UB Professor Brings "Musicking" to Inner-City Classrooms

By Mara McGinnis

Release Date: February 9, 1999 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mambo, guanguanco, bolero, cha cha, merengue, samba, bomba, plena, polka-you name it. All that University at Buffalo ethnomusicologist Charles Keil asks is that you "give dance a chance."

While many people overlook the vitality of music and dance in daily life, Keil has made it his life.

For 30 years, the professor of American studies has coordinated song-dance-drumming classes at UB to teach students how to express more of themselves through "musicking," a concept that refers to how performing and composing music, as well as listening and dancing to it, allows people to make meaning for themselves.

"My primary interest is in helping people, particularly young people, to express more of themselves through human rites," says Keil. In keeping with this theme, his studies have focused primarily on music in Polish-America, Afro-America, Cuba and Greece that still supports people's rites.

Since 1974, more than 1,000 UB students have jumped at the chance to spend three hours a week drumming for academic credit in Keil's famous "Afro-Latin Musical Praxis" course. The popularity of the course has proved Keil's suspicion that a growing majority of American young people is deprived of cultural expression.

"Every semester I have to turn away highly motivated students who love music, listen to it constantly, but can't master the most basic coordinations after practicing hours and hours for a week," says Keil. The problem, he believes, is that society needs to empower children at a young age to "drum, sing, dance and dramatize superlatively well," especially in today's global era. So he decided to do something about it.

In 1990, he founded Musicians United for Superior Education (MUSE), Inc., a unique not-for-profit organization of artists and educators dedicated to increasing children's access to culturally diverse performing-arts instruction.

Its main program, "MUSE In The Schools," is dedicated to empowering children with the vital energies of the music and dance of many cultures. More than 10 Buffalo elementary schools have participated in the program since its inception.

"As far as we know, it is truly unique." says Keil. "No other non-profit organization is doing year-round, hands-on, feet-on, traditional arts education instructed by African, African-American, Latino and Native-American artists, teaching music and dance at the same time, encouraging mentoring with the goal of building a self-sustaining tradition in each elementary school.

"If we achieve our goal by showing school systems how to build self-sustaining music-dance traditions with multicultural local talents on limited budgets, we will make a big difference in children's lives everywhere," says Keil, president of the MUSE board of directors.

MUSE is supported by public and private grants, as well as by individual donors, including such famous musicians as B.B. King, Mickey Hart, Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana and Ani DiFranco.

An expert in applied sociomusicology and ethnomusicology, Keil has written five books and taught 17 courses at UB on exploring music's effects on humanity and society. He is working on a documentary of Romani (gypsy) musicians in Northern Greece, titled "The Instruments," to be published next year.

A founding member of Buffalo's famous Afro-Latin dance band "Outer Circle Orchestra," Keil continues to practice what he preaches with the "12/8 Path Band" and "Biocentrics," another Afro-Latin dance band. And although he plans to perform "until death do us part," it is no secret that his true passion is fostering musical expression in young people.

Keil's method, which he calls "paideia con salsa," refers to the Greek concept of restoring consciously formed and pursued cultural ideals using Afro-Latin music-dance as a focal point.

He explains that Afro-Latin music-dance is the central tradition within all the Afro-European syntheses that have dominated 20th-century music and dance. It has strong affinities with styles with which children already are familiar -- rock, jazz, reggae, disco, salsa, soul and funk.

Keil says that in recent years, budgetary exigencies have tended to eliminate music, arts and sports from the schools at the very time when they are most needed.

"How music, arts and sports came to be separated from each other and perceived as 'extras' within Western society and its school systems is a long story...but the ancient Greeks knew that children require culturally validated education in what might be called the three Ms - 'music, motion, morality' -- in order to become whole persons, fully responsible and effective members of society," notes Keil.

"In many Buffalo inner-city schools, at least, there is no playground anywhere in sight, no activity, no gym, no art, no music below the fourth grade to ease the repression or offer a direction," he explains. "We promote activity, participation and joy by sending a team of a drummer and a dancer into a school to start a self-sustaining tradition in which dozens of fourth and fifth graders become excellent dancers and drummers who can mentor pre-K through third graders, teaching them their rhythms and dance moves."

The life-lessons learned are endless and can't be taught from books, according to Keil.

"Activity and participation in a music-dance tradition prepares children for a life well-lived at many deep and mostly unconscious levels -- how to be in time, in tune, in graceful synchrony with other people, how to be an energetic presence and a shining individual in tight relationships with many others simultaneously," he says. "We have to reinvent the traditions before they're completely gone."