Percussionist Chief Baba Neil Clarke is performing on Sunday July 1 at Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn as part of the International African Arts Festival, a celebration that kicks off Saturday June 30 and goes until the 4thof July.
Ang Santos: Your performance at the International African Arts Festival is a tribute to Mongo Santamaria? Was he a major influence on your music?
Chief Baba Neil Clarke: Absolutely. He’s a major influence in my music. He’s a major influence in the music when you consider Mongo Santamaria was an iconic conga stylist. He was a bandleader with a longstanding institution as an ensemble that was performing the music. A lot of people think of Mongo as a conguero and the mind automatically goes to Latin music, Afro-Cuban music, and Mongo was all of that, but he was a jazz band leader. He pursued the music with a jazz approach. I’m trying to honor that side of the music. He had Herbie Hancock in the band, Chick Corea, Hubert Laws. I’m trying to emphasize the jazz side of Mongo and his music.
AS: On top of your accomplishments in music, you’ve become quite a researcher of African culture. Tell us a little bit about what you learned during that journey.
NC: It’s interesting. Coming up as an African American in the music, the narrative is always that the African drum was taken away and the music in America evolved in the absence of the African drum. I’ve been involved in research that demonstrates that that’s not quite the fact. There’s been a presence of the African drum on the North American continent going back to 1645. I’ve assembled a map of the United States with so many points on the map it’s mind boggling in consideration of the narrative that the drum was taken away.
AS: What did you ultimately find?
NC: We talk about Congo Square and the presence of the African drum. We have the Pinkster Festival that was two-hundred years of African drumming in the Hudson River Valley. We have African drums in the British museum that were collected in Virginia. We have various African drum traditions here in the United States that people that are not familiar with African drum traditions don’t recognize it as being that. There’s other stuff that I haven’t even gotten to that demonstrates this point.
AS: You spent some time in Nigeria and acquired a lengthy and impressive title in your time there.
NC: The title I received was a chieftaincy title in Osogbo, Nigeria. Alufopejo Awo of Osogbo, which translates as the drummer to the spiritual elite. It was humbling. When I received that honor, they read my bio as a percussionist in jazz as part of the reason why I was getting that chieftaincy. That’s a bit humbling to consider that in Africa where the traditions began, they’re recognizing what I’m doing here in African American and American classical music.
AS: You spent a number of years performing with Harry Belafonte. Did he have an influence on the scholarly aspect of your life?
NC: Working with Mr. Belafonte was like being in the international musical workshop, a think tank. At any given time in his ensemble we would find musicians from Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Cuba, South Africa, Greece, Brazil, and we were all collaborating in the assembling and the arranging of Mr. Belafonte’s repertoire. Coming at it from different perspectives and emphasizing different influences. We had to become familiar with all of these different influences in order to be able to interpret them. Mr. Belafonte is a highly professional and meticulous presenter when he comes on stage. It was contingent on everyone in the band to be aware of what was going on with every other instrument on the band stand. That’s an institution in itself. I spent thirteen years with Mr. Belafonte. I know I wouldn’t be the musician that I am without that experience.
AS: You have another great working partner with Brooklyn’s own pianist composer, the great Randy Weston. Should we expect a special guest appearance during the African Arts Festival?
NC: I have no idea what Mr. Weston is up to or where he is. Mr. Weston is a 92-year-old phenomenon. He can be anywhere in the world at this given point. He may show up, he may not show up. If there is a piano on the stage, I know he would be more than welcome to join us but I could not say that Mr. Weston would be there and he would perform.
AS: You’re a longtime Brooklyn resident. Is this your first trip to this festival as a visitor, scholar, or musician?
NC: This is the forty-seventh year of this festival and I have been going to this festival since it started as the African Street Carnival on Claver Place in Brooklyn. The founder Baba Chief Jitu Weusi was one of the iconic leaders in the community. He was a personal mentor for me. I went there when I was in the process of discovering what African culture was about. I met three of my teachers at the festival in the very beginning. Chief James Hawthorne Bey, Baba Ishangi, and Olukose Wiles were the ones that molded me to get to the point that I could work with Mr. Belafonte. This festival has always been a destination for me and the people in the community for as long as I can remember.
AS: So, it must be a real honor at this point to be a headliner of one of the performances during this festival.
NC: I’ve been there several times with different groups over the years performing. It’s always wonderful to perform at the festival in Brooklyn considering that I’m all over the world all of the time. It’s nice to come home and perform in Brooklyn for my family and for the community. It’s an honor and humbling to be able to step on that stage as a headliner after all of these years.
For a full listing of the 47thInternational African Arts Festival events, visit iaafestival.org.