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Features | Fall 2017
(photo by Vaschelle André)

Pounding for Peace

It began in 1992 when I received an invitation from Linda Tillery, singer/percussionist and ethnomusicologist, to join her in creating an a cappella women’s ensemble that would focus on African-American roots folk music: old slave songs, moans and field hollers, and the music of the Gullah Sea Islands. In an early rehearsal she turned to me and said, “Mel, you’re gonna be the stick pounder.” I was absolutely clueless as to what that even meant. She handed me a four-foot-long dowel and pounded out a particular rhythm, her feet doing something else entirely. I took to it so quickly that it felt natural, like “in my bones.” My father’s people are from South Carolina near St. Helena and Hilton Head, two of the many Sea Islands. Pounding felt like coming home to my true heart. Wood on wood, the Sea Island Spirituals, call and response, foot stompin’ and hand clappin’ called to me, and for eighteen years I was the bass singer and “sticker” for Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, a Grammy-nominated, percussion-driven a cappella ensemble.

(photo by Robert Fischer)

I began to think about the power of pounding, about the People stolen from Sierra Leone and surrounding African nations, crammed into holds of death ships, shackled together, terrified, torn away from everything and everyone they knew, across raging seas and thrown onto these outer islands. How do you survive something like this? How do you maintain your sense of who you are in a situation where you are told you are nothing, that you have no history, no story? You realize that all you have is each other. The People spoke different languages, claimed different traditions. So they created a common language in which could tell each other where they came from and who they were. They planted the seeds of their story in the hearts of those around them—those who, literally, came over in the same boat.

Music, song, ceremony, and ritual were vital to the People, and they were able to maintain many of their traditions because they were so isolated from the mainland. All the slave quarters were on stilts (the cash crop of the Sea Islands was rice; the People were stolen because of their expertise at growing it) and they would use pestles, hoe handles, AND feet to turn the whole place into a drum. You might have one or two folks pounding, the others singing, still others doing the Ring Shout.*

In my years as a Vocal Activist, master teaching artist, composer, and songwriter, I began to think of pounding as a source for connection and community building. I believe that the rhythm was, and is, a conduit to freedom, the songs are food, and the need for congregational expressions of our collective sorrow, grief, and joy essential to our survival. So I began writing and arranging stick pounding pieces for large groups, beginning with my sixth grade choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Oakland, California, where for twenty-one years I’ve taught a cappella singing and body percussion. Over the years, I’ve developed an entire curriculum around decorating the sticks and learning the hand claps, foot stomps, stick rhythms, and songs. I’ve had the pleasure of doing residencies with numerous choral organizations, universities, schools, nonprofit organizations, and various spiritual communities.

Freedom Land I: “Which Way?” with VocalEssence

My first major piece, Freedom Land, premiered in 2012 with The Washington Chorus in Washington, DC (2012: Julian Wachner, Artistic Director). Since then, I’ve done the piece with VocalEssence in Minneapolis, Minnesota (2014: Philip Brunell), OneVoice in St. Paul, Minnesota (2015: Jane Ramseyer Miller), MUSE in Cincinnati, Ohio (2013: Dr. Catherine Roma), and Anna Crusis in Philadelphia, Pennsylvaia (2015: Miriam Davidson).

I’ve pounded with dancers, spoken word artists like Youth Speaks Oakland, elders, folks on wheels, cancer survivors, zillions of students from little to big, police cadets, and police chiefs. Over the years, my beloved stick pounding army has grown. My largest group of pounders was 250 strong, at the premiere of my latest piece, “Sanctuary,” with VocalEssence, two middle school, and two high school choirs from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. We filled up the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall with thundering joy. The piece was all the more powerful as a reflection on the outcome of the 2016 election.

Freedom Land II: “I’m On My Way” and III: “Oh, Freedom, Come By Here” with VocalEssence

In these times, the need for connection is more vital than ever. People are starving for community, for opportunities to be together. Singing and pounding and mourning and jubilation are food. When we can move together, create sound, and align hearts and minds, we create moments of peace. We can take a deep breath and tighten the weave of community.

That’s why I pound. That’s why I share the gift of pounding.

Hold on to your story; it will help you find your way. POUND ON!

* Ring Shout is an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by enslaved Africans in the West Indies and the United States, in which worshipers move in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands.