Community Through Song | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Community Through Song

Jerry Jenkins plays an African drum for fourth-grade students at McLaurin Elementary School in Natchez. The Mississippi Alliance of Arts Education funded the drum for the students.

Jerry Jenkins plays an African drum for fourth-grade students at McLaurin Elementary School in Natchez. The Mississippi Alliance of Arts Education funded the drum for the students. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Jerry Jenkins wouldn't call himself a percussionist. The owner of Jackson-based Hasan Drums does play West African drums, including the djembe, and other instruments such as the 21-stringed kora, but his primary role is as a storyteller and promoter of community.

Jenkins grew up in Vicksburg, moving to live with his father in Chicago for a while after his parents divorced. He returned to Vicksburg to live with his mom and remained a resident there until moving to Jackson about four years ago.

Through Hasan Drums, which he started about three years ago, Jenkins takes African drums to schools, businesses and organizations to offer services such as art therapy and to assist in building group cooperation. He also runs an arts-integrated community-development nonprofit called Djeliya, designs West African drums, and likes to teach African language through stories and songs.

Jenkins says: "One thing that I would say kind of sets me apart from a lot of other percussionists—because I'm not really a percussionist—is that I integrate or bring people into the environment of what is the West African community and let them see how that community is also a part of the bigger world, where people come together to communicate, socialize, celebrate, organize and help keep some of their moral character in their lives."

The Jackson Free Press sat down with him in the fall to talk about art, music and how to affect change in the community.

Why did you move to Jackson?

I wanted to always say God, but I think I was more or less inspired by the opportunities that were more available in Jackson than (there are) in some other places, which I mean opportunities with what I do as an artist. I think Jackson is more suited for me. I guess I don't want to say (it's a) staging ground, but the opportunities are more needed here.

What drew you to designing and playing West African drums?

It started out as a cultural need for myself. Growing up and the times I spent in Chicago, there were a lot of things that were changing in communities that left people like me less likely to grow up and have any cultural ties or any culture at all.

How did you first discover the drums?

In my quest to ... be well-rounded. I had a teacher who described that term to me when I was in school. (The teacher) talked about people being "well-rounded." That meant that they read a lot of books; they could talk about philosophy, proverbs, even satire, comical things; tasted different foods; spoke more than one language—a person that is, like you'd say, dexterous. So I spent a lot of my time trying to be well rounded, and the two things that I felt like I really lacked were a musical instrument to play and the ability to dance.

I actually took a trip to New Orleans in the late 1990s, and prior to this, a friend of mine, she was an African dancer in Jackson, she introduced me to the djembe drum. After she introduced me to it, I was interested, but I went to an opera, and when I say I went to an opera, I went to a West African opera. And in that opera, I saw people play the drums, (people) with the same ethnicity as myself, and right then, I said, "That's what I'm missing. I have no idea about this drum."

I had no idea about the songs they were singing, the story they were telling, but I could see that it was related to me. And so, like I said, growing up in Chicago and not having that real definition of culture, not really tied to a religion like I should be, or the only language I knew was English. The only people I knew were mainly African American people, but that didn't define my culture. ... Michael Jackson's music was influencing people, and ... (Michael) Jordan, they were wearing his tennis shoes. That's how we kind of defined ourselves—the shoes we bought, maybe the kind of music we listened to, but it was never the kind of music we produced ourselves.

... I ended up going to school at Hinds (Community College in Raymond), and when I did, ... I just played the drums. It wasn't for anybody. It was just me playing the drums, and a lot of people were like, "Well, this is something that's needed in our community." So I started doing it mainly to teach young people, and I think, eventually, after giving a lot to people, and I was giving a lot free, I started realizing that I needed a better definition of what I was doing because people made me into a babysitter. I'd say, "Hey, I'm going to give the kids a lesson in the park today," and then they'd bring the kids, and they'd drop the kids off, and then I might get a call saying, "I ain't going to be back for another two hours. Would you watch them until I get back?"

... I wasn't structured. I wasn't getting what I felt was the best of people, so I had to stop. I reevaluated everything, and I started looking at things as—I wouldn't just say a business. I started looking to see how effective I could be without it being such a burden on myself. So I took a break for a while. ... In that six years that I took a break, I never stopped playing. I never stopped loving the drum. But I said, "I need to do it more effectively." ... Another thing that changed was that I had a child (Tshomba), and I knew I needed to have income. I was certified as a personal trainer, I was working as a personal trainer, but it just wasn't I guess what I was really supposed to be.


Jerry Jenkins (left) recently played an African drum for English language arts teacher Jamal McCullen’s (right) fourth-grade students at McLaurin Elementary School in Natchez.

That's when I remembered somebody telling me about an artist that was a storyteller. Because this was the thing: When I had my first child, I said, "What if I wouldn't be there to teach him everything I wanted to teach him? What if something were to happen to me, and there are some lessons that he needed, and I couldn't be there?" ... I started writing stories, and in those stories, the things that I was looking for to be well-rounded, I was trying to put (them) in the form of a story that he can get. I remember when he was just in his mom's womb, I would sing songs to him, tell him stories, play the drums, and when he was born, certain things got his attention very quickly and one of them was the drum.

Tell me a story.

One of the stories that I do is called "Baga Gine" (pronounced "bah-ga ghin-ee"). ... It's a song that says, "Will she dance, or will she not dance a dance?" And then it goes on ... and says again, "Will she dance, or will she not dance a dance?" And then it says, "Oh, can you believe it? The Baga Gine (even dances in the car)."

The question in the song, I took that question: "Will she dance, or will she not dance a dance?" ... (My) story talks about the Baga Gine coming to the children early in the morning, and the children wouldn't ever wake up from their sleep unless they heard her footsteps and the sound of her heartbeat, pounding like a drum in their ears. So when they heard it, they got up, and they ... put on their clothes, washed their faces, dressed themselves, they grabbed their books, and they ran to the bara—the bara is the center place of the community—and there, they would meet the Baga Gine ... and she would teach them about life, how to eat well, how to socialize well, be (well-mannered), and also how to be charitable people.

After she educated the children, she moved over into the marketplace, and there, she would prepare meals for the people who were hungry, those people who couldn't afford to provide food for themselves. After she educated the children, fed the homeless, she also went into the forest, and when she went into the forest, she taught the children how to protect the trees, how to raise their crops, and also how to protect the animals from the hunters. Any time the hunters would come into the forest, they'd listen for the sounds of the animals. If they heard the sound of the lion, then I would (ask) the kids, "On the count of three, what does the lion sound like?" Then they would say, "One, two, three, roar!" They love it.

So I say, "When the hunters gather their nets—" Some of the kids that I have that are actors in this play will get the nets, and they'll find the lion, and just before they throw the net over the lion, the Baga Gine would say in one loud voice, "Stop, leave that lion alone," and when she does, the hunters will run away. But they wouldn't run away far. They'd still be in the forest waiting for the sounds of the animals. But one day, the Baga Gine didn't return to the community, and so the children, they slept, and they wouldn't wake up. The hungry people, because they didn't have any food or anybody to help them, they would pass out in the streets. The animals, because they no longer had the voice of the Baga Gine to help protect them, the hunters captured all the animals and took them away. The gardens started to die, the trees started to die because they no longer had people to help protect them or provide for them.

... So the people, the parents in the community, went to wake their children up because they were very concerned, and children, when they woke, they asked the question, "Will she come back to the community, or will she not come back to the community?" So they gathered all the children, they gathered all the hungry people, and they placed them in cars, and they drove to the home of the Baga Gine, and there, they saw her sad, sitting up under the tree. And so they tried to figure out, "What can we do to make her happy?" And so they decided they were going to sing her a song and play her a rhythm, so the same rhythm that I teach the children is the sound of her footsteps, the sound of her heartbeat. I teach them that. I bring in all the instruments.

... When we talk about the baga gine, when the people decide to cheer her up, the children say, "Let's play her a song. Let's sing her a song. Let's play her a rhythm." And when they played her rhythm and sang her song, she got up and started dancing. This teaches the children ... the true purpose of community. They see how the community was thriving and happy as long as they had the presence of good leadership. They have good examples in the Baga Gine. She was an educator, ... she was charitable.

We've got organizations that we see around the community like Stewpot (Community Services). ... We see organizations like that, a lot of nonprofits, (such as) Operation Shoestring, that come together to try to better human life. We've got the (Mississippi) Humane Society, which really deals with animals so there (are) things out in the community that protect animals, make sure people are not abusing that. You can't just go around (and) blow grass up, push down trees, so this story teaches them, takes life and brings it down to here for the kids so that they can see, "What happens if all of this stuff just goes away?" The threat of it going away is always present when our children don't understand how community (and) society work. I would say those stories are my contribution in a small way.

Tell me about getting your fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission in 2015.

The fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission was something that I think any artist needs because it kind of provides an opportunity to strive, to be better. The thing about the (fellowship) is, a lot of times, the income I make. It pays my bills, and then sometimes, it can go into me expanding what I do. So if I go to a school, and they tell me, "We have 25 students," and I could bring 25 drums in, to me, that's good. But most of the time, they say, "We have 40 to 50 something students." I have a picture of me engaging 400 students. What kind of surprised me was (that) I was only supposed to be dealing with 40, and the teacher said, "Well, we have 300-something students that we want to just hear what you do." ... It's hard for 300 students to just sit down and listen without saying nothing.

... Before I got that award, I used to have to come to places, and when they have that many kids, I just had to talk as loud as I can because I didn't have audio equipment or the facility. ... I didn't have enough drums to make sure those students could play the instrument. After I received the award ... I used it to buy the audio equipment I needed. I used it to buy drums. I ... used it to develop backdrops because I want to be sure (that) in the course of telling a person a story, I want them to really feel like they're part of that environment. A backdrop would help make that happen.

Over several years, I spent my time trying to define my artistic skills more. At the same time, I strove to create more opportunities for myself to get exposure, and I always kept my original message of trying to provide a service that improves the lives of other people.

Jenkins is currently doing lessons in Madison at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church (4000 W. Tidewater Lane, Madison, 601-856-5556) on Fridays from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. The classes will stop for the holidays and pick back up next year when school starts back. Jenkins will also perform at the Medgar Evers Community Center (3759 Edwards Ave.) Dec. 26-Jan. 1 for the Jackson Community Kwanzaa Celebration. He tentatively plans to restart his free African drum and dance classes in 2017.

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