Drumming up love of African music, culture

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HANDS ON INSTRUCTION - Ronald Williams, Christian Lopez, Todd Caschetta and Joe Grant play drums for instructor Akayaa Atule's dance class. PHOTO BY David Hodges

HANDS ON INSTRUCTION – Ronald Williams, Christian Lopez, Todd Caschetta and Joe Grant play drums for instructor Akayaa Atule’s dance class. PHOTO BY David Hodges

Todd Caschetta is Southwestern College’s Clark Kent of music. During class he is a straight-laced professor who could pass as a Bible salesman. Afterwards, though, he can be found banging away on African drums, dashiki-clad, in front of the Caesar Chavez building or jamming at various venues around San Diego with his cover band, Rio Peligroso.

Dance instructor Akayaa Atule and her group have partnered creatively with Caschetta for 10 years on some wild, infectious performances. She said she is always amused to see his quiet side.

“When I run into him in the halls and he’s buttoned up and all Mr. Professor, I just laugh,” she said. “He always says ‘Why are you laughing?’ It’s because I’m always thinking of his other side, he’s a whole different person. That’s what makes him who he is and that’s why I have so much respect for him. It’s wonderful.”

On his way through a conventional Western music education studying Beethoven’s fourth movement in “Symphony No. 9” and the subtext of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” he came across a sound that redirected the trajectory of his life.

“I was at Ithaca College and I heard the (Arab) gamalat (drum) and I thought ‘Oh I like that,’” he said. “I had been studying classical music for years. I wasn’t really exposed to world music, so when I heard the gamalat a light bulb went off. It opened my eyes to the rest of the world outside of the typical music education.”

Caschetta said around this time he also became interested in ethnomusicology, the study of music from an anthropological perspective. Instead of simply analyzing the rhythms and sounds of music, the field aims to understand how and why music fits into the everyday life of the culture that produces it. His interest in ethnomusicology led him to seek a grant that landed him in Ghana for a year to live among the natives and study their drumming rituals.

“It was a bit of a culture shock,” he said. “Their dinner is served in one large communal bowl with everything in it and people eat out of it with their hands–I am not a squeamish person by any stretch of the imagination–but those types of customs were a little surprising.”

Caschetta said he decided to dive in.

“Because I was a guest they gave me my own small bowl,” he said. “I felt uncomfortable with that. I appreciate and understand that I was being treated as a guest, but I wanted to be like everybody else. That’s when you realize traveling how generous people are. These people were impoverished, particularly in West Africa.”

Atule, who was born and raised in Bulga, Ethiopia, said his commitment to his field is admirable.

“When I first met him, I was like ‘Wow, this guy went to Africa,” she said. “Even me, I was born and raised in a village where there is no running water. You would go hide in the bushes and do your thing. Now living here, whenever I go back there is still an adjustment period, so I have respect for anybody that is interested enough to live it for themselves.”

Caschetta traveled around Africa and shadowed the preeminent drumming group in the area as they played at ceremonies for locals. He said drumming is very much embedded into their way of life. Celebrations are punctuated by drummers who lead the festivities. Caschetta said he shadowed the leader of the group, Fakbari, whose crew had been together for a long time.

“If you’re in Ghana and you wanted your party to be happening with traditional drumming, you better call Fakbari,” he said.

Here at SWC many of his students said they were aware of his journey becoming acquainted with the subject he teaches and appreciate it, especially the members of Hip-Hop Nation, the club he advises.

Hip-Hop Nation President Joe Grant said Caschetta truly appreciates the roots of hip-hop.

“Africanism is in all of us, and it’s great to know that Todd Caschetta, a white dude from Baltimore, is in tune with that,” he said. “It’s nice to know there’s someone like that here at school.”

Though Caschetta has become a great music educator, it did not stop him from becoming a proficient musician. He is an accomplished drummer and a fixture at many performances on campus that require drumming.

Grant said watching him drum is truly impressive.

“He can just look at the sheet music think about it in his head for 10 seconds and clap out the entire rhythm,” he said. “It’s crazy because that is so hard. He also has great dynamics. He can play loud or soft, he’s a very impressive artist. I feel honored to drum with him when I get the chance.”

Grant did have one complaint, though.

“It’s too hard to get into his classes now,” he said. “I would have taken the class he’s teaching now, but it was filled up by the time I wanted to register and I have priority registration.”

After all his music inspired pilgrimages, Caschetta said he was happy to have found a home at SWC.

“I love the students here, my classes are always full,” he said. “I’m not tooting my own horn, but I think the students respond to the types of classes I teach and the way I teach them. It’s just a great place to come to work and I think the students have a lot to do with it.”

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