Annapolis Valley-based school taps into natural rhythms to promote healing and empowerment

Dr. Henry Bishop shows a student how to play the djembe drum.
Dr. Henry Bishop shows a student how to play the djembe drum.

Djembe drums could often be heard in the hallways of Clark Rutherford Memorial School in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. Known for their strong, repetitive rhythms, Djembe drums are part of West African heritage.

Students at this school were introduced to Dr. Henry Bishop, a Dartmouth-based musician, educator and artist specializing in African djembe drumming through a special project at the school – the Africentric Therapeutic Drumming program. 

This program offers students between the ages of five to ten the opportunity to participate in a drumming circle – teaching them skills beyond the drum.

“The goal of this program is to provide students with an engaging and culturally responsive enriched program,” said Madelene Embree, Music, Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Support teacher and facilitator of the program. “We want the program to increase their confidence and sense of belonging. It also teaches them resilience – which is so important – in a safe and engaging environment.” 

The project was envisioned by Dr. Bishop.

“This [djembe drumming] is old age ancient knowledge and wisdom, and we are using it with new intervention processes,” explained Dr. Bishop. “Rhythm is a very natural thing - beginning with our mother’s heartbeat in the womb. It is something that we crave and can help us heal emotionally, spiritually and physically.”

The pedagogy of higher learning using mind, body and spirit or holistic learning is extremely effective with health and wellness intervention.

“In today’s world we need to exercise alternative educational ways to assist in the best development of our greatest natural resource - our children,” said Dr. Bishop.

Full of passion and with the support of the school’s 2018/2019 principal Nora Vance, Embree and Dr. Bishop reached out to Carmelita Johnson,  Student Support Worker for students of African descent and Krishinda McBride, Co-oordinator of African Canadian Education Services for Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education to bring this vision to life. 

With limited spots, staff came together to identify students that would benefit and be interested in this program. Priority was given to students with African ancestry or Mi’kmaq heritage. Other considerations were for students with social or emotional challenges that teachers felt could thrive in this creative environment. 

“Students loved drumming days. I watched the students run down the halls to gather their group members when it was time for their drumming circle,” recalled Embree.

During the sessions students were shown how to create different rhythms and sounds, followed call-and-response drumming and took turns leading the group. 

“Immediately they connected,” said Dr. Bishop. “Their smiles came up. They started expressing themselves verbally or dancing or paying attention - which some had a lot of difficulty in other areas.” 

During these drum circles it is important to show how to use the drums, but also let students experiment through trial and error. Dr. Bishop explained that through drumming, he is helping people to feel empowered. 

“That’s my goal, passion and purpose – to empower people.” 

Following the program, the students’ parents were surveyed. One hundred per cent of the parents agreed that drumming with Dr. Bishop showed my child that mistakes are good, they help you learn. 

One parent wrote, “We are so grateful for the privilege of sharing such a skill and providing a joyful learning experience. This is a profound blessing for the community.”

Embree’s belief is that this project’s impact will continue to live on within the students.

“I believe the Africentric Therapeutic Drumming program provided connection and self-confidence to each student that will impact their experience as an important school community member, as well as help them belief in themselves as a capable learner and all that will grow from that.” 

In 2019, this program received funding through the Annapolis Community Health Board (CHB) Wellness Fund. 

Each year, Nova Scotia Health designates funds for each CHB in the province to distribute as Wellness Funds (WF).

This Wellness Fund is for non-profit groups working to improve health in their communities and must address the health priorities identified by CHBs in their current community health plans.