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‘The Rhythm of Life’

African American Music ensemble celebrates 40 years

By Nicole Trifone


In African American musical traditions, there is no such thing as an audience.

Everyone is a participant, a member of the community. If you can’t sing, hum. If you can’t dance, clap.

When members of the African American Music Program perform, the musicians layer one rhythm on top of another to create the complex polyrhythms for which West Africa is known. Those who don’t have a djembe or shekere to strike a beat can contribute to the sound with the most basic of instruments.

“You’ve always got your voice, your body. If your heart beats, you have rhythm,” said Adam Canaday, who has performed with the African American Music Program for about 10 years.

In celebration of this evening program’s 40th anniversary, the ensemble will present special pop-up performances in the Historic Area throughout 2020 in addition to its usual slate at Great Hopes Plantation for school groups. More than a dozen performers are part of the troupe, five of whom comprise the ensemble on any given performance.

For the past 40 years the program, originally named the Black Music Program, has featured the musical traditions enslaved people carried with them through the Middle Passage and demonstrated how those traditions continue to influence American music today.

The African songs performed by the ensemble, and the instruments they play, are largely derived from West Africa, where the slave trade was most active. Music from that region, historically and today, blends rhythmic patterns in a way that mimics the sound of a com-munity working together, celebrating together, mourning together and surviving together.

“We want people to understand that there are Africanisms in everything we do, most importantly music,” said Rose McAphee, who retired from Colonial Williamsburg in 2017. A former interpreter, training specialist and member of the African American Music Program, she has rejoined the ensemble after more than 10 years.

“It’s the rhythm of life,” she said.

McAphee is leading the ensemble along with two other former members: Dylan Pritchett, a founding member and a former supervisor of African American programs, and Robert Watson, who continues to work as an orientation interpreter.

Between them, McAphee, Pritchett and Watson have more than 70 years of experience with music and interpretive programs at Colonial Williamsburg.

The three leaders focus on the scholarship from which the original program was built, helping the performers gain a deeper understanding of the lives — and sounds — of the free and enslaved black population to better convey the message to audiences.

“We want the cast members to learn through the music, to yield themselves for the ancestors to speak through them,” Pritchett said. “When they read that an enslaved woman cried gutturally when her child was taken away, they know what that sounds like because they’ve sung it.”

The Black Music Program launched in 1980, a year after Colonial Williamsburg committed to telling the stories of the free and enslaved blacks who made up more than 50 percent of Williamsburg’s population in the late 18th century. The living history program that began in 1979 featured black and white costumed actors performing first-person portrayals of ordinary people for the first time.

“Anybody who has participated in this ensemble over the past 40 years has done everything they could to represent the lives and souls of black folks,” Watson said. “We’re taking everything that everybody brought to the table and appreciate what they have done.”

The program has seen changes to its cast, script and even its name, but it has stayed steadfast in its mission to give voice to the free and enslaved black people of the 18th century.

That mission is what has kept Canaday, a full-time journeyman coach driver, continually engaged in various music programs that grew out of the Black Music Program’s success. Canaday actually started with Colonial Williamsburg as an actor at 5 years old and, inspired by the Fifes and Drums, began taking private drum lessons at 7.

Over the years, he started to listen more closely to the lessons taught within those programs. He may have started as a young kid who reveled in the attention and applause, but he has grown to understand the importance of sharing those lessons and how they are relevant today.

“I realized that just because people are clapping, it doesn’t mean they understand the story in the music. It just means they’re entertained. It’s our job to make sure they understand that the story of slavery is the story of people,” Canaday said. “Music is the conversation starter.”

Much of what is known about African music comes from one generation of Africans teaching the next over the course of centuries. Documentation is scarce, particularly from before the 17th century.

As trade between England and Africa increased so did the written observations from the white explorers who made the trip, though such observations often painted the continent with a broad brush and lacked nuance about particular cultures within Africa.

Richard Jobson, who worked with the Company of Adventurers of London, published a recounting of his experience in Guinea and Benin in 1623 and remarked, “There is, without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people.... Singing likewise extempore upon any occasion is offered.”

Olaudah Equiano, who bought his own freedom and published an autobiography in 1789, described life in his hometown, located in what is now Nigeria:

We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets. Thus every great event, such as a triumphant return from battle, or other cause of public rejoicing is celebrated in public dances, which are accompanied with songs and music suited to the occasion.... We have many musical instruments, particularly drums of different kinds, a piece of music which resembles a guitar, and another much like a stickado.

For centuries, African music has accompanied rites of passages as well as everyday happenings and served as a way to communicate with family, neighbors and spiritual beings.

“When you hear music that was played at a Palace ball, you’re probably not thinking about how the music represents the people who performed it,” Pritchett said. “It’s not the music that is as important as the people the music represents. That’s always been what the music program is about.” 

Members of the African American Music ensemble demonstrate a dance to the audience. (Wayne Reynolds/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

The Beat Goes On

The success of the Black Music Program inspired dozens of programs over the past 40 years that have featured African and African American music. Here are some that you can experience in 2020:

  • Joy in the Morning
    Gather with members of the enslaved community to experience a music-filled message of hope.
  • Music Unbound
    Once music is heard, it is set free, free to travel to anyone and any place. Embark on this musical journey from song sheet to the oral tradition of how music was shared between European and African cultures in historic Virginia.
  • Faith, Hope and Love
    An original play with music places you in the heart of the enslaved community. An uplifting story invites you to imagine what it costs to pursue love and freedom in a slave society.

Hear the Beat

Throughout the African American Music Program is an oft-repeated line: Rhythm can exist without melody, but melody cannot exist without rhythm. West African music is known for its polyrhythmic patterns, which are made possible by the types of instruments played. Below are a few of the traditional instruments featured in the ensemble’s performances.

BELL
The bell is a fabricated piece of metal without a clapper. It can be struck by a piece of metal or a stick of wood. Because it projects loudly and has a high pitch, the bell serves as the metronome to set the pace of the music. Whereas the bell is incidental in most music, it is essential to the sound of African music ensembles.

DJEMBE
The djembe is a hollow log topped with animal skin held in place by rope. It is struck with bare hands. A djembe’s tone is determined by its size, the tightness of the skin and the manner in which it is struck. The djembe’s history can be traced back to the Mandinke tribe in 12th-century Mali.

SHEKERE
The shekere is a gourd strung with beads, shells or seeds. It is usually shaken but can be twisted or struck by hand. The shekere offers an accompanying beat to keep the rhythm.

KRIN
The krin, or slit drum, is a hollow log with slits cut into it. It is struck with a stick or mallet. The thickness of the wood and the size of the slits affect the tone. Along with the djembe, it offers a more complex layer of rhythm than the bell or shekere.