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Exploring Heritage and Tradition Through Music in Ghana

Samuel Kuffuor-Afriyie discovered a musical language that spoke to him when he received a grant to compose new organ pieces honoring his family’s native country.

Portrait of Samuel Kuffuor Afriyie sitting on Hendrick's Chapel Stage

Samuel Kuffuor-Afriyie earned a bachelor’s degree in organ performance through the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

When Samuel Kuffuor-Afriyie ’20 was a child in New York City, he started playing the alto saxophone. By the time he was in third grade, he had joined the school band and expanded his musical repertoire to include piano. As his proficiency grew, he became captivated by the huge, rich sounds of the organ that filled the church during the services his family attended regularly. It would be years before his dream of playing the organ was fulfilled, but that vision was finally realized when he sat before the magnificent 3,823-pipe Holtkamp organ in Syracuse University’s historic Setnor Auditorium .

Kuffuor-Afriyie is the youngest of five children born and raised in Brooklyn by parents who are natives of Ghana. “My family speaks the Akan language, which has many dialects,” he explains. “Our dialect is called Twi. We were raised to speak English in school and outside the house, but at home we only spoke Twi.” Ghanaian customs and culture were revered in his home, so as he grew older he felt a strong connection to the stories and folklore his parents had shared throughout his childhood.

When it was time to choose a college destination, he left his options wide open. “During our senior year, my high school took us on a trip to visit colleges and universities in the Central New York area. Syracuse University was the last school we visited, and I was instantly blown away by the beautiful architecture of the buildings on campus,” Kuffuor-Afriyie remembers. His interest in music drew him to the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ Setnor School of Music , located in Crouse College . Built in 1889, it is the third oldest building on campus and is on the National Register of Historic Places. That’s where he was introduced to Anne Laver, assistant professor of organ performance and University organist. “She received me very warmly, and I knew then that this was the place for me.”

Kuffuor-Afriyie became one of just two organ majors in the School of Music, and Laver became his advisor and creative muse. During his junior year, he performed a solo recital in Setnor Auditorium, and then was the featured organist at the 2019 Holidays at Hendricks concert in Hendricks Chapel. “I was able to share my music with a packed house of concert attendees,” he says. “It is my fondest memory of Syracuse University.”

I was able to share my music with a packed house of concert attendees. It is my fondest memory of Syracuse University.

The SOURCE of Opportunity

Senior year brought Kuffuor-Afriyie an opportunity that most undergraduates can only dream about. In 2018, the University announced the commitment of $1 million annually to support a new center for undergraduate research. The Syracuse University Office for Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE) awards grants to undergraduates who engage in faculty-guided research and creative inquiry. Students across all disciplines are eligible for academic year or summer grants up to $5,000 to complete projects that they design and implement, guided by faculty advisors and a staff of SOURCE peer mentors.

“My project idea for the SOURCE grant came from a mixture of things,” he says. “I had visited Ghana the previous summer and I was eager to learn more about Ghanaian music. A conversation with Anne Laver inspired the idea of composing and arranging organ music from Ghanaian idioms. I received a $5,000 grant to embark on my project, which I called ‘Ghanaian Traditional Music: Broadening the Classical Organ Repertoire.’ The SOURCE grant enabled me to spend most of the summer of 2019 in Ghana to begin the project.”

Kuffuor-Afriyie’s project involved blending different traditional Ghanaian musical styles. “I was already familiar with some folk tunes and liturgical music from Ghana because of my upbringing in a Ghanaian Methodist Church in Brooklyn,” he says. “One was a storytelling tradition in the Methodist Church called ‘Ebibindwom’, or Akan lyric, whereby a leader or narrator improvises music to tell a biblical story. That is followed by a chorus of praise from the congregation to acknowledge their reception of the message.”

Exploration and Discovery

Because he was new to composition and improvisation, Kuffuor-Afriyie was exploring unfamiliar creative territory as he composed three organ pieces: “Ebenezer” is based on the Ebibindwom storytelling tradition; “Tatale” is a children’s tune about a Ghanaian dessert; and “Sansa Akroma” is the story of an aimless hawk. “I had never taken the time to write any of my ideas out prior to this, so this project pushed me to explore my own musical language,” he explains. “It has made me realize that composing is something I love to do, and it has definitely helped me gain confidence.”

Portrait of Samuel Kuffuor Afriyie playing the piano during the Holidays at Hendricks Concert.

Samuel Kuffuor-Afriyie plays the organ at the 2019 Holidays at Hendricks.

Anne Laver, who had introduced him to the organ and encouraged him to try his hand at composing, served as his faculty mentor for the project. “One of the wonderful things about Samuel's SOURCE project was that it dovetailed with another engagement project he hosted with the help of Hendricks Chapel, the Accra Organ and Choral Music Institute,” she says. “He organized an extremely successful week of workshops and performances in Ghana and helped build strong connections between Syracuse and the choral and organ community in West Africa. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to travel to Ghana with Samuel and my other colleagues on that trip. Not only did I get to meet wonderful people and experience a rich culture, I got to see Samuel in his element.”

Laver says that her experience in Ghana has helped her become a better mentor to the students from Ghana who have followed Samuel to study at Syracuse. “Samuel is talented and kind and is an entrepreneur at heart,” she says. “I am so proud of him and I can't wait to see what he does next!”

Tools, Mentors and Support

From start to finish, Kuffuor-Afriyie says the SOURCE provided the tools and support he needed to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime learning experience. Student research mentors offer workshops to help students navigate the application process, which includes writing a grant proposal. The mentors also provide feedback as the projects progress. “The SOURCE office was great in helping me to stay on track with my project,” Kuffuor-Afriyie says. “We had to submit monthly project reports, so I was in constant communication with them.”

Most of Kuffuor-Afriyie’s extracurricular activities at Syracuse were music related. He served as the organist for the Catholic campus ministry at Hendricks Chapel and for Grace Episcopal Church. He was the fiscal agent for Syracuse University’s chapter of the Music Teachers National Association and was a member of the African Student Union. “I have grown so much here in all aspects of my life, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for any other,” he says.

I have grown so much [at Syracuse] in all aspects of my life, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for any other.

As Kuffuor-Afriyie looks back on his time at Syracuse, he acknowledges the many things that set Syracuse apart from other schools. The range of opportunities available to students is what he values most. “I had so much individual time with faculty in the music department, which is unusual,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of organ majors out there, and I hope that projects such as mine motivate others to learn this unique instrument. In fact, I would love to mentor future students. Gratitude is what I’ve taken from Syracuse University, and to me, being Orange is all about being grateful for what comes your way.”

Mary Beth Horsington

This story was published on .

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