Baba Neil Clarke, a percussionist who has played with distinguished figures such as Randy Weston and Harry Belafonte in the past, visited Kean Nov. 13 to give an educational lecture and performance in the Miron Student Center (MSC) Little Theatre.
This event was one element of the 32nd Celebration of Africana Studies, organized and hosted by the Office of Africana Studies. The other event in this edition of the annual series was a tribute to Nelson and Winnie Mandela Nov. 14 by Thuli Dumakude, a Broadway veteran who has held roles in productions such as the “Lion King” and “Poppie Nongena.”
The event began with opening remarks from James Conyers, Ph.D., director of the Office of Africana Studies. Conyers introduced the premise of the show, as well as Clarke himself.
“Our program today is going to be both educational, as well as entertaining and we call it 'edu-tainment'. What Baba is going to do today is talk a lot about the African drum, its history, its influences, its politics, and he’s going to also give a slight performance,” Conyers said.
Clarke began by discussing how music and rhythm are key components in his identity, as he’s been playing the drums for over 50 years.
“My evolution as a musician, as a person, has come about as a result of my playing the musical instruments, studying them and trying to figure out where they came from,” Clarke said.
He then spoke about the term “rhythmologist,” which is a designation he gave to himself because of the connection he had with the concept.
“A rhythmologist is somebody that studies the rhythms of the heart. So it’s actually a medical discipline, but heart rhythms are fundamental to life. People say that the drum is the heartbeat of the music,” Clarke said.
Clarke then gave a short performance, utilizing his various drums and evoking rhythms from destinations such as Cuba and West Africa.
Clarke interspersed the discussion with multiple videos about topics such as the African drum and the innate connection to rhythm he believes is present in all humans, as well as other performances and demonstrations with his drums.
He also discussed the pattern of primarily Eurocentric focuses on history, particularly within the music world.
“[Within] the study of music in this country, the emphasis is on European traditions, and we don’t study the African dimension of the music which is just as important as everything else,” Clarke said.
He went on to talk about the problem of trying to divide and define music, as it takes away from the music’s organic nature.
“All of the other stuff, the metronome and the mathematical subdivisions of the whole note, is people’s attempt to try to describe what we saw going on here,” Clarke said.
Clarke also commented on his experience playing with Harry Belafonte.
“That’s a whole program by itself. He’s a very powerful, grounded, generous individual and it was when I played with Mr. Belafonte that I started on this road to being able to talk about this kind of conversation that I’m having right now because his music was not just for the sake of entertainment. There was always a much more significant purpose to the music that he was performing,” Clarke said.
He ended the program by taking questions from the audience and then reciting the poem “Note on Commercial Theatre” by Langston Hughes, which spoke of the borrowing and changing of traditional blues music.
While this was not the first time Clarke has visited Kean and it won't be the last, all students who attended the event were provided with the unique opportunity to appreciate the origin of music and look at it in a more natural light.