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Afropolitans

Musical "food for the soul"

September-October 2010

Soulfège co-founders Jonathan Gramling (left) and Derrick N. Ashong, a.k.a. “DNA”

Soulfège co-founders Jonathan Gramling (left) and Derrick N. Ashong, a.k.a. “DNA”

Courtesy of Soulfège

Soulfège performs at the World Café Live in Philadelphia last January,  with Gramling (center) and Ashong (right, with guitar) on vocals.

Soulfège performs at the World Café Live in Philadelphia last January, with Gramling (center) and Ashong (right, with guitar) on vocals.

Photograph by Tamer Shabani

In their version of the classic West African song, “Sweet Mother,” the band Soulfège sings in English, Jamaican patois, and the African languages Ga and Twi in one verse. “There are very few people around who will understand everything said in that verse,” says Soulfège co-founder Derrick N. “DNA” Ashong ’97. “But everyone can kind of feel the joy and vibe and the love in it.” Indeed, last January the band (www.soulfege.com) played in Laramie, Wyoming—about as far from Ashong’s Ghanaian roots as you can get. Yet “the kids were bobbing their heads and jumping up and down,” Ashong recalls. “Paintings and clocks were literally falling off the walls because everyone was jumping up and down so hard that the walls were shaking.”

If this is an era of globalized culture, world music, and the erosion of international barriers, then Ashong and Soulfège (a play on solfège, the popular method of teaching sight-singing), may be perfectly in tune with the times. The six-member band’s sound fuses elements of reggae, hip-hop, funk, and West African highlife. “All these musical idioms are a palette for expression,” Ashong explains. “The colors we use depend on what we’re singing about, what we want to say. When I write a song, I have a feeling of how it moves me, and that shapes how the song is written and how it is produced. I can take the same song and make a folk song, a rock song, a reggae song, or a country tune, all depending on how it is produced—the reggae artists can take Céline Dion and make it into reggae! It’s choosing the right idiom to convey the feeling. I don’t want to hit a baseball with a golf club.”

Ashong’s own biography echoes the diverse chords of Soulfège. Born in Accra, Ghana, he moved with his family to Brooklyn at a young age, then lived in Saudi Arabia from ages 8 to 12. Next came a stint in Doha, Qatar, then back to the States where, almost ironically, Ashong completed high school in the suburban New Jersey town of Voorhees. His mother, Stella, is a registered nurse and his father, Emmanuel, M.P.H. ’82, a pediatrician; both sing well.

Ashong played classical piano, clarinet, drums, and sang in the choir at his high school. At Harvard he joined the Kuumba Singers and there befriended Jonathan Gramling ’98, who launched Soulfège with him about a decade ago. (Several other Kuumba alumni, including Sheldon Reid ’96, Ed.M. ’98, James Shelton ’97, Kelley Johnson ’02, and Jorge Montoy ’04, were in the group’s earlier incarnations. The band once had 12 members, which was fun but, as Ashong explains, “too many to take on the road.” He and Gramling, the two vocalists, are the only remaining Harvardians.) During college, Ashong took a leave of absence to play the lead character’s younger brother in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad. He later pursued a Harvard doctoral program in ethnomusicology for four years, but eventually chose to make music rather than study it.

Now based in Los Angeles, Ashong also does a good deal of public speaking as a committed advocate for social change who worked for the Obama campaign. Soulfège’s Take Back the Mic is not only a CD but a project that aims to “teach a new generation to speak for itself, with art and technology,” Ashong explains. “Similar issues of identity and expression, and feeling empowered to have an impact on things, are being felt by kids around the world.” The band conveys, according to VanityFair.com, “a spirit of promise and hope and harmony, a spirit that denies dissonance. Soulfège lets us dream such sweet dreams, in vibrant colors.”

Ashong puts it this way: “Our music is naturally calibrated to get in you, to pass seamlessly through the pores of the human spirit. A lot of music is negative, not aspirational, not beautiful. It should be flavorful, and express things that encompass the flavor of human life. People say, ‘The world has all these issues, all these problems—who’s going to come and fix them?’ Nobody’s coming to save you; it is for you to save yourself. In order to do so, you’ve got to have two things. One, the belief that you have the power to save yourself, and two, the understanding that you have something worth saving. These are not necessarily things you hear me say directly in my music, but that’s the philosophy that underpins what I’m doing. So whenever we create something, it’s designed to give the individual food for the soul. When you come to a Soulfège concert, even if you don’t listen to a single lyric—maybe you just dance your ass off—when you go home, you should feel better than when you came in. And if you do, I think I did my job.”

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