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Ghanaian Music Students Come to Berklee

Berklee College of Music is one of the nation's top music schools. Each summer, dozens of young artists from around the United States flock to Boston to attend its five-week summer program. This summer, for the first time, two students came all the way from Accra, Ghana, on full scholarship, to participate. This unique opportunity was made possible with help from a Berklee professor and the foundation run by the widow of reggae star Bob Marley.

The struggles of everyday life were the inspiration for Jamaican singer, guitarist and songwriter Bob Marley. The reggae musician gave voice to the oppressed around the world while spreading a message of hope and unity. Today, 25 years after his death, his music still appeals to a wide audience, and supports sustainable development programs in Jamaica and Africa.

The Music and Life of Bob Marley is the title of a unique performance class at the Berklee College of Music, taught by Matt Jenson, a noted expert on the artist. Jenson says he was invited this spring to participate in Bob Marley's 61st birth celebration, organized by the Rita Marley Foundation.

"Rita Marley, Bob Marley's widow, he died in 1981 -- her organization called me, and asked me if I would be a guest lecturer at a symposium in Ghana, which is where Mrs. Marley lives part of her time, between there and Jamaica," he says. "They asked me to give a talk at a symposium for an event there called Africa Unite, basically speaking about Bob Marley and education."

Jenson says the idea of inviting Ghanaian musicians to study at Berklee grew out of that invitation. While in Accra for the symposium, he auditioned 18 young local musicians and picked 4 to receive scholarships sponsored by Berklee and the Rita Marley Foundation. One of them is 25-year old Victor Dey.

"I hope to better my skills in general as a musician and especially with things like theory and transcription because, in Ghana, there are no schools like this that can teach you jazz or other forms of contemporary music," Victor says.

Dey says Bob Marley's music was one of the factors that influenced him to start playing the piano.

"I used to listen to Bob Marley when I was very little like 4, 5, 6 years old. I like his music very much," he says.

Not only did he listen to Marley's music, he often performed it in the jazz festivals that came to Accra. He says he also played in the city's Jazz clubs where he had a chance to meet visiting American legends, like Stevie Wonder.

"I was asked to get a group together, come and play at a party that he would also be there and play with us," he says. "So that what happened. Initially, he was playing and singing by himself. Then he kind of liked what we were doing. So, he got up to play with me and my band. It was out of this world. It was like it wasn't real."

Dey says at Berklee, he has the opportunity to play with other jazz musicians, and explore different types of music as well. "I've got to listen to some rock music up close and personal because a lot of the kids in the dorm where I'm staying happen to be rock musicians," he says. "I've managed to meet other players that are very gifted. They are already talking about hooking up later on to do an album or something together."

Joanna Denaka is one of the few female trumpet players in Ghana. "I've learned a lot of things here, but the only thing that's left for me is to practice them," she says. The 21-year old says she was inspired to pick up the horn when she saw a female trumpeter and realized that women could play the instrument as well as men. Since she never attended a music school, Denaka is very excited about the learning experience she's having at Berklee. "I came here and met young trumpet players," she says. "I asked them, they explained a couple of things to me. Sometimes they give me lessons on techniques because I always want to learn."

Next summer, the other two scholarship winners - a vocalist and a drummer - will have that opportunity. Matt Jenson says he admires the drive and talent of the young Ghanaian musicians and hopes this program will allow them to get the knowledge and training they need to develop their skills to the highest level.