In the recurring series Souvenir Stories, Emily Spivack asks accomplished storytellers about memorable objects they've brought home from their travels. Here, Jen Mankins, the owner of Brooklyn boutique Bird, tells of the musical instruments that remind her of time spent studying dance and music in Africa.
In college, I followed in the footsteps of my older sister and studied Ghanaian drumming and Malian dance for a few years. After I graduated, I wanted to immerse myself in the culture that had played such a huge part in shaping who I was and what I thought about the world. At 21, I took a two-month trip to Mali and Ghana to continue studying the music and dance culture in each country.
I went to Mali first and stayed with my dance professor’s husband’s family. Mali was a lot of red dirt roads, low buildings, amazing textiles everywhere and on everyone. It’s clearly poverty-stricken, but it’s a beautiful country. I loved my visit—except for the time I upset an African wasps’ nest while bathing in a stream and went running down the river without any clothes, getting stung by wasps all the while.
After a month in Mali, and over an airplane meal of peanut chicken and a Guinness, I flew from Bamako to Accra, the capital city of Ghana. Ghana was an easier country. It’s more developed and everyone speaks English. I stayed with the family of my music professor, Martin Obeng, and he came over from the States to meet me there. We traveled around doing touristy things, going to the coast, studying the history of trade, and eventually visiting Kumasi, where his sister lives. At the time, it was the only town outside of Ireland where there’s a Guinness factory. It made sense why that beer, which I now only associate with Ghana, was served on my flight. Afterwards, we traveled to Martin’s hometown, Aburi, a misty village with huge trees lit with lanterns. I have very mystical memories of that place.
We stayed in Aburi for their annual weeklong harvest celebration that my teacher was performing in. All the master drummers from the town perform. There was constant music and dance and eating and drinking for a week, and everything pretty much shut down. I felt so lucky to be immersed in the festivities. My teacher’s brother had outfits made for me. And when a bunch of women were doing their hair, they braided mine, too, which was an intense process with my baby fine white girl hair. But I enjoyed participating. It was powerful to share that experience with my teacher’s family.
I brought these seed-filled shakers back from Ghana. They’re in my dining room, and because I have to move them to turn on a lamp, I interact with them almost daily. They’re more decorative, not like the drums I’ve spent time playing. While in Ghanaian traditional music, drums do more of the improvisational work, the shakers and bells—the hand instruments—usually make up the rhythm section. They’re important because in every song, they establish the pattern that holds down the music.
These shakers remind me of that harvest celebration almost 20 years ago. They remind me that if you want to learn about the culture or history of a place, you start with music and dance. That’s what brings everyone together. That’s how stories are told. That’s how histories are maintained. Having these objects around my house is a constant reminder of how to be open to new perspectives and what it means to listen, especially coming from a Western background. With so much of travel, people try to get away and have an escape. Typically, they are less inclined to get at the heart of a place by actually doing the most normal things. I feel so lucky that I had an experience where I got to be a participant in everyday life.