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Ossining Fourth Graders Play African Music

With over 300 fourth graders playing African thumb pianos, the auditorium at the Claremont School in Ossining felt like an entranced African space on Tuesday rather than an elementary school.

"It's nice and it feels relaxing. When you play, its like you're on a boat," said Journey Evans, nine, who along her classmates made a personal mbira thumb piano out of a piece of wood and metal keys.

Claremont teacher Matt Young, who has been playing African music for 15 years, decided to spearhead a project to bring African music and culture into Claremont because he felt it would be a fun way to get children from different cultures to come together.

"We have a sizable African-American population and some Africans in the school, but we didn't have much going on in representing that culture," Young said. "This was a way of getting children to experience the culture in a participatory way."

Young applied for a grant from Ossining MATTERS, an education support organization, and used the grant funds to hire musician Kevin Nathaniel Hylton to be an artist-in-residence at the Claremont School. The grant also paid for materials for each fourth grader to make a mbira thumb piano, which sounds somewhat like a harp when played.

In the fall, students studied a series symbols from the Shona and Akan people in Africa. Under the direction of art teacher Rise Daniels, they painted patterns on their mbira soundboards that represented spirituality, connectedness to the community, friendship and perseverance.

During music classes with teacher Giocille Shaw, students sanded their mbira's metal keys and tuned their mbira to a diatonic scale.

"This concert was not just a showcase, but a pinnacle of their experience," Young said.

Young performed with Hylton's professional music group, the Heritage Organic Percussion on Tuesday afternoon, eliciting arm waving, clapping and smiles from fourth graders and their parents.

"I like that it's fast and very energetic," said Marho Omusi, nine, as she and her classmates swayed back and forth with their arms across each other's shoulders.

This is the second year that the Claremont School has had an African music project for fourth graders. Young said he hopes to continue the tradition next year.

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