The West African goblet-shaped djembe is called the unity drum because its name means “people gather around.” Menes Yahudah wants to bring it—the instrument and its meaning—to youth in Baltimore.
“What I’ve noticed is that when you say anything about indigenous cultures to a lot of children here, they look at it as if it’s odd or wrong because they haven’t been taught how rich those cultures are,” says Yahudah, a musician who was born and raised in Baltimore.
With his OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, Yahudah, 39, will launch the Muze It Outreach Program, a musical and cultural education program that uses African drumming, hip-hop dance, performance and martial arts to teach children and youth the historical and cultural traditions of the African and African-American diaspora.
The Muze It Outreach Program will begin by working with students in 4th– through 8th-grade at Margaret Brent and Barclay elementary schools. Yahudah will partner with music teachers once a week during music classes and also will offer after-school instruction.
“For children, the arts is something that is needed to stimulate education,” Yahudah says. “If we start to teach them in a rhythmic way how to read and how to write, then education becomes fun.”
Drumming, dancing and other art forms also have benefits outside of the classroom, he says.
“It provides an outlet to focus and discipline themselves,” he says, “so that when they get to the difficult parts of their lives, they aren’t making decisions out of emotional deficiencies.”
Yahudah can attest to that firsthand.
He began playing drums at age 2 and by his early childhood years, was playing in drum circles in Druid Hill Park. Yahudah learned to love the djembe in the 1980s when he saw “Africa, Oye!” a traveling performance troupe— featuring traditional dancing and drumming from Africa.
“There was something about that music that touched my soul,” he says.
He went on to study the djembe under top musicians with the Kankouran West African Dance Company and Sankofa Dance Theater.
But by the time Yahudah got to high school, he says, he was sidetracked by girls, sneakers and other distractions of street culture.
“I became a real knucklehead in high school and I used to hide the fact that I was a drummer,” Yahudah says. “Doing anything that was African was considered a joke.”
But the drums kept beckoning, calling him away from the streets and back to the stage. Ultimately, he says, “The drum saved my life.”
“Even though I didn’t immediately get it, the drum planted a seed inside me,” Yahudah says. “And so I had enough intelligence not to allow myself to do things to sabotage my life. I didn’t give up.”
Yahudah believes the discipline of African drumming can do the same for many of Baltimore’s young people, who also are susceptible to distractions and self-sabotage.
“I know what it is that these children are seeking,” says Yahudah, who has been teaching the drum as a teaching artist to students in Baltimore City schools for nearly 20 years. “They’re calling out for help, but they just haven’t gone through the maturation process to say the words, ‘I need help.’”
In African countries, drummers, musicians and dancers are part of a rich and revered lifestyle, Yahudah says, and the best or most determined use their skills and talents to travel the world, further their educations and escape harsh or limiting conditions.
“Performing can be a ticket out,” he says. “I know because I see children I’ve worked with over the years and they say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Menes. Because if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be where I am now.’”