It was more than 20 years ago that Jay Stoller first learned how to play.
Little did he know, it would take him to Ghana to hone his craft and to meet his wife Hamdiya.
Now the 42-year-old Winnipeg substitute teacher takes others to Africa through his company to share in the experience.
"I got into African drumming when I was going to the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Music," Stoller said. "I lucked out, and I met someone there who was running an African drumming group."
Following university, he travelled to the University of Ghana in west Africa in 1995 to hone his skills and knowledge of traditional drumming. He stayed almost three years and earned a diploma in African music.
"It’s a style of drum that you play with your hands," he said. "Playing with the hands, you’re able to express yourself directly with the instrument. What you’re thinking and what you’re feeling, it just depends on how you hit the drum and move your hands."
Back in Winnipeg, he began offering drumming workshops and working with various drumming and dance groups. He also started importing hand-made djembe drums from Ghana to sell, and became part owner of the Manitoba franchise of Drum Café, a Vancouver-based company that specializes in helping companies build teamwork by having employees learn to play African drums together.
Last year, Stoller took his drumming classes to a new level. He escorted seven of his adult students to Ghana for a three-week drum and dance tour. It’s co-organized with Stoller’s drumming partner in Ghana, who is the master drummer with the national dance company of Ghana, the Ghana Dance Ensemble.
A second tour group of five left for Ghana Jan. 9. Information about the trips is on Stoller’s www.africandrumdrum.com website.
Bonnie Jenkinson, who was on last year’s trip, said her experience was life-changing.
"There’s a spiritual thing about the people," she said. "The people there are just somehow more in touch with being alive.
"When I got off the plane here last year after having been there for almost a month, I could see myself being retired, because I could see myself doing something. It would be to go back there and to do volunteer work for two or three months every year."
On last year’s trip, participants took hands-on classes in traditional drum and dance in three regions of the country, to experience the cultures of the different tribes. During the trip, they stayed in mud-and-grass homes.
Robert Luger, who also went on last year’s trip with his wife Kathryn, said it allowed him to see a part of west Africa up close.
"We didn’t see the county out of an air-conditioned huge tour bus and staying in five-star hotels," he said. "We rattled around the country in a little mini-bus with the windows open and our heads hanging out like everyone else in the country.
"It taught me that people can live simply with very little and be very happy. They’re the most contented people I think I’ve ever been around."
Stoller said it’s experiences like this he wants those on his tour to bring home — plus a wider appreciation of drumming.
"Regardless of what I can teach in my drumming classes or what people can see here in a concert, you can never replicate the experience of seeing and hearing the drums in Africa."
When not teaching drumming or substitute teaching in the Louis Riel School Division, Stoller works with the Ghanian community and its children’s dance group.
Through his work and tours, Stoller said he wants his students to develop a deeper appreciation for African culture.
"I want them to have a deeper understanding of how the music and dance relates to the culture that you can’t teach or experience here."