Ms. Alston began her presentation by talking about how stories allow us to “travel all over the world” and see inside “someone else’s heart.” Before there were letters and books, she explained, people relied on storytellers to pass down historical and cultural knowledge from one generation to the next. Many of these stories, she said, are what are known as pourquoi stories, or “why” stories, stories that explain why things are the way they are, such as creation myths and the origin of the ocean tides. Ms. Alston narrated the popular Ashanti tale from Ghana, Anansi the Spider, which explains why the moon is in the sky.
Many of Ms. Alston’s stories involved a call-and-response element, in which the audience sang out the chorus, or clapped a rhythm after a particular part of the story. This structure encouraged the children to listen to the vocal rhymes she employed. My third grader and his friend walked home singing,“Woman, O Woman, please listen to me! You’re getting to close to the hole in the sea,” the chorus of the pourquoi song about the origin of the ocean tides.
Ms. Alston also introduced the children to the traditional West African instruments she uses in her storytelling: the djembe, a drum, and the kora, a string instrument made from a gourd. The djembe, she informed us, has been used for eight hundred years by storytellers in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali and the Ivory Coast. Ms. Alston reminded us that Africa is not a country, but a continent of many countries, and later quizzed the children on the countries she had mentioned. Ms. Alston demonstrated the lovely harp-like sound of the kora, incorporating its music into her stories, meanwhile informing us that it is traditionally only played by men and boys.
Ms. Alston concluded her presentation with a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sharing details of his life, as a child, minister, and civil rights activist, including the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The whole audience chimed in with the chorus, chanting King’s name, clapping, and waving the peace sign with both hands. She reminded us that the laws didn’t change through war or guns, but because people “refused to obey” laws that didn’t make sense. She encouraged the audience to share the stories we learned today and to carry on King’s dream of peace and justice.
Many thanks to Stefania Beretta, Cultural Arts PTA Board Member for coordinating this wonderful event made possible by PTA funds.
-Karla G.M. Shields