By Elizabeth Shestak
Reused with permission, Duquesne Magazine, Fall 2022

Gordon Cortney joins a line of Duquesne students who have benefitted from the Honors College Endowed Fellowship program, which awards up to $15,000 to conduct research, often abroad, in support of their projects.

At the beginning of his trip to Ghana this summer, Gordon Cortney, percussion student in the Mary Pappert School of Music, was served foods of a more “familiar” nature–rice, beans, sometimes chicken. His mornings were spent learning to play traditional African percussion instruments, for this was the reason the Honors College student applied to be an Africa Fellow. Those first few days he would retreat to his room at the Bernard Woma Dagara Music Center (DMC) after lunch for a respite not just from the sun and jet lag, but also from the newness of everything. He was the only visitor, the only foreigner in the entire village of Medie, and it was a far cry from Cortney’s home in Las Vegas, as well as Duquesne’s campus.

Within a few days, Cortney was no longer heading to his quarters during the heat of the day. Instead, he found himself playing soccer, barefoot in the red dirt with the many children who live at the Center–it functions not only as a cultural non-profit but also a family home. When it became clear Cortney was willing to try new things the menu began to change. Traditional Ghanain porridges made from cassava, stews made with bushmeat, and local treats known as bofrot (donut) and nkatie cake (peanut brittle) made their way to his plate.

At first his fingers blistered, unaccustomed to the way one holds the rubberized mallets while playing the gyil, a pentatonic instrument resembling a xylophone that utilizes dried gourds as resonators. Soon he developed the calluses, and as the skin between his first and second knuckles toughened, it became quite clear that his three weeks in Ghana would leave him with more than a new set of musical skills.

Gordon Cortney plays a ghil.
“At the end, they become part of the family,” said Michael Woma, DMC director of communications and nephew of the late Bernard Woma. Asked by Cortney who Woma is, the answer at this point might simply be, “My friend.”

A Distinct Honor

Cortney joins a line of Duquesne students who have benefitted from the Honors College Endowed Fellowship program, which awards up to $15,000 to conduct research, often abroad, in support of their projects.

“Honors Fellows represent less than one percent of any graduating class at Duquesne,” said Dr. Kathleen Glenister Roberts, director of the Honors College. “We’ve never had more than 17 fellows in a given year. And yes, the Endowed Fellows are an even smaller subset–usually between one and four in a year.”

“Endowed Fellows undertake their projects at pivotal times in their undergraduate careers and typically return to Duquesne energized and transformed by the experiences,” Roberts said. “The rare specializations they have been able to establish, whether it’s learning a West African instrument or honing their research skills in another language, point them toward bigger goals.”

Resonating Upon His Return

Just a few days after his return from Ghana, Cortney was still abuzz with enthusiasm about the life-changing experience. Determined more than ever to incorporate African drumming into his repertoire, he has become the defacto gyil and djembe expert in the program.

The grant ensured he would be able to not only secure a handmade instrument for his personal use, but also one for the music school. “We are thrilled Gordon brought back a gyil. It will help us continue to expand what instruments and music traditions are available for our students to study and interact
with,” said Joseph Sheehan, associate professor of musicianship.

“There are many ways the instrument can be incorporated into our programs, including in performances, for guest artists, events at the Center for African Studies, and in classes such as Music of Africa and the African Diaspora.”

Cortney didn’t need much time to adjust to the time change, the climate, and the food upon his return home in July. He misses his afternoons kicking the soccer ball with the children and the quiet evenings playing spades with the village elders, but nothing will remove him fully from that experience in Ghana as an Endowed Fellow.

“I was told countless times I was ‘free’,” Cortney said. “Free,” in their language, was the word used to describe open to their culture, open to possibilities, open to new horizons.

“They were pleased with me. I was ready. I was ready to learn.” 

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Gordon Cortney works with two students.
Cortney poses with several people.
Several people pose for a photo wearing colorful clothing.

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December 14, 2022