Florissant music teacher makes sure students have new djembes to learn African rhythms
On the floor of Antonio Griffin’s classroom at Commons Lane Elementary School are tambourines, maracas, frog-shaped guiros and djembe drums.
Griffin, a music teacher, uses the instruments to help his students prepare for their spring recital — and to expose them to rhythms rooted in Black American music.
“I need Phillip, Elijah, Key to also go get a tambourine so you'll have two instruments,” he told students in March. “You’ll have djembes and tambourines, OK? Harmony, go get a tambourine, and then Kyrion you can get a cowbell.”
At the beginning of the school year, Griffin realized that he didn’t have enough djembes for his class, and a lot of the old ones were in bad condition.
So he raised more than $700 on the nonprofit fundraising platform called Donors Choose to buy 10 new drums. Griffin said his class really needed them.
“It was an experience I felt my students were lacking,” he said. “I didn’t want them to feel like they missed an opportunity to play djembes, which are really, really, really important for rhythm.”
Many of his students are tactile learners. Griffin said it was difficult to teach them rhythm when the first and second graders couldn’t play djembes.
“Rhythm is the basics of music, and it’s hard to teach them those things when they couldn’t physically engage with it,” he said.
In Griffin’s music class, posters of Marvel Movies' Black Panther hang on the walls because he wants the students in his predominantly Black class to feel empowered when they enter the classroom.
“I want my students to see themselves in my classroom and in the music I teach,” he said.
During Black History Month, Griffin taught his students how important African drums are to Black American heritage and culture.
“We learned all about how Black people are essentially like drums,” he said. “We are the drums of the Earth.”
For first grader Elijah Harris, that message and the instruments make learning about music fun.
"Mr. Griffin, he is the best teacher," Elijah said.
As a music teacher, Griffin wants to expose his students to lessons and songs not usually taught in other music classrooms.
“When other people say I'm a music teacher, because I want to expose my students to different kinds of music, they usually mean European styles of music, opera, or classical music,” Griffin said. “They don't really mean African chants or hip-hop or jazz or rock — and a lot of music gets missed because people don't truly understand what it means to expose these kids.”
In a recent lesson, first graders practiced keeping a steady beat to the song “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
That kind of activity makes the music teacher a favorite of 7-year-old Elisa Lowe. She enjoys learning the djembe beats and connecting to songs she hears on the radio.
“I love how they make the big sound because I like loud sound,” Elisa said of the djembes. “Honestly, it was amazing because I think I heard of that song before. I played that on my momma's radio."