Understanding Your Identity Through the Study of Music

By Dr. JoVia Armstrong

Friday, October 27, 2023

I asked world-class percussionist Chief Ayanda Clarke, “If your parents were not involved in Yoruba culture and your father did not expose you to percussion instruments at an early age, would you still have become a percussionist?” This question stumps most people that I ask. But, without pause, Chief Ayanda’s answer was a swift and emphatic “YES!” Identifying one’s passion can be challenging for many people. Those who realize their passion may struggle to make it into a career. I believe it would be a different world if we knew how to realize our passion before adulthood. But being a percussionist is more than a matter of passion for Chief Ayanda. It is his destiny. 

Chief Ayanda explains, “I am a practitioner of Ifa. It’s a Yoruba worldview that helps contextualize the individual. I understand myself to be a spiritual entity living a physical experience. And because of that, through the understanding of philosophy, it teaches us that we are fulfilling our destiny. We came here to accomplish something. In accomplishing that ‘something,’ we’ve chosen the environment to be born in as a spiritual entity. I chose to come into the household of Chief Baba Neil Clarke and Iya Patricia Clarke purposefully because I’m here to fulfill a mission. I believe I chose my father because he was a percussionist, and I thought that was a way I could get what I needed (as a percussionist). My name, Ayanda, means born from the spirit of the drum. Part of my mission centers around communication through music—this is who I am; this is what I’m about.” 

Chief Ayanda has studied with many mentors and teachers throughout the African diaspora—Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea, Brazil, Cuba, etc. Percussion has roots in almost every culture around the globe, so there may be just as many traditions of playing drums as there are languages. Africans, including enslaved Africans, played the drum for song and dance and used the drum to communicate across distance; the drum is a universal tool of languages ingrained in various traditions. The drum, as opposed to the trumpet or other instruments, is the perfect tool for communication through music, which fits Chief Ayanda’s mission.

How can Black people use music to understand our identities? 

There are vast gaps in the information that DNA testing companies can offer about the lineage of African diasporic people. For Chief Ayanda, filling these gaps meant immersing himself in African diasporic music and culture to better understand his identity and who he would be without the violence of the transatlantic trade imposed on his ancestors and community. The question that resonated with him was, “What does it look like when operating outside trauma and the challenging experiences passed on to us?” The answer that came to him was to be open to listening to everything. “When you’re open to listening to everything, you start to see the connective tissue,” he says. 

This connective tissue of music-listening travels beyond how to play rhythmic patterns, melodies, and performance dances. By following the lineage of an instrument (as well as rhythms, songs, food, dance, and other elements of culture), we can learn who played that instrument, where they played it, and when. It’s a wide-open door to teach us who we are, why we do what we do, and why particular musical expressions exist in contemporary music. He gives an example of the berimbau, a stringed instrument shaped like a bow, played with a stick in one hand and a thin rock or coin in the other. It is broadly, almost exclusively, identified as a Brazilian instrument. But Chief Ayanda says that you will also find the berimbau throughout Angola. So, was the berimbau created in Angola and traveled with enslaved people to Brazil during the transatlantic slave trade? Or was it developed in Brazil and transferred to Angola when thousands of Brazilian ex-slaves and their descendants resettled in Africa during the 18th century? We can also make a cultural connection between how folks in the Black church play the tambourine and how Brazilians play the pandeiro, their version of the tambourine. "By studying the instrument and its rhythms, you can trace its footsteps,” Chief Ayanda says. 

This reminds me of the cultural similarities between Black high schools and college marching bands, 2nd line drumming in New Orleans, and Samba schools in Brazil. If you listen to the rhythms of Black marching bands and 2nd line drumming, you may hear a Brazilian rhythm called Maracatu. But, neither Black marching bands nor drummers in New Orleans have a name for it exactly. What does come close to mind is a syncopated rhythm referred to today as “The Charleston,” referring to Charleston, SC. But that’s not where its history began. 

Enslaved Africans from central Africa living on plantations in South Carolina brought a dance with them called “Juba,” as we spell it here in the U.S. In Kongo, it was referred to as “Giouba,” and in Haiti as “Djouba.” After the Stono Rebellion in 1739, plantation owners believed that enslaved people were communicating through the drum. So they took the drum away. We see this happening on many plantations across North and South America. So, instead of playing these rhythms on drums, the enslaved Africans in South Carolina, especially those of the Sea Islands of the Gullah people, began playing on their bodies, creating what we know as “Pattin’ Juba” and “hambone,” which accompanied the Juba dance. However, by the early 1900’s, this dance style had become popular with white Americans in New York, and they prescribed it as “The Charleston,” referring to the city in South Carolina. So, James P. Johnson, a Black pianist and composer, wrote a song called “The Charleston” to accompany the favored dance. And, of course, the rhythm he wrote on piano perfectly aligns with the rhythms of Pattin’ Juba. 

The lineage of instruments, rhythms, dance, language, and more can give you a direct view of how and where enslaved people survived being transplanted from one place to another. “How can these instruments exist in these different places, while the expression in how they are played is slightly different? Those questions make you do more research by asking even more questions, which helps you fill in the blanks. As you fill in those blanks, the world becomes smaller and smaller. And as we connect these answers, we see that our differences become smaller and smaller,” he says. “These (relationships) have been my passion.” 

About Dr. JoVia Armstrong 

Dr. JoVia Armstrong is a percussionist, sound artist, producer, composer, and educator from Detroit, MI. In 2015, she won the Best Black Female Percussionist of the Year through the Black Women in Jazz Awards and received the 3Arts Siragusa Foundation Artist Award in 2011 for her work as an educator. She is also the Secretary of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). She has performed with Omar, El DeBarge, The Impressions, Nicole Mitchell, Urban Bush Women, Ballaké Sissoko & Babani Koné, Joe Vasconcellos, and many more. 

She earned a Ph.D. from the University of California- Irvine in their Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology program. She released The Antidote Suite in July 2022 and Inception (2023), which have received critical reviews in publications such as Downbeat Magazine, The New York Times, and The Wire. Both albums support her dissertation, Black Space: Creating Meditative Music Through the Black Lens to Combat Unconscious 

Bias. As a sound artist, she has done sound design for art installations and films and composed music for film scores. As an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Virginia, she teaches courses on Afro-diasporic music.