Madeleine Yayodele Nelson is the founder and guiding light of Women of the Calabash, a company of percussionist/singers that has celebrated the music of Africa and the African diaspora for more than thirty years. The company has performed in concerts and festivals in the U.S. and overseas. It was featured on the public television series Alive from Off Center as well as on WNYC’s New Sounds. In the late nineties, Women of the Calabash released The Kwanzaa Album, a compilation of some of the group’s signature music.
Nelson plays a variety of percussion instruments, specializing in the shekere, a dried gourd covered with beads, which she handcrafts and plays. She teaches shekere in workshops, master classes, and private sessions. As a solo artist, Nelson has recorded with Paul Simon, Edie Brickell, and Billy Harper. Currently, she is involved with a number of groups in addition to her own, including mbiraNYC, Kalunga, and Alakande!
Terry Stoller spoke with Madeleine Yayodele Nelson in November 2014 about her introduction to the shekere, her founding of Women of the Calabash, her commitment to the music of Africa and the African diaspora, her work as an “edutainer” and teacher, her recording experiences, particularly the creation of a music video for the American Bible Society, and her appearances with other Westbeth musicians.
Terry Stoller: I’ve read that you started out as a schoolteacher, but when you were working as a haircutter on the movie The Education of Sonny Carson, you were inspired to turn to music.
Madeleine Yayodele Nelson: That goes back. I was a health and physical education teacher, and I really enjoyed it. I taught in Pennsylvania for a few years, and then came to New York and taught one year. I liked the kids, but the system was too much for me. I did cut hair for that movie. That was in the early seventies. Sonny Carson used real New York City gang kids of the seventies to play gang kids of the fifties, and he didn’t want to ask these kids to get their pride-and-joy afros cut by a Paramount hairdresser. He thought they might not be comfortable with that. So I worked for about a week cutting hair.
There was a music scene in the movie, and I met some of the musicians. I had not had a chance to experience live drumming up close like that. I grew up right outside Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is not like New York. My concept of New York is that anywhere there’s a little square of grass, there’s somebody with a drum. That’s a nice thing, but I hadn’t experienced it. So I got really excited to see and hear these drummers. One person was playing shekere, and I hadn’t seen that instrument before. The drumming looked exciting, but I didn’t see any women drumming, and I thought they might be hesitant to teach me. I found out later that was true. There used to be this kind of—that’s our thing, why do you women want to drum? Why don’t you just dance? So I saw a shekere and wanted to learn to play it. I asked one of the drummers if he would make me one, because I knew he had made his. He said, No, but I’ll teach you to make your own—which was so much better. By the time I went through all that work, I knew it wasn’t going to just hang on the wall or sit on a table. I had put enough energy into it that I was looking forward to playing it.
How long did you work with him?
He showed me how to do it, and I did the first one the way he showed me—the first and the second. Then I made some changes to the visual appearance and also to improve the sound. It took me a while to make the first one, and I’ve been making them ever since. I made them for the Broadway company of Fela! [first produced in 2009] and for the London company. And I’ve had the opportunity to make instruments for musicians from many other countries. It makes me feel good that they’re being played all around the world.
What kind of interest did you have in music before you worked on the
Sonny Carson movie?
I always liked music. I sang in choirs and in high school and college. When I went to college, I bought a guitar for $10 and a Buffy Sainte-Marie songbook. It was a state school, and in the four years I was there, maybe there were twenty black students, tops. So there wasn’t any social life for me. I had this guitar, and I would strum and sing, and I taught myself to play chords.
It always felt so good to sing. After I formed my company, I gathered people together and created harmonies so that the lead singer would have a solid, lush support.
Your career has been based on African music and African-inspired music.
Can you say why?
Probably because that experience with those drummers had quite an effect on me, and I began to see that it was something I could study without formal university training. I’ve written music, but I’ve never learned to write it down. I would compose on an instrument, for example, on a steel pan. I bought a pan, and I wrote a song so that I could play that song. I did that kind of thing a lot. And I probably chose this music because not only did I like the way the shekere felt, I liked the effect it had on people.
Do you think the Black Power movement of the sixties and seventies factored into this as well?
I think that time period had a profound effect on the music I chose to perform. For example, I heard the anthem of the African National Congress, which is now one of the anthems of South Africa, and I wanted people to hear it. And some of the folkloric things, some of the Yoruba tradition—I had never heard anyone do that from the stage. I liked the music, I thought it would be good, and I did it.
The drums led me to listening to African music more—not that African music is all drums. So I started making shekeres, and I began teaching people to play long before I would have, not being a master of the instrument. But I found out that a lot of people wanted to learn, and there wasn’t anybody teaching. And also the one person I knew who taught shekere used to teach in a kind of way that was popular in those days, which was a little bit by ridicule, to embarrass you. For instance, outside of class, when I least expected it, in front of strangers, he would say, “What was that rhythm I taught you last week?” You were supposed to come up with it on the spot. I don’t respond to that well, so I started teaching. I thought it would be a good idea to learn in an environment where you could just learn and make mistakes. If you make it fun, then it doesn’t matter, and nobody is embarrassed about making a mistake. I started teaching in the late seventies, and I founded Women of the Calabash in 1978.
What was the impetus to found Women of the Calabash?
I guess I was having fun playing, and I wanted to perform. I always wanted to sing, and this would give me a chance to do that. I had never heard anyone play shekere in an ensemble. It was always a little something added besides the drums. But each shekere has a pitch in addition to the polyrhythms that you achieve with the beads. Because it’s hollow when you hit it on the bottom, it has a sound, and each one is a different pitch. Since you play drums together with that in mind, it seemed to me to be a good idea to do the same with shekeres.
How do you pitch a shekere?
A shekere is made from a gourd or a calabash. You have to cut it open with a saw, clean out the inside, and then seal the inside surface. When you do that, because it’s hollow, if you take it and drop it on your hand, there is a pitch that’s determined by how big that opening is and how long the neck is. Cutting the necks different lengths—and also varying the size—enables me to pitch the instruments so that when you’re playing together, there’s a conversation. I often create rhythms with phrases that repeat through pitch.
So when you’re making the instrument and cutting the neck, you’re considering which pitch you want?
From the minute I cut it with a saw, I have some ideas from the dimensions of the gourd what the sound might be like. But there are so many variables: how thick it is, how long the neck is, how wide the neck is. So I’m starting to think as I begin it. It’s very exciting to me to see what I can bring out of it. I get fooled sometimes, but I do have some sense of what it might be.
When you saw it open and clean it out, how do you get it back together?
I saw only the top of the neck off. I have to reach in and clean it.
What about the beads on the outside?
The beads are on a system of strings that are suspended from a ring at the base of the neck. They’re in a netlike configuration that has to be closed on the bottom. The tension of that and how much space there is between the beads and the gourd determine the way you can play it. For example, if there’s less space, you can play a whole lot faster with ease. There are certain people I’ve been making shekeres for on a regular basis over the years. I know their playing styles, and I can make the instrument according to the way they play.
One of the major changes that I made when I started out was the type of string I used. It’s commonplace now, but I had never seen it then. People were using cotton string, and that’s what I was taught to string with. But it would wear out. I wanted something stronger. It was also kind of bulky, so for me it interfered with the designs I was making with the beads. I wanted you to be looking at this lovely bead design rather than the string. I used something smaller and sometimes darker, so the focus was the beads. By using a smaller string, the beads, which slide back and forth on it, move more freely, and there’s a certain facility that’s added to your playing.
Did Women of the Calabash take off right away?
We got positive response early. We performed in New York a lot and then started to travel. I didn’t really tour because I had a young son, so we’d go out and play and come back. It gave me a chance to see a lot of countries I wouldn’t have seen, and that was very exciting.
Who was your audience?
A really wide range. I can remember doing a kind of mini-tour in Germany in the nineties. We played three cities, and we rented a van and drove between the cities. I had a brother who lived in Germany, but I don’t speak any German. And, you know, people are socialized differently in different countries. I can remember that at the first show we did on this particular tour, the audience was just sitting there, and I was thinking, Oh, boy.
And you really want people to participate.
Sure, to have fun. So I was thinking, Boy, we have to get off the stage. And then when we finished, they yelled, they clapped, and they stamped their feet. It was a wooden floor, and the sound was thunderous. I hadn’t realized that they’re socialized to sit and listen. I haven’t been to Germany for a while, but I’ve been there a lot.
How do you choose your repertoire?
I like to choose music that comes from either the African continent or the many countries where Africans have settled. So we might sing a Zulu song; the next song might be in Spanish because it’s from Puerto Rico, where many thousands of people of African descent live; then maybe we’ll play an instrument from Kenya. I’ve always liked teaching, so it has to do with what I can teach from the stage and perform, because everyone likes to learn in a comfortable setting. So I get to teach things without seeming to be teaching. If I’m going to play mbira from Zimbabwe, I’m going to tell you that it’s the national instrument from Zimbabwe. I’m going to tell you that the Shona have played it for over a thousand years, and that they play songs they pass down through the generations—and then I play it. And the next time you see that instrument, you’ll know something about it.
Women of the Calabash has been around for more than three decades, as a quartet and a trio—and with varying members. How does it feel to be the person who’s stayed throughout that time?
It’s very interesting because the dynamic changes. The concept stays the same, but I tailor the music and the arrangements to fit the current members—to who the people are and what we’re looking at, reading about, or experiencing in any given time.
Because I did that almost exclusively for over three decades and because in the past several years, Women of the Calabash has primarily worked within the school system, I now have time to work with a number of other groups. So I can do other types of music. I’m involved in a company whose members play mbira from Zimbabwe only, called mbiraNYC, and I’m involved in a group called Kalunga, and in Alakande!, which is a group of six women. We drum and sing and play shekeres. I get to do different things. It feeds you when you work with good musicians. It pushes your creativity.
Women of the Calabash has been called a group of musician/dancers, and you’ve said that you can’t stay still when you’re playing the shekere. Can you elaborate on that?
It’s not something that I can stand still and play. It would feel very foreign. Your body is just involved in it. And even in drumming, the rhythm fills your body up. It’s hard to ignore, and our bodies respond to it. So I tell audiences that if they want to, they can do something. They can rock. They can clap. They can sing. Sometimes they get up and dance.
What about your trademark move of throwing your shekere into the air?
Where did that come from?
I like to do it. Audiences like that, and it’s fun.
And you catch it.
Only one time in my life, I didn’t catch it. I was filming a PBS special with Women of the Calabash [Alive from Off Center, 1987]. The reason I didn’t catch it was that after I threw it up, I suddenly remembered that they had told me, Now you’re supposed to focus on camera 2. I said to myself, Where is camera 2? So I caught it, but not well. I couldn’t hold on to it, and it hit the floor (but it didn’t break). The audience and my colleagues were aghast. Then we did a second take—and that never happened again.
In 1998, Women of the Calabash released The Kwanzaa Album.
How did that come about?
There was a producer from Bermuda Reefs Records for whom we [Nelson along with Mayra Casales and Marsha Perry Starkes] did a show in the World Trade Center lobby. He was wondering why he had not heard of us before. He thought other people would like our music, so he funded the album.
Would you tell me about some of the music on the album?
We sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” because it’s the African-American anthem. We sing the Kwanzaa song that was made popular by Sweet Honey in the Rock. But the whole record is not specifically Kwanzaa. Some of it is the type of music we play all year. “Ishe Oluwa” is a Yoruba song, which says that God’s work is wonderful, and God’s work can never be undone. I liked this song, and I arranged the harmony. And then because I like rounds, I put a round in the middle of it. I like to sometimes take the familiar and change it. “Mya Si Grei” is a song from Suriname that I heard in Martinique. We went there to do a festival for a week, and there was a company singing this song. The women were all 60-plus and singing in these really high voices. During the course of the week, when we went to another city, I was on the bus with these women. I asked them, Tell me about that song. What does it mean? And they said, It’s a song that comes from the time of enslavement. We can’t translate it word for word, but it means that even though we’re in these terrible conditions and being oppressed, we’re still the same proud, noble people we always were. I had a little tape recorder, and it was loud on the bus, but I knew I wanted to preserve this song.
Did you enjoy making the album?
I did. I’m trying to remember the year I recorded with Paul Simon.
Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints came out in 1990, eight years before
The Kwanzaa Album.
It’s very likely I didn’t have much specific studio experience between those two. I’ve always been focused on the performing as opposed to cataloguing or getting it down. It was a very good experience.
You’d done some other albums, for instance with Billy Harper and Gabrielle Roth
and Edie Brickell.
Yes, but for example, with Billy Harper’s Somalia, I was on one tune, which was nice. But most people don’t record live. Most people do a track, and then you play to a track. Women of the Calabash performed as much as possible live, and it’s a different experience. On Paul Simon’s CD, I played on three cuts. It’s very different to go in and play to a three-and-a-half minute track of just one drum. And Paul’s process is that he’ll take a drum line or a riff and build on it and build on it, and then write a song to it. So I was there really early on. When it happens like that, you don’t get to embellish; you have to be kind of low key. But I enjoyed it, and I found him to be surprisingly open for a musician of his stature. He would say, Do you think I need shekere on this cut? And I might say yes, or I’d say, You’ve got a lot of stuff there already. Or he played me some things before the song was really there, just some ideas that he had.
Can you talk about your work for children?
Women of the Calabash does some concerts specifically for children. I work in a program called Curriculum Arts Project through Symphony Space. I’ve done it for about twenty-five years. It’s a wonderful program. While children are studying about Africa, they get a visit from Women of the Calabash. Two of us will go into the classroom. They get a visit from Spirit Ensemble. They get a visit from Charles Moore Dance Theatre. This happens from late October to December. Once the program is over, the students get to come to Symphony Space and see these people who were in their classroom in performance.
And you teach drumming in camp.
In the summer, I teach djembe drumming at the Fresh Air Fund camp upstate. I get to open a little window and give the kids something that some of them never thought to do. It’s a great camp. The kids don’t pay. The camp offers classes in photography, creative writing, dance, drumming, swimming, drama, and many other subjects. There’s a circus teacher and a martial arts teacher. It’s something I’m very happy to be a part of.
In the mid-nineties, Women of the Calabash did a video for the American Bible Society called The Visit.
This was an interesting challenge. The American Bible Society realized that young people love music videos. So they decided to tell some Bible stories through music videos. We had one of the first ones that they did. They were going to make three and see how that went. We were given the story of Mary getting the visit by the angel Gabriel, who says you’re going to have this very special child. And she goes and walks through the wilderness. They gave us all this research material about how long it would have taken, that there were wild animals and nothing happened to her. She is going to tell the news to her cousin Elizabeth, who, despite being past childbearing age, is pregnant. (That child will become John the Baptist.) And when Mary gets there, her cousin opens the door and already knows. Mary doesn’t have to tell her.
It was a very interesting story to tell. One of the few stories about women in the Bible. And the challenge for me—aside from the challenge of writing the music, which I write in my head or on the keyboard—was that we had to use the exact words from the Bible verses they gave us. So, of course, they don’t rhyme.
How did you incorporate your style into the Bible story?
When I did it first, I had the first part as spoken word. The people from the American Bible Society came to see what it was—this was at a time when rap was in its infancy—and they were scared to death. They hated it. For example [she claps out the beats, rapping], “Af-ter the an-gel Ga-bri-el told Ma-ry that she would have son”—and the other voice would say: “That she would have a son.” They didn’t like it, so I had to redo it. I had to come up with something different and make it more melodic. I wrote the music for it, and then we were the on-screen talent.
Were you in your usual African garb?
Yes. We had to allow them to choose the fabric. They went with me to what used to be an open-air African market on 125th Street to buy it. So we looked like us, and it was filmed in Atlanta in Bobby Brown’s studio. Phyllis Bethel, Marsha Perry Starkes, and I went to Atlanta and recorded the music, and then we went to a studio where they had made a set. It was clever. They had big Styrofoam rocks. We had to walk by these rocks. At some points, we were playing shekeres—and we also played bata drums. They had made a little pond, and at one point as Phyllis was singing, they were shooting her reflection in the pond. However, in Atlanta it was 99 degrees outside, and the studio was freezing. And by the end of the week, mosquitoes had laid eggs in the pond. The last couple of days, they were flying around and biting us. But it was a great experience.
Women of Calabash was in a concert at Westbeth in 1989 with Freddie Waits and
What a nice thing to play with the greats. It was a lovely experience. I think it was in the one theatre that we have left, off the courtyard. They hadn’t thought of the fact that when musicians, particularly percussionists, play together, they need to be able to see each other. I remember that Freddie was behind a pillar, and we were trying to shift our positions in a very limited space so that we could have eye contact.
I know you played with Bobby Harden at the Westbeth music festival a few years ago. And Women of the Calabash has performed at the festival. Do you feel part of a Westbeth music community?
I wasn’t here when Westbeth opened. I’m told there was a real sense of community in the early days, and that kind of fizzled. But I think the people who have worked to put this festival back are responsible for getting that feeling started again. So I get a chance to play with Eve Zanni and Bobby and Valerie Ghent and Michael Moss and others.
You said that you’re also working with a number of other groups, including Kalunga. How did you get together with that group?
The group was the concept of Javier Diaz. He’s a brilliant musician who plays folkloric music and classical music. He was a teacher of two of the members in it, and they were shekere students of mine. These two students, Grant Braddock and Mike Ramsey, introduced me to Javier. He came to my shekere classes a few times, and we started Kalunga about two years ago. We play folkloric music based on ancient traditions, some of which is Javier’s original music. I love it. I’m singing, and I’m playing mbira, shekere, and occasional drum, but these men are exquisite drummers. We’ve done an EP to help us get bookings.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Did I tell you that I played for four presidents? I played for one American president, Barack Obama, at a fund-raiser. I played for Jean-Bertrand Aristide when he was here in exile from Haiti. I played for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, two years ago. I played for Thomas Sankara, who invited Women of the Calabash to Burkina Faso in 1985. He came to New York and spoke, and we were one of the many groups that performed. He was surprised to see African-American women performing African music, and he decided to invite us to his country. They put us up for two weeks. We did shows, shows were done for us, they took us around to three different cities, and the president invited us for lunch. And I gave him a shekere. When we were invited to Africa, I wrote the song “Coming Home” because we were coming home. I wrote it on a steel pan, which was not familiar to a lot of people there. So when we played it, people would come and gather to look in at it.
For me, performance is a constant learning experience and something that makes me so happy and makes other people happy—which is why I like the stage. I’m a very shy person. People who don’t know me laugh at that because they see me on the stage, and I’m making people laugh, and I’m giving them information. But privately I’m very shy. The stage gives me a chance to be that other Madeleine Yayodele. I get to teach, I get to perform, and I get to make people feel good. It’s win, win, win. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
As I said earlier, I haven’t had formal music education. It was my family who opened me up to the world of music. My parents, my siblings, and my son are my greatest inspiration.
Madeleine Yayodele Nelson passed away on September 6, 2018. She was 69.
Photo credits—Madeleine Yayodele Nelson, at top: Karim J. Nelson. Courtesy of Karim J. Nelson. Women of the Calabash: Valerie Ghent; Joe’s Pub: David Plakke. Courtesy of Valerie Ghent.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2015 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council