Open Society Institute Impact Series
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People Gather Around: Muze It Outreach Program

Photos by Colby Ware

April 28, 2017

The West African goblet-shaped djembe is called the unity drum because its name means “people gather around.” OSI Fellow Menes Yahudah is bringing the instrument and its meaning to youth in Baltimore. With his Fellowship, Yahudah launched the Muze It Outreach Program, a musical and cultural education program that uses African drumming, performance, folklore, dance and arts to teach children and youth the historical and cultural traditions of the African and African-American diaspora.

“I love how the djembe brings people together,” says Yahudah, shown here (center) with students William Singley Jr., Adama Senghor and Kymoni Richardson. “These young people may not become professional drummers, but when they get out in the world and they see someone with this instrument, they have something in common. It opens up relationships and builds bridges. When they see it, they know: There’s a beacon of hope for me.”

In a Saturday program for interested families throughout the city, Adama Senghor and Kymoni Richardson listen intently as Yahudah – whom the children call “Mr. M” – bangs out an evocative beat on his djembe. In addition to weekend classes, Muze It also works with students at Barclay Elementary School, during the school day and after school. “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.”

Barclay is an incredibly diverse school, with students coming from far-flung places across the globe, such as Dubai, Hong Kong and Central America. In the photo above, of one group of second-graders dancing to an African beat with Yahudah in the center, there are girls from Baltimore, but also from Bangkok (leading the line on the right), and Bangladesh (in the blue hijab).  “I have two young men from Asia that have no English, but I don’t have to use words to communicate with them,” Yahudah says. “I can use this.” He bangs out a simple beat on the djembe.  “Rhythm in general is a very basic thing. It’s unifying.”

Along with drumming, Yahudah teaches the children about African dance. The girls tend to pick up the rhythms quickly, and many of them move like naturals, but the boys, too, enjoy dancing along to the djembe’s pounding percussion. Joshua Bethea, 7, (left) has taken easily to the dancing – it’s like exercise, he says – but admits, “I can’t wait to learn how to really play the drum. I like how he [Mr. M] holds the drum and bangs on the top and the sides.”

Lessons can start as early as children can mimic a beat, Yahudah says. Here, Brandon Croxton looks on as his son Ryan, 3, taps out a rhythm.  “The weekend classes offer parents a chance to bring their children to something,” Yahudah says. “The people on Saturdays come from all walks of life – different budgets, husband/wife teams, single mother teams, some single fathers. There’s no one kind of family or person interested in drumming. I like the Saturday classes because it’s just another way of bringing the community together, another kind of cultural hub.”

Yahudah, a Baltimore native, began playing drums at age 2 and by his early childhood years, he was playing in drum circles in Druid Hill Park. He 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. After going through a rough patch as a teen, Yahudah found the discipline of drumming helped ground and center him. Ultimately, he says, “The drum saved my life.”

Just as it did for him as a young man, Yahudah believes dancing, performing and African drumming can center and motivate many of Baltimore’s young people, who can be susceptible to distractions and self-sabotage. One 5th grade dancer, Keyaire Young (not pictured), said, dancing to the djembe beat is like hearing instructions from a loved one from long ago.
“I like how the beat moves you,” she said. “It’s like our ancestors probably wanted all of us to dance to this.”

Here, Janeya Collins, 8, and Shanika Ahmed, 8 (and a half!), laugh through Mr. M’s gentle teasing about a dance misstep. Yahudah makes the class fun, but he is a perfectionist and wants to see each student master the dance and/or the drum. That’s because in African countries, drummers, musicians and dancers are part of a rich and revered lifestyle, 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.’”