30, first visited Ghana a decade ago on a high school field trip. Dogah was living with his grandmother at the time, Jackson remembers, in a dirt-floor hut with no electricity or running water. The friendship that developed between them was one reason Jackson returned to Ghana after he finished high school. They later lived together, Jackson eventually buying a piece near Dogah’s village and starting a school elsewhere in Ghana. Jackson’s family helped subsidize Dogah’s education at the Kopeyia-Bloomfield School (where the young student also taught drumming), a school established in 1988 by Robert Levin, a composer at Wesleyan University.
“I was not pushing his dream to get to the US,’’ Jackson now says. “It was his destiny, in his stars. He knew it would happen someday.’’ Dogah’s biggest adjustment, Jackson adds, has been to the pace of life here. “In Ghana, nothing happens on time,’’ he says with a laugh. “Ghana Time is a joke. Three o’clock means anything between 2 o’clock and 5.’’
Roger Brown, the president of Berklee and a former Peace Corps worker in Africa, says that although many worthy scholarship candidates were interviewed by a Berklee team, their feeling was that Dogah had something special to offer. That because of his background and talent, he had as much to teach the college community as Berklee faculty members had to teach him. “The whole point with this program was to take risks,’’ Brown says. Dogah “is not a cosmopolitan guy,’’ he adds, but he’s eager and affable, and “it’s hard not to really care about Victor.’’
Cosmopolitan he may not be, but Dogah’s talents go beyond drumming and dancing. The son of a poultry farmer (his father) and jewelry maker (his mother), he makes his own clothes, enjoys cooking, and has been looking around for a soccer team to join. Before coming to Berklee, he traveled extensively in West Africa, often with little more than a knapsack on his back. In rural parts of Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, among other settings, he played for and met other artists who shared his musical passions.
His biggest issue with college life so far, says Dogah, is seeing fellow students puffing on cigarettes. He swears that in Ghana, you would never see an 18-year-old firing up a Marlboro Light. Like many foreign students, he’d also love to visit New York, Las Vegas, and California while he’s here. This fall, meanwhile, he’s taking classes in composition, music engineering, and performing. After Berklee, he intends to return to Ghana, hoping to become a recording artist and music teacher with the ultimate goal of creating more opportunities for young artists like himself.
At first his family didn’t believe he had been accepted to college in America, Dogah says. Now, “they’re so proud and happy for me. I feel it was a work of God that I was chosen. I feel like I’m at home.’’
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