When thinking of Yayo’s life the image of Sankofa from the Akan people of Ghana comes to mind. Sankofa is a bird with its head turned behind, flying forward with an egg on its back, a symbol introduced to me by Madeleine Yayodele Nelson of Women of the Calabash. In my interview with her published in 1991 she stated, “What it signifies is go back and regain that which is lost.”
A beloved neighbor and teacher in the Westbeth community, artists’ residence in Manhattan’s West Village, Yayo’s sudden death from a heart attack was a shock and felt as a great loss. At a service at Symphony Space, her family, friends, musicians, dancers and spiritual leaders came together for a joyous memorial. Yayo was the founder of the musical company Women of the Calabash that celebrates the legacy of the African Diaspora in song, dance and rhythm bringing ancient traditions from the African continent to a modern audience. Master of many instruments, Yayo was best known for her shekere performances playing hollowed dried gourds covered with stringed beads she made that created an astounding variety of percussive sounds.
Yayo and her group toured on stage, in concert and festivals world wide and as a solo artist Yayo recorded with Paul Simon, Edie Brickell and Billy Harper. She performed for world leaders including Barack Obama, Jean-Bertrand Aristede, and Thomas Sankara.
Her group released one full length album in 1998, The Kwansa Album, and you can listen to her music on podcast 274.
The Women of the Calabash Celebrate African Music
Interview with Madeleine Yayodele Nelson - 1991
“They say we’re old-fashioned but we’re taking a stand
This culture is going to last.”
Lyric by Madeleine Yayodele Nelson
When Women of the Calabash takes the stage with an array of indigenous instruments, shekeres, bamboo astamping tubes, drums, bells and mbalbons – this colorfully dressed urban trio embarks on a musical tour of the African Diaspora. As they sing in native tongues and powerful vocal harmony, beat their instruments non-stop and dance with pounding bare feet, the walls fade away.
There you are, singing on a dusty road in Africa, waving scarves on second line during Mardi Gras in New Orleans or dancing to steel drums in Trinidad. Their spectacular performance is interwoven with informal dialogue spiced with African history. From African tribal chants to Black American gospel, blues, jazz and rap, you are carried from music’s ancient roots to contemporary sounds on a journey that spans many centuries and revives body and soul.
GRISELDA –Women of the Calabash has been performing worldwide for 13 years. As artistic director and founder of the group, what is the philosophy behind your work?
MADELEINE – Cultural identity is important to all people. I see Women of the Calabash as a cultural custodian concerned with preserving our heritage and roots. There is no one geographical focus to our music. We are committed to studying, playing and sharing music of indigenous people struggling to gain self-determination. The feedback I’ve gotten is that we are making a contribution which people appreciate and that encourages us to continue.
GRISELDA – What motivated you to form Women of the Calabash?
MADELEINE – My principal purpose was to bring the shekere forward as an ensemble instrument. I had seen it accompanying drums, but not played by itself. I found that its qualities were smothered by other instruments. Each shekere has a different “voice” and tone. When played in ensemble, they speak back and forth, pulling you into the music. My sisters, Joan Ashley and Natalie Ransom and I have a great deal of fun when we play shekere. There is so much joy and communication between us. This joy infuses our music and is transmitted to the audience.
GRISELDA – Most of your instruments are crafted from natural sources – bamboo, gourd and wood. How is the shekere made?
MADELEINE – Shekere is the Nigerian (Yoruban) name for this percussion instrument made from the calabash. The calabash grows on trees found all over Africa, South American and the Caribbean, but gourd vines on the U.S. west coast have almost identical fruit. The basic method of preparing a shekere is ancient. The calabash, or gourd, is dried, then opened with a saw and the pulp cleaned out. When the soft material is removed the shell becomes a resonant chamber. The ‘voices’ are individual and affected by the size and shape of the gourd and the way you cut the neck. I’ve made many shekeres because, for example, if I’m in a recording studio, I need a different sound than when I’m on a concert stage. When stringing the rattling beads aside from creating a design, I am careful to balance the bead tension.
Array of Madeline's Instruments Photo by Gabriel Herman
Playing techniques vary from basic downbeat to rhythm intricacies. We do a piece called the “Shekere Sonata” a choreographed routine from which we improvise. When I teach shekere, I give the students freedom to explore – we sing, we clap, we walk, we count. Since people learn in different ways, I give my students a variety of ways to internalize rhythm and technique.
GRISELDA – What is the traditional role of music in Africa?
MADELEINE – Music was much more important in daily life in Africa than here. There was special music by which men of the Miniaka of Mali pumped the bellows for the blacksmith; music by which you planted to get a good harvest. You called out to a particular spirit to put the energy into millet to grow. You were praying in a sense that all would go well. This was always done. It wasn’t just a matter of the music being enjoyable – you didn’t want to offend.
Music was also used for social control. Among Ibibio women if a husband mistreated his wife, the Ebre society gathered as sisters, went to the village square and sang about what happened. That husband was disgraced. Unfortunately, in what tribal life still exists today, there is a need to adopt a Western viewpoint in order to prosper. The music is getting lost.
In Eurocentric history, the suggestion that explorers only discovered primitive cultures is naÃ¯ve. The colonizers didn’t understand how tribes were structured, as their social instruction was guarded. The Mende people formed secret societies for men and women. If you had position and were honorable, you were trained in a code of conduct and passed it down.
GRISELDA – Did women play a specific role?
MADELEINE – The role of women in African music is varied. There is a misconception we often address from the stage that women do not play drums in Africa. But in fact, women drum, sing, dance, heal and teach through music in many African cultures.
GRISELDA – What was the traditional way of teaching music in Africa?
MADELEINE – The reason for traditional learning was not necessarily that there was no written language, but that the student gained discipline and understood its importance through memory. With the Miniaka people of Mali, a child may study with a teacher for five years but not play until the third. He listens to internalize, then earns the right to approach the instrument. He might not be allowed to play a ritual rhythm until the appropriate time and he dare not play it incorrectly. So, being present while the elders play is an essential part of his training.
GRISELDA – What was the role of the Griot in African music?
MADELEINE – A Griot or the Jali, as the Senegalese call him, is a troubadour who will tell the history of your family or community. He sings and entertains for pay, but he is not necessarily concerned with the accuracy of his story. In Guinea, the Griot is a man who plays the kora and whose wife will accompany him vocally.
GRISELDA – What music and or drumming is used for healing?
MADELEINE – In some African cultures drums are used for healing. In Mali, a drummer is prepared, like a doctor, to pick up his drum when his healing expertise is needed. The drum and mbalafon may be played for emotionally or physically disturbed Miniaki people over a period of several days, with the musician employing various rhythms and tempos until the vibrations to treat the ailing organ become effective. Since these practices have been carried on for centuries, they must have validity.
GRISELDA – What are the threads that run through African music?
MADELEINE – For me, the very obvious thread is rhythm and the element of denominator is the centuries old tradition of call and response. One person does a call and challenges another. If you use call and response, a large group singing doesn’t need to rehearse. The call of the lead singer dictates the response from the group. This technique is also found in jazz, gospel, the blues, etc.
GRISELDA – In your concerts you go from rap to tribal chant, to gospel to a Caribbean “Jump Up” in a short time and span thousands of years.
MADELEINE – People tend to compartmentalize music. I see it largely as a life force in one continuum. We make direct parallels in our show. During the African Diaspora, when the Yoruba people were deposited in Cuba, they were able to disguise worship of their own deities within Catholicism. So while seemingly praising Santa Barbara, the Yoruba person was actually saluting a deity. In North America, people from tribal groupings were separated because slave masters were afraid of revolts. The slaves who eventually adopted Christianity influenced Christian music in a way, which led to the creation of American gospel.
GRISELDA – I was surprised when you began a concert with a rap song.
MADELEINE – A lot of rap today is unsavory, but rap music is ancient. Before you had rappers talking politics, you had Calypso and Soca. A part of being a good Calypso singer was being able to make up a verse on the spot. It was used to comment on community affairs. Take this a step back to the Jali and the Griot. This suggests to me that there is a very old tradition among black people that we speak out publicly on community affairs.
GRISELDA – How do you gather material for your group?
MADELEINE – We’re always trying to gain information and to that end travel is invaluable. In the U.S. recently, we were doing a tour of concerts and workshops where we met a sister from Kenya. We asked her for a song from her childhood. We were invited to Burkina Faso, West Africa, in 1985 by the then-president, Thomas Sankara, to help them celebrate the second anniversary of their revolution. He had seen us perform in Harlem and wanted Burkina women to see what urban Americas were doing in terms of preserving and promoting African culture. In Guyane in 1987, we learned songs that enslaved people in Surinam sang to help preserve their inner dignity. Here at home, we study with teachers of traditional music from many cultures and this study influences our compositions.
GRISELDA – I believe people today are more aware of the value of native cultures because we see the deterioration of our own civilization.
MADELEINE – If America is calling itself a melting pot there really isn’t any fire under it. The term multiculturalism is thrown around, but in fact one basic Euorcentric viewpoint is stressed.
People who are reaching back are finding a legacy of ancient customs and rituals that has been discounted. It is new for Americans to give it credence. Women of the Calabash’s music doesn’t only pertain to people of African heritage because we point to cultures where traditional values still exist.
There is a symbol from the Akan people of Ghana called Sankofa – a bird with its body going forward and its head turning back. What it signifies is “Go back and regain that which is being lost.”