Gathering of Percussive Talent!


Every once in a while I like to program a concert that brings together several artistic elements and people that I love working with! Last Saturday’s Patterns in Time concert was one such project. This collaborative community event involved the Carleton University West African Rhythm Ensemble, the  Baobab Youth Performers, both groups I direct,  and the Wilfrid Laurier University Percussion ensemble from the Kitchener-Waterloo Region, under the direction of Brennan Connolly. I met Brennan and the percussion group when I have done freelance work at Laurier over the last few years.

The performance featured traditional drum and dance music from Ghana, as well as percussion compositions by Steve Reich, and Bob Becker of Nexus. The participatory nature of the repertoire lends itself well to a community collaboration such as this, creating a relaxed environment to make music in. Also, we can take advantage of funding and infrastructure from a variety of sources, allowing groups to combine resources.

This coming together made it possible to bring our visiting guest artist for this concert,  the exceptionally talented drummer and dancer Nani Agbeli , who has been described as a “world class treasure”. Nani was born into a family of prominent dancers and drummers in the Volta Region of Ghana, and is currently the Director of Ghanaian Music and Arts at the California Institute of the Arts.

It was so fantastic to create a show that highlighted everyone’s best talents, and a couple of opportunities to have massed pieces of Gahu and Atsiagbekor that featured about 55 performers. Thanks to Galen Kiva and David Farley, who  took these wonderful photos. Until next time!

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A Learning Experience…

Last year I had the opportunity for a multiple-visit arts residency in a school in Toronto’s west end. This school values academics, arts, sports and citizenship EQUALLY and it shows in everything they do. It was a very rewarding experience for me, one that involved giving workshops in drumming and dance, helping them choreograph the opening for their Lion King production, performances for the school with both my mentor Kwasi Dunyo and my Ottawa based kids in Baobab Youth, and consulting on an Adinkra art project with the visual art department. A wonderful immersion experience for all of us, with a ripple effect that carried on on many directions, as arts projects should! A year later, the kids at that school were asked to write about any experience they have had at the school that left an impression on them. One of them wrote this beautiful account of being involved in the Ghanaian arts. Thanks to music teacher, Shanda Lee for sending this on to me! So special to get this feedback. I love when the student says:

“I feel like I can somehow hear the drum like words.” 

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Pulse! Rhythm and Wellness

Very excited to announce Pulse!, my new initiative connecting my drumming and community arts work with the research and MA in Music and Culture I recently completed at Carleton University.  My coursework and thesis, entitled “drumming up Health”examined the links between drumming and positive mental, social and physical health.  This new section of my business will offer a range of experiential workshops, facilitated talks and other offerings to support individual and collective wellness in educational and healthcare settings, workplaces, community hubs, and wherever people gather!  More details to be announced soon …for now, I am looking forward to the launch event, Thursday November 30, in Ottawa, in partnership with the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and Baobab Community. Details on the poster below! As one of my research participants said:

“The way that the music is organized, where each person learns to play and perform each part of a piece, so that each member is on equal footing as every other member, it creates such a strong community that can really rely on each other”  -JW

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Festival of Friends


The inaugural Festival of Friends was held this past July, in the village of Dagbamete, Ghana. Conceived and put together by Kwasi Dunyo and myself, it was an opportunity to celebrate more than 25 years of collaborating together on artistic and personal projects.

A little background…Kwasi and I originally met each other in 1990, on my first trip to Ghana. The late Godwin Agbeli arranged for us to work together. As a young female percussionist, I was in search of new experiences, adventure, and an opportunity to continue to develop my drumming skills. What I did not realize is that by going to Ghana, I would also meet a new mentor, my second family, develop lifelong friendships and begin a journey of self-discovery that has led to a wonderfully rich and meaningful career and life. Once we met each other, we began a wonderful program of daily drumming, dancing and singing for four months. Kwasi was a stern and thorough teacher, and worked me very hard, challenging me to achieve a very high standard.  The lessons did not stop there, but included many cultural customs, including traditional dressing, learning to properly eat traditional foods and make simple conversation in Ewe. It was a great and comprehensive gift he gave me, one that has lasted many, many years. I was and am, very, very appreciative of his hard efforts.

When I returned to Toronto, I wanted to find a way for others to get to know this wonderful musical teacher, as I knew his great talent must be shared!  Working together with Rory Magill, I spent two years trying to find the means and opportunity to bring him to Canada. Finally, in July 1992, Kwasi was the recipient of the Canadian Government’s Visiting Foreign Artist Program. We also received help from Sound Symposium music festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and we took Kwasi there with our Toronto group Flaming Dono to perform a very successful tour.

The years since then have passed by in a blur….Kwasi returned year after year to Canada, eventually getting his landed immigrant status and then his citizenship. He now teaches at the University of Toronto and York University, as well as freelance performing and teaching all over the world! I returned to Ghana many times as well, eventually bringing my Baobab students here in 2001 to open the Kathy Armstrong Lodge, a great honour! Over the years, our artistic connection has fostered many development projects in the village, always in partnership with the people here. Hydro poles, water pipes, latrines, irrigation systems, school and library support and most recently on this trip a significant effort to bring permanent wifi to the village. This is no one way relationship though. The key to the success and sustainability of our work is the reciprocity of the benefits. Visitors to Dagbamete always receive a warm welcome, are granted full access to cultural traditions, including the magnificent Apetorku Shrine, and can roam freely, making friends and gaining important knowledge about drumming, dancing and the wonderful way in which the people of the village work together and support each other. Dagbamete and its people are an inspiration to all who come here.

This 27 year relationship between myself and Kwasi and our respective families and students has seen many joyous occasions, and also many sad ones. We remember those who helped in our journey, who are no longer with us. All of these life experiences we have shared have made us stronger and given more meaning to our work. The ripples of our connection are far and wide and that is why we wanted to celebrate!

Festival of Friends took place July 21-22, 2017. Travelling from outside Ghana, were my Ottawa based group Baobab Youth Performers, along with several parents, our tour manager Hayley de Bie, and a second group of adults who have ties to the work that Kwasi and I have done. These guests came from Canada, USA and England, and even included two members of Baobab from the original 2001 trip! In addition, several local chiefs and dignitaries were in attendance. Master of Ceremonies was Sammy Davor.

departure dayIMG_9264

On July 21 we kicked off the Festival with a wonderful community Bobobo performance with some really amazing dancing by young girls, twirling their white scarves with such energy! The local Adzogbo group also gave a performance which featured an impromptu appearance by our friend Jambolah, dancing up a storm.


Bobobo groupBobobo dancers

July 22 saw final preparations being made in the village, more tents, chairs, and program arrangements. Finally around 1pm, we got started with procession of the elders, visiting guests and the traditionally dressed young girls featuring gourds and dresses of cowrie shells. Festival womenFestival girl


More wonderful performances occurred, from the Gadzo group (an early version of Atsiagbekor) featuring running dancers with daggers and very fast drumming. The Adzogbo group from the previous night was back, this time with costumes and human pyramids, and the amazing fire dance. Baobab Youth performed two of our pieces, Danse Guerriere and Fume Fume, as well as a display of Kinka, which we had been learning all week, along with our parent chaperones.Adzogbo groupAdzogbo baby

IMG_9149Baobab Kinka

The Atsiagbekor group from the village of Dzogadze, lived up to their reputation for awe-inspiring drumming and dance moves, featuring two musicians that had worked with Baobab Youth over the previous week, Sammy and Kofi. They were simply amazing!

Atsiagbekor drummersAtsiagbekor female dancers


Atsiagbekor dancers maleSeveral speeches were given, starting with Sammy Davor sending greetings from Dagbamate’s chief, also from Kwasi, myself, and Kwasi’s granddaughter, Fosua, who read a very inspiring speech written by Mama Adzorhlor III, about the importance of traditional culture, following your dreams and the power of women to make a difference.

Myself and Baobab presented Kwasi with three gifts, representing the past, the present and the future. I had a photo collage made of some of our history, and framed it. The youth, led by Galen and Sophie presented Kwasi with a special blue wooden stool to represent all the people who currently come to him looking for advice and assistance with problems….there are literally lineups outside his room every day. Finally, our parent group led by Board member Ann Maloney presented Kwasi with a projector, an indicator of the exciting projects to come to the W.A.C.E in the future.


Past giftPresent gift

Future gift

I was not prepared for what came next. I was informed that the community was going to make me a member of the Council of Elders, to advise on cultural and development issues.  Wow! This ceremony consisted of me being wrapped in traditional kente cloth and jewellery, and then given a traditional stool upon which I sat, signifying acceptance into the council. What an honour! It was a very special moment in my life, one which I will cherish. We had to hurry this last part of the Festival since a light rain started. I was told by many that rain at the end of an event is considered a blessing and means the event has been a success. I totally agree….what an afternoon! The rest of the night was a party for the Baobab group, while I sat in Kwasi’s room greeting several visiting chiefs. Luckily I was sitting in between my friend Hayley who kept me grounded, and a visiting Queen Mother who translated the proceedings and advised me on my etiquette. We slipped away to join the Baobab crew a little later for some more informal celebrations!


dressing QMKwasi & Kathy QM

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Field Trip! Gong Meditation


I created a new fourth year special topics course that I am teaching this term at Carleton University,  called Sound Body Sound Mind: Music and Wellbeing in a Global Context.  It has been a lot of work to put together,  but so rewarding. Based on a lot of the reading, research and writing I did in my recent MA, we are looking at all kinds of topics, linking a variety of disciplines and cultural traditions that have a history of using music as a means to health and wellness. This week our focus was on vibrational healing, looking at studies that show how different forms of sound vibrations can have a positive impact on focus, memory and cognition (particularly beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients). The tradition of gong meditation in Kundalini Yoga is a very old practice but one that is alive and well and practiced regularly here in Ottawa at Prana Shanti Yoga Centre. I have experienced it many times myself and thought it would be a great experiential field trip for the students. So yesterday we all went to Prana Shanti to participate in an introductory class, led by Victoria Lynes. The studio is an absolutely beautiful, calm and welcoming setting; a nice reprieve for the students as we approach mid term. Victoria’s teaching style is very warm and approachable.  After giving us a short background on Kundalini Yoga, she led us in some warm-ups, the Kirtan Kriya, audible and silent chanting (making use of the 84 meridian points on the roof of the mouth), and meditation, including a relaxing gong meditation, letting the complex vibrations of the gong wash over us. We had a short discussion over tea afterwards, on the effects of the vibrations, and the class in general. The students in this course are engaged, thoughtful and open to exploring new ways of looking at music and health. It’s really a pleasure to teach!


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Power Drummers!

Leaside Lightning

This week I had the pleasure of drumming with a group of young women in Toronto whose focus and power were amazing! They look very comfortable and at home with the drums, and definitely enjoyed themselves, but you might be surprised to learn they are actually an awesome volleyball team! This is the Leaside Lightning 16U Red team, coached by my brother Bob Armstrong and Adam Billedeau. We arranged a session of team-building drumming, to work on learning new skills outside of the sports realm. Drumming requires many of the same skills as volleyball: focus, non-verbal communication, active listening and awareness, multiple parts contributing to a whole and layers of information all happening at the same time.

Bob and I had discussed the connections between my work and his and have wanted to put together a session like this for a while. In his words, “Adam and I are always looking for new and exciting opportunities to allow the team to become stronger and more cohesive. We search for team bonding events which incorporate unique experiences. When the opportunity to work with Kathy came up, we thought it was a perfect fit. Where on court rhythm is crucial to the team’s success, the rhythm of drumming together seemed like a fantastic way to bring the team even closer. As a high performance team striving to be one of the top teams in the country, any opportunity to improve is important. After the session was completed, we could see  that the girls had enjoyed a great experience all around. A big Thanks to Kathy for her leadership and instruction!! ”

I have worked with many groups of people from all walks of life over my career but I have to say I was surprised at the sheer force and strength these young women played the drums and accompanying percussion instruments with. In fact, we started the session with a simple cross-body hand clapping game from Ghana and their claps were so forceful…I am glad I do not have to face a hit from them on the court! We did some hand drumming from Ghana; a piece called Kpanlogo, which also included layers of syncopated bell and shaker patterns. Settling into a relaxed groove was tricky at first but got better as they added more parts and opened up their ears to the other parts around them. They also jumped into singing with great energy and enthusiasm…perhaps one of the Kpanlogo songs will find its way into their cheers.

Here they are in their natural habitat, winning medals and being awesome teens with their terrific coaches.  Find out more about them and all the volleyball programs at Leaside here!

U16 Red


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Patterns and Repetition


This past week I had a blast working in Toronto with Nexus, Suba Sankaran and Christine Duncan as part of the Jackman Humanities Symposium entitled: Reich, Rhythm and Repetition: Patterns in Music, Speech and Science. The whole program can be found here. Russell and I worked together on a presentation about Reich’s Drumming music and the connection to West African drumming rhythms. Nexus performed the bongo section of Drumming which is always spellbinding, and I spoke about Atsiagbekor, and the 12 beat gankogui cycle, demonstrating a bit of it with Nexus and Ray Dillard with, and for the audience. I really enjoyed the funny and enlightening presentations on sound and science by Garry Kvistad and Stephen Morris. A  highlight was getting to sing in between Suba and Christine on Russell’s new piece “The Birth of Time”. I am so fortunate to have studied with members of Nexus at UofT in my undergrad, way back, and I am so grateful for continuing friendships and creative projects such as this one! Thanks to Peggy Feltmate and Rory for photos!


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Korean & Ghanaian Percussion Mash-up


Last night, the ensemble I direct at Carleton University (WARE) performed with the amazing Korean percussionist, vocalist,  and all-round nice & funny guy, Dong-Won Kim. This fall he has been the artist-in-residence in Carleton’s Music Department thanks to the substantial efforts of faculty member Jesse Stewart. All the students have benefited from his expansive yet down to earth approach to making music. For this performance featuring the Fusion Ensemble directed by Wayne Eagles, and the West African Rhythm Ensemble, we found ways to integrate the styles of music with this master player and improvisor. We performed two pieces with him, first a cool improv on the 12 beat patterns found in Atsiagbekor. Using additive and subtractive conducting we found some really great grooves to hang out with together. Then we invited him to improvise on two movements of  the Dagbamba piece Takai, which we specially learned for this performance. Thanks to guest drummers Rory Magill, Jona Thomas and Kira Montfort who played luna and gungon with me in support of the spinning dancers.  Here is that piece. Thanks to Vanessa Corriveau for the video which I will upload as soon as I can make it smaller!

WARE 2016


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Ghana Festival 2017!

photo: Ian Holland

REALLY excited to be planning this amazing Festival for July 2017 with my longtime teacher and friend Kwasi Dunyo. Please see the link below for info and contact me if you are interested or want more information!



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Done :)


Was very happy to defend my thesis Drumming Up Health: A Case Study of Carleton University’s West African Rhythm Ensemble yesterday. My examiners had some great questions that sparked some thoughtful conversations. A special treat was being able to have Rory & Iris in the room, along with some of my colleagues and other grad students. After a little over 90 minutes we left the room for the deliberation. When we were called back in I was thrilled to hear I passed with high distinction and the committee is  recommending the thesis for a Senate Medal. Woohoo! Its been such a great experience to be back in school again, and find ways to articulate the powerful health benefits of drumming and dancing. I learned so much and am really excited to apply it to my future work.  I have to especially thank my colleague and supervisor Prof. Anna Hoefnagels who encouraged me to start this project and helped every step along the way. What a great mentor and friend she has been! Definitely spent some time celebrating later with good friends. Thanks to everyone for supporting me through this process. Now back to those few (!) things I put on the back burner about two years ago……








Addendum: Senate Medal Awarded! See here for details.



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