Traditional Arts in a Virtual Era

Guinean African master drummer, Alseny Yansane, in traditional clothes, stands smiling over his djembe at the front of a stage. One hand reaches to the drum lying on its side beneath him, the other is outstretched to the crowd.

Alseny Yansane performs

In a previous article, I shared the ways Persian santoor player, Hossein Salehi, has transitioned his individual lessons from in-person classes, to a virtual platform using Zoom and Skype. In this second piece in the series we explore some of the challenges of translating a master teacher’s lessons, from the nuances of communication – to some of the less tangible – but no less essential experiences of awe and wonder. I thank West African Cultural Arts Institute‘s Andrea DiPalma Yansane for sharing her observations of the ways her husband and artistic partner, master drummer/dancer Alseny Yansane, has shifted his students from in-person to Zoom lessons:

One factor that has made the transition from in-person classes to a online version a little smoother is that everyone who registered is either a returning student who has experienced our classes vis-à-vis before or people we know from the community, so students can approximate or draw from our previous face-to-face contact as they study online. This is something that brand new students just simply cannot do which makes engaging new students a little challenging because of the limited version that this virtual experience brings.

There are many ambient factors that occur in the in-person format that are very difficult, if not impossible to replicate in the online version. Take energy and spirit, for example. There is something powerful and palatable about being in the presence of traditional, source artists when they are teaching and working that doesn’t always come through when one is looking at a screen, experiencing delays due to poor internet connection, and sub-par sound due to the limitations of audio options on laptops and other devices. An online platform can also make it much harder for non-native English speaking artists to be as clearly understood as when being instructed in the flesh.

Another factor that has helped make the transition to a digital platform smoother is having organizational support. Being able to learn a new digital platform, create publicity and marketing that highlights benefits of this platform, and teach, train, and do test runs with students of all different ages who have never used these platforms before really takes a lot of organizational capacity, technical savoir-faire, English language skills, and time.

It is now more important than ever that traditional, source artists receive the support they need to not only feed their families here in the US and in their home countries, but to help them keep their art forms alive on virtual platforms so that they can continue to uplift and be uplifted.

Thank you to WACAI’s Andrea DiPalma Yansane, for her practical advice and thoughtful perspective on matters that impact traditional master artists during the pandemic. While it is hard for all of us to continue operating “business as usual” these days, Andrea reminds us that, for many artists and the extended families they support, it is vitally important that we do. I can personally attest to the joy and therapeutic benefits of West African drumming and dancing, which WACAI makes available now more than ever, from the ease of your own home. Visit their website or Facebook page for more information about attending WACAI’s classes and catching an energizing, infectious beat while you #StayHomeandSaveLives.

Do you have a personal story about giving or receiving traditional knowledge over virtual platforms, or have you any professional insights to the issues facing master artists during the pandemic? Please comment here so OFN can follow-up with ways to share them and help us all thrive in these unusual times.