Pitt’s Afropop ensemble fosters community, cultural exchange and musical freedom among students


Alyssa Carnevali | Staff Photographer

Pitt’s Afropop Ensemble performs in Bellefield Hall on Monday night.

By Rebecca Hsu, Staff Writer

Through distinct African rhythms, colorful harmonies and energetic solos, Pitt’s Afropop Ensemble is introducing students to new sounds from Africa and the African diaspora.

The course is the newest out of Pitt’s music ensembles, founded by the first director Mathew Tembo in 2018. 

Samuel Boateng, the ensemble’s current director and a doctoral candidate, said the ensemble’s styles include the genre Afrobeat, pioneered by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, the Ghanaian genre of highlife and reggae. 

“What we do is introduce students to the music and also the history and social side of the music of Africa and the African diaspora,” Boateng said.

The class meets once a week, with the ensemble performing once a semester. The current ensemble consists of six students 一 two guitarists, one bassist, two keyboard players and one drummer. Boateng performs alongside the students, filling in with whatever instruments they need. 

Boateng and students arrange the songs themselves, fitting the song to their tastes and specific instrumentation. Currently, they are rehearsing popular African tunes such as “Water No Get Enemy” by Fela Kuti alongside original compositions by Boateng such as “Another Day.”

“We have a playlist of songs we listen to and I select some samples from there that we play and practice in class then [play] for the concert,” Boateng said. “So some of the songs are covers, but we arrange them in a way that suits what we want to do and what I want students to get out of a song.”

Boateng said after he started teaching Afropop last semester, he took new approaches to his instruction.

“Some students are not too familiar with these songs,” Boateng said. “For example, there are certain drum patterns that are very different from playing rock and roll, or even reggae, that are perhaps more needed in Afrobeat or highlife.”

Boateng added that exposing students to this music is a rewarding process.

“It’s my privilege to introduce them to that world and to basically hold their hands as we walk through those worlds and imbibe those things,” Boateng said.

Along with teaching general musicianship, the class also informs students about African and African diasporic culture and history. Benjamin Barson, who directed the ensemble last year, said cultural education was a core component of the class.

“We read extensively from African writers on highlife, on Afropop, on the different styles that we were performing,” Barson said. “And we also interviewed and invited and worked directly with musicians of the African diaspora, both in continental Africa and in different parts of the world and made sure to invite them and, at least in one of our concerts, perform with them.”

Barson said he drew ideas from his mentor, saxophonist and scholar Fred Ho, who developed a “Three Cs” maxim for respectfully playing non-Western music in the West.

“The class always had a really strong component of these ‘Three Cs,’ of credit, compensation and committed solidarity that was trying to move beyond this narrow model of just performing music from another culture without context and without any cultural appreciation component,” Barson said.

This cultural appreciation is not contained within the classroom. It also takes place in the form of collaboration with community outreach groups such as the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op.

Ashwin Dukkipati, a senior music composition and economics major, played in the ensemble last semester. He initially joined the Afropop ensemble to get more practice and meet new people.

“I had never played guitar in front of a crowd until we played our Afropop concert last semester,” Dukkipati said. “So that was really cool to go from zero to 60 like that. Also just to meet new people, to find more musicians in the area with similar interests and to push what I know to its limits and learn new stuff.”

Dukkipati is also a member of Pitt’s Jazz Ensemble. He said compared to the jazz ensemble, Afropop allowed for more collaboration and musical freedom.

“I think they both worked for the genres they were working with. The big band is a lot more people,” Dukkipati said. “It’s a lot more parts. We had written out sheets, you had to sight read a lot of times and it was a lot stricter. Whereas with Afropop, it was a little more collaborative on the composition end and the arranging end.”

Both Dukkipati and Boateng said one of Afropop’s goals is to allow students the freedom they may not have in their traditional classes where there are more strict rules when composing and playing music.

“Afropop is unique in the sense that once you’re there, you’re not expected to be bound by all of these rules, because in real life a lot of these rules really don’t matter,” Boateng said. “The class tries to let students be musicians rather than be people who are just memorizing rules, and I think that sets it apart for sure.”

Dukkipati said playing in the Afropop ensemble has helped him in other musical endeavors as well, from his music history courses to playing in the Jazz Ensemble.

“In jazz band, it gives me the freedom to sometimes push outside of what the chart is telling me to do,” Dukkipati said. “So instead of doing just a boring straight eights comping pattern, occasionally I can be like, ‘Hey, I learned this thing in Afropop, can I do this instead?’ Sometimes he says no, because it doesn’t fit. But when he says yes, everyone gets excited.”

Another characteristic that sets the Afropop ensemble apart is its smaller size. According to Boateng, the class’ small size and high level of collaboration leads to an increased sense of community among members.

“You have to ask someone to perhaps turn their volume down. You have to ask someone what chord they are playing,” Boateng said. “You have to ask someone, can they repeat that. So there’s always this dialogue between students available and that’s one way of building community that you may not necessarily find in traditional classes.”

The ensemble performed this Monday in Bellefield Hall, sharing African and African diasporic music to an audience. Boateng said the concerts are another rewarding aspect of the ensemble.

“Just the opportunity to perform on campus, live, in a big hall, something that’s being streamed online, it gives students the ability to express this gift beyond just the classroom or just with their friends. It’s actually an ability to share their music with other people,” Boateng said.

Dukkipati said he plans to return to the ensemble next semester, and his experience playing continues to impact his relationship with music.

“Now Afropop definitely is part of the way I look at music. I’m not going to be unlearning that anytime soon,” Dukkipati said.