Renowned percussionist connects to African-American heritage
EXMORE, Md. (AP) — Master percussionist Newman Taylor Baker visited the Eastern Shore of Virginia the last week in June to research his family roots.
The internationally known 76-year-old musician, who lives in New York City, also spent time with children at the Boys & Girls Club in Exmore, where he performed for — and with — them using a washboard, cymbals and the children’s own handclaps.
Baker also toured the Samuel Outlaw Blacksmith Shop Museum in Onancock; spent time investigating the Bibbins Latimer Special Collection at the Eastern Shore Public Library; and visited historic and family-related sites in Eastville, including the Union Baptist Church cemetery, among other stops.
GENEALOGY AND SLAVERY ON THE EASTERN SHORE
The visit was Baker’s third research trip made as part of ‘The Baker Project,’ a multimedia performance piece-in-development featuring the washboard and focusing on his grandparents, the Rev. Dr. T. Nelson Baker (1860-1941) of Eastville and Lizzie Bright Baytop (1865-1937) of Gloucester, according to a press release.
With Baker were his brother, T. Nelson Baker III; daughter, Stefani Perrin Baker; and arts producer Jeanette Vuocolo.
“I’m really happy to be here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. There’s something really special about Virginia; when I come, I recognize the air ... I feel like it’s home,” he said.
Baker told the Boys & Girls Club members about his family, including his grandfather, who was born into slavery in Northampton County.
T. Nelson Baker was enslaved on the Robert B. Nottingham plantation in Seaview until age 5, according to Baker.
His grandfather had to stop going to school at age 12 to go to work on his father’s and grandfather’s farms until he was 21, but he eventually returned to his studies and graduated from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University.
In 1903, T. Nelson Baker became the first African-American to earn a doctorate degree in philosophy from Yale University. He became a minister and wrote many articles about race issues.
“My grandfather is the reason that we came to the Eastern Shore,” Baker told the children.
“I didn’t know much about him when I was your age,” he said.
PLAYING THE WASHBOARD WITH SHOTGUN SHELL CASINGS
Baker told the children about his first experience playing the washboard a few years ago, after a successful career as a drummer.
“I had this magical experience with something that just happened out of the blue,” he said.
That experience was a friend’s request to fill in with his band at a gig in New York, playing the washboard — a utilitarian device for washing clothes that musicians turned into a musical instrument.
“I had to do it at the last minute. I didn’t have any practice; I didn’t know, really, how to play the washboard,” Baker said.
Still, when he started playing, he quickly felt a connection with the instrument.
“All of the sudden, I saw my hands doing things that I don’t know how they knew how to do,” he said.
“It wasn’t me doing it. I felt like it was something coming through me. My only explanation for that was that my ancestors were showing me how to play. That experience changed my life,” Baker said.
Baker tapes 12-gauge shotgun shell casings to his fingers to play the washboard.
“The washboard is played all over the United States, but it’s only in a certain area of the United States where they use shotgun shells,” he said.
Percussion instruments harken back to Africa, and to the days when Africans were enslaved in the Americas, Baker said.
“Many of the West African cultures ... part of their tradition for many of those cultures was to use the drum. They used the drum to communicate, they used the drum for celebrations,” he said.
“So the slaves here, when they brought them here, they said, ‘No drums,’” he said, adding, “The slaves always resisted ... It’s in our culture to always fight.”
“CONNECT WITH YOUR HISTORY”
Drumming has taken Baker to more than 45 countries in around a half-century of playing.
“I’ve gotten to go to places like Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Paraguey, Uruguay, England, Italy, France, Poland, Finland — a lot of different countries, because of the drum set, which is an instrument (invented by African-Americans),” he said.
Then, in recent years, Baker turned his attention to the humble washboard.
“And the washboard is the one that connected me to my own personal history. I had this feeling that somebody else was showing me how to play the washboard,” he said.
That experience led him to seek to learn more about his ancestors, including his grandfather.
“I want to inspire you to keep going and to follow your own dreams,” Baker told the children, adding, “You are part of a line. You are never alone. You are moving forward because people who have come before you — you are working in their path — so if you can connect with your history, it will help you make your own life in the present be much better.”
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/