It was three weekends before the Garvey School’s Friday, May 10, debut of “5 Pumpkin Seeds,” its largest performance of the year, held at the New Jersey State Museum. Also known as Egun Omode Shule (roughly translated as the school of the ancestors), the Garvey School is a Trenton-based performance group and K-8 educational institution grounded in music and culture of the pre-colonial African diaspora. The group regularly performs at schools and nursing homes, gives weekly lessons at Princeton University, and takes part in local community events.
I was at the Trenton War Memorial attending Soupfest, a local community event, to see a preview performance and interview Baye Kemit, the Garvey School’s founding principal, and Foluso Mimy, the group’s lead drummer and musical director, afterwards. It took me 30 minutes of sitting through “Rockin’ Out with the Ernie White band” — decidedly not African — to figure out I was in the wrong place at the right time.
By the time I found Kemit and Mimy, some two floors below, the group had finished its set some 10 or 15 minutes prior. Kemit thanked me for coming, but, upon learning that I missed the show, insisted that I should see them perform before discussing their work. After unsuccessfully trying to talk my way into completing the interview then and there, I agreed to do so, time permitting.
And so, one week later, off to Burlington’s Tabernacle Baptist Church I went, with one foot on the gas and the other in my mouth, to attend an event titled “The Spirit of Sankofa.” The word “sankofa” literally translates as “go back and fetch.” Symbolically, it represents an understanding of ancestral heritage in order to provide modern context. It was the word Kemit had used to characterize the Garvey School’s founding principles. It certainly sounded like everything he aimed to represent.
The event, held in an auditorium spacious enough to fit two full-sized basketball courts and a large stage with plenty of room to spare, was all sankofa. There were more than a dozen performances: a modern gospel R&B mashup, line steppers, traditional African drummers, pop-lockers, ballet-like freestyle dance routines, and a skit on Hurricane Katrina to name a few. When the MC asked the audience for ages and distances traveled in exchange for prizes, the eldest claimed 81 years. The furthest had come from Tennessee to see her daughter perform.
The focus being education through entertainment, rather than entertainment for its own sake, it wasn’t hard to sort out the pros from the eager and earnest amateurs. Three African drummers in the opening performance played with unmatched sync and precision. A spoken word artist, who made his living selling recordings of his performances, expertly demonstrated variations in pitch, double-speak, and context in a way that made him sound sincere, mature, and daring, near risque, all at the same time. A tap dancing teen, wearing a dapper, jacketless blue-gray tuxedo and wielding a stylized Mohawk, made me feel like I was watching a star in the making. When Egun Omode’s four adult drummers and 10 young dancers took the stage, Foluso Mimy needed only to pat away at his drum for a few seconds to stand out from the lot of them.
On stage he shows his professionalism in his stance, on his shoulders, and below his elbows. Mimy stands up straight, but relaxed, his shoulders remaining steady, even and parallel to the floor. His forearms, too, stay in place but look relaxed, only rotating from the elbow and flicking at the wrist with discipline and precision, like a cellist with stronger wrists and faster fingers.
When Mimy is forced to sit or stand in one place while performing, whatever emotion the drum cannot seem to contain usually shows itself above his neck. His head rotates. His face contorts, grows taut, or stretches and smooths out at the cheeks and forehead. He sometimes mouths words to the drum in what looks like his own language; his lips sometimes forming into the shape of an “O” sound, for example, when its pitch becomes relatively hollow. When he breaks into faster, louder, more intricate solos, he tilts his head back and faces upward.
When he moves from the back of the stage to join two dancers in a side-to-side step and shuffle, all that excess energy seems to find a new outlet in his legs. His face and upper body relax again as he smiles while dancing, shoulders still square, still patting away at the drum from the shoulders, elbows, and wrists, never missing a beat.
Throughout the performance, Mimy did not so much look as if he were playing drums as if he lets the rhythm take over.
“We call it performance pitch,” he later tells me. The polish and precision come from years of learning to master technique. The “feeling,” he says, comes from a lifetime playing, performing, and listening to the music for the sheer joy of it — and from taking the time to immerse himself in the culture from which the music came in order to appreciate all that it represents.
Mimy was born and raised in Newark to two lifelong Newark residents. His mother was a dancer, teacher, and poet. She owned a dance school and music studio in the city and would sometimes invite artists from Africa to give master classes. His father was a professional musician who mostly played Latin, Afro-Cuban, and African music. Mimy tottered behind his parents, sat, watched, and absorbed as they taught classes, organized cultural events across the city, rehearsed, gave live performances, and interacted with other artists. By the time Mimy turned four, he was performing on stage with his parents.
“My mother told me that she pretty much knew that I was going to be a musician or whatever I did was probably going to have to do with music,” says Mimy. “Because she said that when she brought me, as a baby, to African dance class, she’d set me by the drums and said that when the drums started to play, I went to sleep. When the drums stopped, I woke up and started crying. It was like the music, the drums were my lullaby.”
On and off stage, he spent most of his time “playing, playing, playing, playing,” or soaking in the sounds of another performer. “Everybody knew me as the drummer,” says Mimy. “That was what I loved. That was what I was always doing.”
Mimy’s parents insisted that if he were serious about pursuing a career in music, he would need to supplement his performing experience with formal education. He enrolled in Newark’s Arts High School, as the first applicant to audition using an African instrument, and went on to earn a bachelor’s in music from William Paterson University. All the while he continued to perform in professional and amateur circuits and, ever since high school, would make periodic trips to Africa’s West Coast to “submerge himself” in the music and its culture. “To be true to it,” Mimy tells me, “I wanted it to be a part of me to where it was just like breathing air. To hear it coming from the source, right there from the continent, with its people.”
Mimy takes that experience with him to every performance, which is why, though he currently performs with a handful of groups in New York City and has played with musicians whom he considers to be the best of the world in their craft, he gets so much joy out of working with Egun Omode and the Garvey School. When playing with bands, his job is simply to entertain, get paid, and go home. With the Garvey School — especially when producing theatrical plays — sharing and embodying the experience, the message, and the culture behind the music is the entire point. During rehearsals, Mimy stresses that learning the joy of losing oneself in the music is as important as learning the steps.
“That’s how it has to be,” says Mimy. Because once you get beyond learning steps and technique, he says, the mood, the music, and the dancers are what make the experience for the audience. And an audience that is able to “feel” a performance as much as appreciate the skill of the performers is more likely to pick up on the underlying messages and cultures that an institution, such as the Garvey School, wants to share.
The students, says Mimy, improve every time they perform together, becoming more relaxed with time. Indeed, about midway through the first of two performances at Burlington Tabernacle Baptist Church, the dancers seemed to progress from counting their steps to letting feeling and muscle memory take over. When the seven young girls rotated in an inward facing circle, letting their limbs loosen a little bit, the audience clearly began to enjoy themselves.
Throughout the performance, Kemit’s five year-old daughter, Akanke, danced as if “performance pitch” ran through her blood. She was not professionally precise in her steps, but always seems fluid and in the moment, never looking as if she were counting her steps or over-thinking things. Even when she mis-stepped, she did so in rhythm and with flair.
As she danced, it was clear that the attendees picked up on her sense of freedom. Some returned the sentiments by giving out whoops, clapping, and dancing along
Akanke isn’t old enough to be in first grade. Yet she’s already a pro at learning as she teaches. I suppose, if you’ve lived that exchange your whole life, it’s only second nature.
Five Pumpkin Seeds, The Garvey School/Egun Omode Shule, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Friday, May 10, 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and Saturday, May 11, noon and 6 p.m. $8 to $15. For information and tickets, contact Baye Kemit at 609-792-9038 or firstname.lastname@example.org.