WHO IS MAXWELL KOFI DONKOR?
African Master Drummer
Director of Kofi & Sankofa African Drum & Dance Ensemble
Maxwell Kofi Donkor is an internationally recognized artist and master cultural educator who is most known for his performances and teaching in African Drumming and Dance. For many decades, he has focused on building communities through the arts – teaching students of every age about the authentic histories and cultural celebrations which are still observed to this day. A native of Ghana, Africa, Kofi learned drumming at the knee of his grandfather, a master drummer, as well as learning traditional dances. Kofi also makes drums other traditional instruments of Ghana and teaches the arts of relief sculpture, Adinkra symbolism, mask-making, and more.
“These art forms mean everything to me – healing, wellness, life, spirit, sanity, identity, authenticity, balance. They bring about togetherness in building a healthy family, a healthy village, our local and global community, etc. I practice these arts because they center me – even if the world is falling apart. My artistic practice helps me broaden my horizon in being objective in my critical thinking/analysis – not only in the physical realm but most importantly in spirit.”
Born in 1958 in his mother’s village, Soabe, when his parents were visiting her village for the harvest festival called Akwasidae, Maxwell arrived in this world on a Friday, thus earning the name he goes by, “Kofi.” He grew up surrounded by these traditional practices in his own home and village.
“The history of traditional cultural/native practice is the history of the Asante Kingdom. It is more than 3,000 years old, rooted in the Ghana, Songhai, and Mali Empires of old, where the arts (visual, performing, linguistics, etc.) became the library where our cultural lifestyle was preserved using storytelling, forms, sounds, and even language in various interpretations and evolutions.
I first really saw the drumming, specifically, from my grandpa, Nana Kofi Donkor. He was the chief (and master drummer) of the Village of Besoro, Kumawu – Asante in my native country Ghana, West Africa. I learned to drum from my grandfather and the village elders.”
Maxwell’s music carries inside of it that deeply connected atmosphere of an indigenous African village, where everyone gets involved. His other art forms all carry the same spirit. Each creative outpouring is an offering to the community that celebrates vital moments of daily life – the marriages, initiations, the birth of a baby, the harvest, the communal welcoming of guests, even death. His songs, rhythms, dances, and hand arts are truly born from these deep community traditions, passed on from generation to generation in unwritten form.
While Maxwell’s primary influence in drumming is the Asante Kingdom of Ghana, the cultural root of his art, he feels he has also evolved over time, through artistic collaborations, to incorporate other tribal arts. Since studying in the United Kingdom and then later moving to the U.S., he has even felt the perspective of western influence enter his art. Despite that international growth, his intrinsic forms and foundations are still taken from those deepest roots that he learned from early on from the masters and elders of his Asante village.
“I am still evolving and growing through my collaborations with other artists – by sight, sound and movement – with mother nature as another one of my main influencers.”
Maxwell’s father was also a chief of their village. He therefore grew up with great awareness of both the personal and official importance of cultural ceremonies – and arts were always at the heart of it. The community – its interconnectedness, its well-being, and the preservation of its traditions – is the reason for each of the cultural festivals.
“As an artist and as a teacher, my goal is to help in the preservation of the native art forms. At the same time, it is important for me to be a conduit for applying these forms in innovative ideas which are beneficial to the modern world – building appreciation of the traditional arts (forms, sounds, movements) because they help us even today to keep building community and remind us to pay attention to the health of the environment.”
In his youth, “Kofi” was commissioned to carry on the Ghanian traditions of his ancestors. He performed for a number of years with the Folklore Ensemble of Ghana. (His prolific career in drumming would eventually find him playing and working closely with such revered drummers as Babatunde Olatunji and his Drums of Passion, Mickey Hart, Sikiru, and Camara.)
In school, he delved deeply into the study of cultural arts at St. Peters High School, an all boys Catholic boarding school in Nkwatia, Ghana. He particularly remembers a sculpture teacher Atsatsu Agbenu who brought him on as an apprentice to help finish some commissioned works during Maxwell’s last three years of high school. It was all work done by hand using native tools. To this day, he still practices and holds dear to his heart those traditional art forms made with authentic, original tools. Over time, he also learned a great deal about the hand-arts from his professor in Sculpture at Kwame Nkrumah University College of Art, and later from Don Gibbins, a renowned American wood sculptor, in Henryville, PA, in the United States.
Already a master drummer by the time he graduated from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, where his studies focused on his Ghanian culture, sculpture, rural art, and industry, Maxwell then went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from Norwich University in Vermont. Over his career, he taught countless people in the U.S. and in Ghana (and other countries). In Ghana, he has been involved with the UNDP (Ghana) and the Arts Council of Ghana. He taught Arts at Ashiaman Secondary School (Ashiaman, Ghana) and was active in teaching and organizing Native Craftsmen in his home country. Once in the United States, Maxwell became deeply involved in the PA Council on the Arts Apprenticeship Program, the NYS FolkArt Apprenticeship Program, the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Arts in Education for multiple states. He is especially dedicated to working with various community organizations for the underserved.
“I have seen my traditional arts evolve positively over my lifetime and I hope the future is even brighter – with the positive application of technological advancements. The challenge is to focus on the preservation of the old traditional, truly native methods and organic materials (vis a vis the effective use of technology) without any devaluation of the ceremonies and rituals that are the heart and soul of these age-old practices.”
INTERVIEWS & PERFORMANCES
In the Studio on the Show “Horses Sing None of It”
30 minute interview & performance
Kofi and the entire Sankofa African Drum & Dance Ensemble