Black History Month: West African drumming coming to Catfish Row Museum

Published 11:27 am Tuesday, February 6, 2024

On a recent trip to Baton Rouge, Vicksburg native Jerry Jenkins experienced the power of the rolling West African rhythms that years earlier had helped him understand his ancestral past and define a purpose for his own life.

As he began singing the words to “Funga Alafia,” a Mande welcoming song that serves to unite members of the African diaspora, a woman he didn’t know joined him by clapping the rhythm and singing along with him. Jenkins soon learned she was from the Dominican Republic.

“I was like, ‘okay, where are you from?’” Jenkins said. “She was saying how that same song is still a part of their community and culture—we’re talking about a song that could be historically 700-to-1,400 years old.”

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Those who attend the presentation Jenkins will give at Catfish Row Museum Saturday 1 p.m. will learn how to drum the rhythm of “Funga Alafia” and more in a hands-on workshop in recognition of Black History Month sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Mississippi Humanities Council.

“I look at Mande culture, which is West African culture, through music,” Jenkins said. “A part of that is me explaining the history of West African music—how it crossed into the United States during the slave trade, and how it influenced some of our modern music like blues and R&B—and what kind of role it actually plays in the community.”

Jenkins was born in Vicksburg, but grew up mostly in Chicago before moving back south with his mother. As a young man, he found himself adrift and sought answers to questions about his cultural identity, as well as how to conduct himself through his religious life and how to express it all through music.

“I grew up as a person that had to come to identify or readapt a culture for myself and a community life for myself,” he said. 

Jenkins said he began to find the answers in late adolescence, when a cultural class trip brought him to eat at an Italian restaurant that sat only a few blocks from his home, but was worlds apart in nearly every other way. He learned that the canned ravioli he grew up eating, for example, only resembled freshly made ravioli in shape—certainly not in taste or texture, or in the way Italian-descended chefs prepare it. When his teacher encouraged the class to seek new experiences to become well-rounded adults, Jenkins took the advice seriously and dove into history, literature, and the folk arts.

Befriending Mariama Curry, founder of N’Kafu Traditional African Dance Company in New Orleans, who has made trips to West African countries including Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, and Mali to study the culture and traditions, opened Jenkin’s eyes to his ancestral home, he said. Now, he travels through Mississippi and to other states sharing West African history and storytelling, djembe drumming and traditional dancing. He says the event on Saturday will deliver on all points. 

“It’s interactive, so the audience will learn the song [“Funga Alafia”], and they will get opportunities to play the drums. We might get a little dancing out there and make it a real community experience.”

Jenkins, who has dedicated his adult life to discovering, educating himself and sharing information on other cultures and their foodways, music and forms of expression, sees his mission as a path to the peace that he says has eluded him and many others.

“When I see that I can come together with people from different cultures and ethnic groups and sing, dance, drum and get to know each other—and we can follow up with each other with peaceful intentions—I think it benefits [everybody]. I play a small role in which I give God the praise to keep people connected, instead of people further drawn away from each other.”