As they pounded out a raucous dance number on Mensah's "gyils" -- xylophones from Mensah's native Ghana whose sounds emanate from hollow calabash gourds strategically placed below the instrument's wooden keys -- a few members of the choir joined in, singing a traditional African song.
Smiles crept across all of their faces.
"It'll be just like that tomorrow night," Mark Meyers, a vocal music teacher at Waubonsie, told the percussionists at the conclusion of the song. "Only another 100 or so people will be singing along with you."
A music professor at both Macalester College and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., Mensah -- an ethnomusicologist, composer and master drummer -- has been working with the music students all week in preparation for the show they rehearsed Wednesday evening and will stage at 7:30 tonight. The public is invited.
Although he's only been in town since Monday, students have been working on the show's music, which Mensah composed himself, since October.
"I'm just coming to take the credit," Mensah said with a laugh. "These are the people who do the work. I'm just here to help put it together and help clean it up."
Cleaning it up has, in some cases, meant working with students who are learning instruments they never knew existed prior to Mensah's arrival.
"Kids are playing on instruments they've never played before," he said. "So that's big. I think that's good experience for them."
But the instruments aren't the only unfamiliar aspect of this show. There's also the music.
"What the bands and the orchestras are playing here is music that is created in the African style," Mensah said. "I have written it in Western notations so that ensembles like orchestras and bands can play it, but the style is very African. So it doesn't feel the same as the orchestra and band music they play. That means they have to operate very, very differently, and that's a challenge."
All of the pieces have African drums in them, too, which create a totally different feeling because audiences don't often hear them played alongside instruments found in traditional bands and orchestras, Mensah said.
That's what he wants students to take away from their experience of working with him.
"The way the music is organized itself is very different than the way Western music is," he said. "So they are learning a different way of making music."
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