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Common Ground on the Hill opens 25th year of 'conversation through the traditional arts'

Erika Safford danced across the floor of Baker Memorial Chapel at McDaniel College on Monday morning, her feet hitting the floor in time with the sound of African drums echoing through the pews.

The instruments — a djembe, a dununba, a songba and a kinkinee — were played on and off during the class as the instructor, Jumoke Ajanku, with his upper body loose and knees bent, walked his pupils through two African dances, the Sunu and Fanga (sometimes spelled “Funga”).

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The class is one of the hundreds taught through Common Ground on the Hill’s Traditions Week, three separate weeks of classes, concerts, dances and more held at McDaniel College. Its mission is to “bring really diverse people together into community and into conversation through the traditional arts,” said Maria Wong, the director of promotions.

Ajanku started instructing with Common Ground in 1995, teaching African dance, drums and culture. Though he lives in New York, the energy of the event — new people and classes, his students coming in with smiles, ready to learn — keep him coming back.

He also enjoys the opportunity to take African instruments and use them alongside people making music with different origins, like the bluegrass players.

“The truth of the matter is, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of it, music moves the energy in a space,” Ajanku said. “If you’re coming with good energy and good feelings and bringing good energy, then that’s what’s going to happen. It doesn’t matter what instrument you play or what your background in the music is — if you’re open, good things can happen.”

He’s far from the only one who has a long history with Common Ground — Safford’s been attending the classes since she was a child, coming on and off for the 25 years the program has been around. The music teacher, who works at Lyons Mill Elementary School in Baltimore County, who also took the African dance class last year, has taught her students Fanga.

As far as Common Ground’s mission goes, she felt it was an important message because people are “never going to be in a vacuum.”

“It’s really opened my eyes to see things beyond what I understand,” Safford said, mentioning a course she took on ostracism a few years ago. “I think that arts and music and dance are some of the easiest ways to create community, because you’re doing something — you’re breathing together, you’re becoming one together — and that really helps enhance community.”

Common Ground also offers classes with a lecture component, such as “Hidden Voices,” a course on the influence that people of various sex and gender identities have had on traditional music.

Its instructor, Ryan Koons, began the first day by working with his class to fill a whiteboard with terminology — everything from baseline definitions of gender and sex to descriptions of several identities — and fielding questions from his students.

They finished the class by practicing “queer listening” — what Koons described as “the joyful act of listening against the grain” — using a song called “Queer Blues” sung by Gaye Adegbalola. Students listened for aspects that deviated from their expectations in the lyrics and rhythm.

Faith Frampton, a teacher at East Middle School and county equity liaison who attended the class, said her interest in the class stemmed from a desire to learn more about understanding a culture she is not a part of, but that she interacts with regularly.

“It’s really important for us to be able to talk to people that aren’t like us, and to be able to do so respectfully,” she said. “And I think it’s also important not just to tolerate what is different, but to accept, and also to redefine, or to break down, what different means.”

For Koons, an ethnomusicologist who grew up attending Common Ground, the annual program is a “rare gem,” focusing on “engaging people in dialogues across boundaries.”

“It’s astounding to me how poorly we humans communicate with one another, and how often we make assumptions,” Koons said. “To be able to come here to a program that explicitly focuses on establishing contact with folks who think differently than you, in different social groups from you, with different backgrounds than you, and to actually communicate through your art forms about your art forms … that is so revolutionary.”

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As is customary, the Common Ground on the Hill Roots Music and Arts Festival will take place after the classes have concluded, on July 13, featuring performers from Traditions Weeks.

For class schedules and other information, visit www.commongroundonthehill.org.

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