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Always A Friend In The Drums

Liberian Rhythms Help Refugees Adjust

February 26, 2006
By KIM MARTINEAU, Courant Staff Writer

Mardea Danso taps out the rhythm on her West African drum, the djembe, and starts singing in her native dialect, Bassa.

Her siblings and cousins answer in a patter of tones, as if each drum has a voice and each voice has something that must be said. Their cramped living room in Hartford rings with the bright percussions of a Liberian village.

Two years ago, Danso, 17, and her extended family came to Hartford with next to nothing. For more than a decade, their home country of Liberia had been torn by civil war and for years, they lived in a refugee camp in Guinea. Rebels soon forced them to flee again, to the Ivory Coast, where they reached another refugee camp after weeks of trekking through the bush at night, surviving on roots and potato leaves.

They have adapted to American life quickly but recovering from the horrors of war has not been as easy. Thanks to a teacher and fellow refugee who recognized their talent and a professional drummer who taught them technique, the family has found in drumming a way to heal and connect to the culture they left behind.

"Drumming and dancing is a means of survival for them," said Gerard Hector, their drumming instructor.

The djembe drum is made from a single piece of iroko wood, a hard wood from the Ivory Coast that was used to build the slave ship, the Amistad. Goat skin covers the drum's head, producing a deep bass note and a series of tones, depending on how it is struck.

"We love the drum because it helps us ease down the stress," said Danso, balancing the drum between her knees. "You start to play and you get the rhythm going you don't want to stop playing."

The family shares an apartment in a tattered part of the city's South End. Their front yard is carpeted with litter, and a stray cat paces by an old washing machine and recliner chair that have been pitched to the curb. But inside their neatly furnished apartment, the walls are hung with art and a woman with great warmth and presence, Cora Tennie, presides over the clan.

She is better known as "Ma Cora," a title of respect in Liberian culture. She cooks and cares for eight kids: her daughter Patience Tennie and seven grandchildren. Another daughter, Alice Danso, works as a live-in health aide in New Britain.

They survive on Danso's paycheck, a $700-a-month state check and food stamps. Ma Cora has looked for work but so far has only found a part-time job cleaning for Catholic Charities.

Each day, the kids are tutored after school by Doina Lechanu, a former English teacher and refugee from Romania who works for Catholic Charities.

As Lechanu got to know her students, she noticed that they drummed their knuckles and palms on the table during snack time and that they focused better on lessons if music was playing.

She thought she recognized talent, and one day, while scrolling the Internet, found Hector, a drummer living in Simsbury who was originally from Trinidad. For the past year, Hector has given the kids lessons once a week.

"They have very raw talent that needed some smoothing out and direction," he said.

On Saturday night, their work culminated in a performance at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford. Led by Ma Cora, the children sang, drummed and danced, wearing colorful costumes that Lechanu, known as "Auntie Doina," had sewn.

The group calls itself "Mokonje," which means "because of you." Ma Cora gave the name to her granddaughter, after the girl's mother died giving birth. Lechanu heard the story, liked the Liberian sound of the word and recommended it as a stage name.

It took some convincing, but 11-year old Mokonje, who now goes by her American name, Alice, agreed.

"It means so many things," said Lechanu. "Because of you, Auntie Doina, we are happy. Because of you, God, we survived. Because of you, Ma Cora, we went through war."

The children seem to have taken to American culture quickly. On a recent night, a Mountain Dew commercial came over the air, playing Lionel Richie's "All Night Long." Mardea flew out of the kitchen, joining the others in singing the lyrics. They can also imitate the Ethiopian boy sent to the boys on South Park whom they name "Starvin' Marvin."

War separated the family and now Mardea prays for reunion. Her father, Foster, who worked as a ship engineer in Liberia, and Ma Cora's three sons have all been approved to come to Hartford but it could take months before they arrive. Mardea prays for the people in Hartford who "shoot each other for no good reason," and she prays for all the countries in Africa going through war.

The family used to pray at a small Liberian church in Manchester but several months ago the pastor returned to Liberia, to attempt to rebuild.

Last fall the country elected its first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard graduate, who recently pledged to investigate Liberia's past war crimes.

Hartford has about a hundred Liberian families but Rhode Island is home to more than 10,000 Liberian refugees, the largest population in America.

Ma Cora and the children have dreams. When her nephew Cyrus, 12, came to Hartford, he didn't know how to read or write. He can now discuss anatomy and planets and wants to be a lawyer. Her daughter Patience wants to teach, and her granddaughter Mardea wants to be a doctor and a gospel singer: "A doctor to save the body, a gospel singer to save the soul," Mardea explained.

Their teacher, Lechanu, has told them not to feel pressured to become professional drummers.

"But when you come from work, when you're tired and stressed, you take your friend the drum and if you are angry, beat it up, and if you are happy, play it nicely," she said. "You will always have a friend in the drum which will never tell your secrets."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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