Music, Culture and Weather Converge at Spartan Stadium

Persistent MSU Spartan Marching Band steps up and stands out in Africa halftime show.

While extreme weather chilled the original plans for the Spartan Marching Band’s Celebration of Africa, the show went on two weeks later with a spectacular halftime performance at the MSU vs. Maryland game on Nov. 18.

With African music, dancing and colorful visuals, the show celebrated Michigan State University’s decades-long engagement with Africa. The halftime extravaganza was designed to preview MSU’s Year of Global Africa that launches in January 2018. 

VIDEO: Spartan Marching Band, Global Africa Halftime Show, MSU vs. Maryland

Ben Ayettey works with students from the Spartan Marching Band. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz
Members of the Spartan Marching Band painted symbols that were used during the halftime show. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz.
Ben Ayettey, artistic director of the Ghana Dance Ensemble and a fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana. Photo by Derrick Turner.
The MSU Drumline West African music on indigenous instruments. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz
The color guard deployed a large draping flag during the performance. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz
A member of the Marching Band displays one of the 16 symbols displayed during the halftime show. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz.
The Color Guard displayed color flags throughout the performance. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz.
Under the direction of Jon Webber, the MSU Drumline performed specially arranged music for West African drumming on indigenous instruments. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz
A variety of colorful and festive umbrellas were on display during the halftime show. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz.

Director of the Spartan Marching Band David Thornton says that his entire band staff and band members were extremely excited to be part of the university-wide initiative.

“Working with our African musical partners was terrific, and opened up a variety of different and innovative experiences for our ensemble,” says Thornton who is also associate director of bands in the College of Music. “I’m so proud of the way our students carried themselves that day and every day. The possibility of doing a show that was outside of what we usually do was very exciting.”

SMB Mellophone Section and Squad Leader Hannah Trezise says she was extremely proud to be part of a group that could introduce Spartan fans and audiences to a different culture and music. She says the experience was exceptional in so many ways, particularly since it was her last halftime performance as a senior.

“Combining my love for the Spartan Marching Band and music with my commitment to learning about and understanding other peoples’ culture was something I was really looking forward to,” says Trezise who will graduate with her bachelor’s in comparative cultures and politics in Spring 2018. “The experience also challenged me as a musician because the rhythms of the songs were harder to pick up immediately.”

MSU tapped Ben Ayettey, artistic director of the Ghana Dance Ensemble and a fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, to collaborate with MSU musicians and design the show. Ayettey also performed and led the drumline during the show.

John Scharf, section leader of the SMB Quad Line, attested to the challenge of learning music with a new beat as well as to the rewards of being involved in such a large, complex cultural event.

“I was most challenged when Professor Ayettey was teaching us a piece called ‘Tokwe.’ Traditionally in Western music, we have everything counted off for us and everything is very square to the beat,” says Scharf, a music education major. “However, the music he was teaching us didn’t really have a clear downbeat.”

Percussion Instructor Jon Weber says learning and performing African music with Ayettey was memorable for all involved. He says the professionalism of band members and their willingness to explore new things contributed to the excellence of the end result.

“The students in the drumline consistently learn and perform a wide variety of music from different cultures,” says Weber. “We performed ‘Tokwe,’ a traditional Ewe (African) drumming piece with indigenous instruments. We then added the MSU Drumline in at the end of the piece to create something new.”

Weber praised other artistic and student groups involved in the extensive production. African student dancers and 250 singers from MSU’s choirs joined the 300 SMB members. The halftime performance featured music from all regions in Africa, enhanced by the use of African instruments and West African drumming. World-renowned kora player Yacouba Sissoko played a solo during the show. The kora is a West African stringed instrument.

The SMB displayed various African symbols on cards and conducted a marching formation of the baobab tree, a symbol of life and resilience. In addition, the color guard used colorful festival umbrellas. MSU’s Dance and cheer teams and more than 100 student-athletes contributed to the energy of the performance.

For two weeks leading up to the originally scheduled show, Ayettey and Sissoko served as artists in residence, meeting with MSU students and conducting outreach activities in Lansing and Flint. Eight university vice chancellors from Africa were also on campus as part of a series of meetings related to the Alliance for African Partnership, a new initiative that facilitates partnerships between MSU, African institutions and other international collaborators.

Jamie Monson, director of the MSU African Studies Center and co-director for the Alliance for African Partnership says the event was a very exciting opportunity for the African Studies Center to work with the SMB and the College of Music.

“Not only did we create a spectacular show, but we planted the seeds for future collaborations in African performance," Monson says. “The remarkable creativity of our African guest artists, together with David Thornton and Jon Weber, resulted in a show that celebrated the unity and diversity of African culture.”  

MSU’s Cultural Engagement Council—a group of leaders from MSU’s various arts and culture units and colleges—sponsored the performance in collaboration with the African Studies Center and other campus groups. Multiple units and colleges across campus will host events and projects throughout 2018 to mark the Year of Global Africa. Those events will focus on MSU’s rich history of research and education accomplishments with African partners.

For example:

  • With more than 160 core faculty members in 54 different departments, MSU has established one of the largest African studies programs in the country.
  • MSU offers instruction in 30 African languages, representing all major regions on the continent.
  • In 1960, MSU cooperated with the first president of Nigeria to establish a new African university at Nsukka, based on MSU’s land-grant model.
  • Building on decades of engagement in Africa, in 2017 MSU launched the Alliance for African Partnership to develop a collaborative and cross-disciplinary platform for addressing challenges on the continent.
  • MSU has the No. 1-ranked African history graduate program, according to U.S. News and World Report.

“This event is a great display of unity and collaboration from the MSU community, which is one of the key goals of MSU’s Alliance for African Partnership initiative,” Thornton says.

For more on MSU’s engagement in Africa, visit the African Studies Center.

Partners in the project are Athletics, the Cultural Engagement Council, MSU African Studies Center, Office of the President, MSU College of Music, Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at MSU and MSU African student organizations.

Topics filed under:

Share this: