MCU: Thanks for taking some time out of your schedule. We appreciate you. Can you introduce yourself to our community of readers? Where are your roots?
AC: Thank you for this opportunity. I was born and raised in New York. My family goes back three generations of Brooklynites. New York is my home, my base, and the source of a lot of inspiration for my music and sense of identity.
MCU: I know you’ve traveled a lot because of your performance and your music. If you had a chance to live anywhere else, would you still choose New York or explore another place?
AC: I love the energy that is New York—the activity and the cultural scene. You can find everyone here with so many cultures represented within a small geographic area. I can’t say that I would like to live somewhere else. I love experiencing all that the world has to offer, but New York is home.
MCU: Nothing like home, no doubt. We hear about gentrification and certainly experience that out here on the West Coast. In the brownstones and neighborhoods there, do you see a lot of change? If so, is it good or do you reminisce for days of old?
AC: Well, it’s a little bit of both. I grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Right now Bed-Stuy is going through a period of gentrification. It looks a lot different. It feels a lot different. I can’t say that New York as a whole is experiencing that difference, though. People migrate within the city so sometimes you’ll have people shift geographic locations. Neighborhoods change but on the whole I can’t say that New York has changed a lot.
Brooklyn has changed a lot. Bed-Stuy has changed tremendously. When I was growing up you saw a lot of hardworking African American families in the neighborhood. Now you still see families, but their complexion had changed, the makeup of the family has changes. And with that comes a lot of displacement. There are people who can’t afford to live in the neighborhood where they grew up. That’s a little bit frustrating.
MCU: That’s one of the downsides of gentrification, when you squeeze out intergenerational family presence. At the same time you bring in new folks who surely have their own notions of New York, whether they lived in another borough or came from another city. Do you find that they come in seeking to be a part of the rhythm of Bed-Stuy? Or do they come in with other ideals and have to be checked sometimes?
AC: When it starts out, people seem like they want to fit in. That’s the way society works. You get a group of people who are comfortable being connected to the culture of that environment. Then, after a while, it starts to shift and that’s where the trouble comes for me personally. I think that if we are open to understanding cultural differences and we exchange with one another, then we can become enriched by people from different backgrounds. But when we try to change and make the neighborhood other than something that the populations reflects, then we get into problems.
MCU: Absolutely. You mentioned change. There’s architectural and retail change. What also marks an environment is music, whether coming out of a car or from folks’ windows. Given that much of your artistry is around music, have you found that the musical aesthetic of the environment has changed for you?
AC: I can’t say that it’s changed that much because the music that’s become popular music has changed simultaneously. So the music that I grew up listening to—reggae, world music, Brazilian music, African, salsa, merengue—is not heard as much because the communities aren’t reflecting and connecting to those types of music anymore. Today, you hear what is popular on radio stations, which are blending a lot of different styles. Now you can’t call it as genre-specific as it was at one point.
MCU: How would you describe your music? Give our audience a sense of your musical background and what instruments you play.
AC: I’m a percussionist. My first instrument and the one that I learned to play first is a West African drum called djembe (pronounced “GEM-bay.”) I started playing when I was maybe three years old. My father Neil Clarke is a percussionist so I grew up always knowing the sound of the drum and African percussion. There’s not a time when I can remember not appreciating the sound of African drumming.
My father was an established musician and he played with the Harry Belafonte Band throughout my childhood. He had some commercial success in that respect. More significantly, he and my mother were tied into a cultural movement that was defined by an African sensibility and identity. My father had musician friends who he met in his travels who came from all over the African Diaspora and they became my teachers and mentors. Even when dad was on the road, my mother played albums in the house that ranged from Hugh Masekela to Aaron Neville, from Patti LaBelle to Miriam Makeba. From Gilberto Gil to Parliament Funkadelic. That’s what was happening in my home, that’s where my musical sensibility comes from: a world music background from the African diaspora. I didn’t know that there was a difference between Brazilian music and R&B, or African music and funk. It was just all music to me growing up. That was part of my tapestry in the house.
So my music is from the African Diaspora. Wherever you hear drums, percussion…that funk, that beat, that aesthetic—that’s my music. I like to interject a percussive voice around any and all of that music.
MCU: At a time when most kids are going through their ABCs, you were working it out on the djembe. That is beautiful.
In most cases for musicians today, music is something they do in the garage, outside of the house. It sounds like a 24/7 experience in your home, encompassing family time. In what ways did that influence other aspects of your life in terms of parent-child interface, commitment to the people, or day-to-day existence?
AC: I learned really early that music is only a reflection of the culture of a society—or the culture of a family. The music that we listen to, the way we share it, and how we use in our homes is how we educate our children. For example, most people learn their ABCs by singing the “ABC” song. There’s a reason that that’s connected to music and it’s because we learn better with music. Before we can even learn to speak, we can understand music and how it makes us feel.
One of my first memories of being taught how to play the djembe, my father taught me—I was in nursery and the nursery school was doing a performance. They were going to sing Funga Alaafia. I grew up in the late seventies and early eighties and within the community there was a movement toward a recognizing that which is African and Black. My father said “If that’s what they’re going to do, Ayanda, you’re going to play the drum to accompany that song.”
So my father sat with me at home playing and practicing the rhythm that would accompany that song. That was one of my earliest performances. That’s the way music was for me growing up. It’s just something that we do…not something that’s taken outside of the home solely to have commercial value. Music is about culture and family interaction.
MCU: Most young folks take on an instrument at a young age. They do it begrudgingly for a year or two, and at the first opportunity to do what they want they walk away from it. Did that moment ever occur for you, or was music so normalized that you know that to be in the Clark family you had to play something?
AC: It was definitely “a moment.” I went with my father when he did performances when I was young. At about ten years old, I wanted to play basketball and football. So I did. My parents made it an option. But if I stepped away from the drum to go play basketball, it was only a week or two before I had the itch to play again. (laughs)
My parents tell a story about how I tried to run away from home at one point. Something happened in the family that I decided I didn’t like—maybe I had to eat peas or broccoli. So I packed my drum, my ball, and my teddy bear. I didn’t make it past the front door, but I knew that that’s all I needed! I was good to go. (laughs)
MCU: No cash, no peanuts, nothing. It sounds like you grew up in a beautiful home. We’re grown men with our own children, but we’re never beyond being children of our parents. Would you say that generational connection between you and your family is still there?
AC: Absolutely. I have a very tight knit family. I’m blessed in that respect. I grew up having my parents at home, with two very close siblings, knowing my grandparents. I even had the pleasure and privilege of knowing my great-grandparents. That’s a blessing that has completely influenced who I am and how I perceive family. It gave stability to my life and allowed me to be comfortable and confident and go off into the world unafraid.
MCU: That generational support; parents in the home…we know that’s a formula that produces loving, grounded children. Unfortunately we’re seeing that not occurring in certain instances so I’m so glad that was there for you. Let’s build upon your percussion experience. I’m imagining that the djembe is a pillar instrument for you. What other instruments do you play?
AC: Djembe was the first instrument that I learned. Really early in my life, I was exposed to instruments from all over the African diaspora. So I had the privilege of studying with some really fantastic master drummers—Souleymane Diop, Olukose Wiles, Orlando Puntilla Rios, Abdou Kounta, Jorge Alabe, Mbemba Bangoura—some that played kutiro and Sabar drums from Gambia and Senegal , the Dundun or talking drum, and the Batá drums from Nigeria. I played percussion instruments that came from Cuba and Brazil. The Batá again, the Atabaque, the Pandeiro and berimbau…any instrument that we could hit to make sound was right in my wheelhouse.
When I went to junior high, I played baritone horn in the school band. I studied European music in that respect, European instrumentation. I auditioned to a performing arts school in New York, LaGuardia High School, and gained acceptance for the horn. But I didn’t go there. I never studied piano that much; always wanted to. I tried to teach myself a little piano but didn’t get into it early on.
MCU: In regard to your high school years, tell us where you did go and a little bit about that experience.
AC: I went to the Dalton School, which is a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Very prestigious school, the kind of school where celebrities send their children. I had an academic scholarship and my experience there was wonderful. I grew up in Bed-Stuy and I’m going to school in the Upper East Side. It was a little bit of culture shock.
I got to meet and collaborate with people who were entrenched in their cultural heritage. I went to school with Jewish and European students—very diverse community. Growing up the way I did give me a sense of confidence to have conversations with people of different backgrounds and not feel shy, inadequate, or less than. I felt different and equal to. That was pivotal in my youth. I was at that age where you build your own identity and you’re trying to understand how you fit into the world. That was a really important time and experience for me.
MCU: Musically, you clearly met your dad’s standard. He had you right next to him so you had the greatest approval right there. When did you go from being talented and known within the neighborhood or family circles to your first opportunity performing in public?
AC: It happened early. I performed with the International African American Ballet at Dance Africa when I was five years old. I started out accompanying my father but when he was on the road with Harry Belafonte, I still had connection to the company through his friends and company members. So I continued to perform with the ballet and that opened the doors to everything that came afterwards. In junior high I began to play outside of his circle and played with El Shabazz Djembe Orchestra, Batoto Yetu, and Kairaba Dance Company. That performance bug bit me. I was hooked on performing at that point. The idea of being able to play music and make an instant connection with a group of people that I didn’t know was powerful and quite addictive.
MCU: No matter where you’re at, when those drums start talking you put down whatever you’re doing. It makes you go participate, if you’ve got a heartbeat you have to go participate.
AC: That’s right, that’s right.
Here is Part II of MyClickUrban’s exclusive interview with Ayanda Clarke, detailing his world travels, GRAMMY award journey and more!
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