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Future Folk: Camp Azania

Written by on August 11, 2022

Camp Azania is a free camp for young Chicagoans uplifting the richness of West African culture, as well as discipline and leadership skills, through the lens of drumming.

“Black liberation starts with education, and starts with understanding who you are, what you are, and what you’re capable of.”

– John Chapman, Azania Drum Core

Chicago kids and teens have the free opportunity to gain musical and cultural knowledge through Camp Azania this summer. Founded by Chicago-based djembe orchestra Azania Drum Core, Camp Azania is a free place for kids and young adults to learn about West African culture through drumming. This is the first year the camp has been active, and its co-director and music teacher John Chapman hopes for Camp Azania to continue growing.

Courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes

“This is something that I think is going to be pivotal to the growth and development of young drummers in Chicago,” Chapman explained in a conversation with Vocalo producer Ari Mejia.

Camp Azania stands apart from other music camps for several reasons, one being how students are taught not only about their instrument and its historical context, but also the importance of West African history and culture. For Chapman and the Azania Drum Core, African drumming is a way to build confidence and discipline – while also serves as a jumping-off point to expanding knowledge and conversations about the richness of West African culture.

Courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes

“Black liberation starts with education,” Chapman said. “If we feel like the only thing we’re capable of is things that are rooted in American colonialism, then it’s difficult to understand that you are unique.”

Vocalo’s audio storytelling producer Ari Mejia spoke with John Chapman as part of our “Future Folk” audio series, in partnership with the Old Town School of Folk Music and Music Moves Chicago. Listen on Spotify to hear them discuss Camp Azania’s origins, philosophy and plans for the future.

Ari Mejia: I sat down with John Chapman, the teacher of this camp, and also a member of Azania Drum Core. Here’s John.

John Chapman: I love teaching because I like to see the possibilities. 

Johnny (camper): My name is Johnny and I’m 12 years old. 

Corey Tillman (camper): My name is Corey Tillman, I’m 16.

John Chapman: I tell my students, “Don’t be me. Be better than me.”

Corey Tillman (camper): I got into it when I was in like third grade, I’d seen them at my school and I wanted to do it. So I’ve just been doing it ever since.

Courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes

John Chapman: We’re all going through this journey together. So I want to see what can be created. My name is John Chapman. I am the co-director of Azania Drum Core, and also a musical teacher focusing on West African drumming. So, Camp Azania, this is our first year doing it. This is something that I think is going to be pivotal to the growth and development of young drummers in Chicago. Camp Azania is for young adults and children who wants to come and learn how to play West African drumming. Azania Drum Core is the actual performance company that the young brothers are a part of.

Azania Drum Core was started by Baba Meshach, I was a part of it and my co-director Desmond Owusu was a part of it. We want to make sure that we create a space where this instrument is valued. Having something like Camp Azania be free, that’s something that I think is needed. We do four hours a day, Monday and Wednesday. We start off by having the brothers and sisters come in, there’s fruit set up. They come, they eat, they kind of relax for a little bit. We particularly focus on djembe and dunun. Therefore, which comprise the djembe orchestra, what you would normally see as a djembe, when that’s kind of like the most popular drum, it’s a goblet-sized drum. It has a goat skin on it and you play with your hands. And then we have a dunun family, which is comprised of three drums. And that’s the dununba, sangban and kenkeni.

Courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes

All three of those are played with sticks, and all three of those normally have cow skin on them. Inspirational is the word that comes to mind. Because it inspires you to dance, it inspires you to move, it inspires you to do something outside of just listening to it. The feeling, the thought is that a lot of it is just energetic. There’s a lot of different pitch drum, some sound really high, some are really low somewhere in the middle. You have bells, and all of these structures come and make this beautiful conversation. When I play or when I play lead or marking the dances, which means I am playing something called a break, which tells them when to change steps, when to start, when to stop. And I mark them, which means I played with their dancing. When I play, I like to play to inspire everybody. We are at a space where they’re really excited and hungry to play. We’ve gotten through the learning part of listening and learning where the drums come from, what the drums are, etc, etc. And we’re now at the part where we are starting to actually play and enjoy these instruments. 

With that, there’s a lot of repetition. There’s going to be a lot of, “Alright, let’s do it again, let’s do it again, let’s do it again.” But the excitement that they’ve shown to play and learn the basics, and be excited to learn the basics and be excited to be like, “Okay, this is it. Alright, let’s do this.” 

I think the goal is, as a teacher, to be able to not make everybody, like, the best drummer, the best musician, but to make them comfortable and confident in what they want to do. I think we are, at Azania, making it so that they feel connected to each other. The majority of our brothers and sisters didn’t even come to America, they came to, like, the Caribbean and the islands and things like that. And the cultures and the histories that come with that, and the music that comes with that, I think is important. I think it’s important to learn and understand and study and see how things can be recreated and dissected. So that we can have, like, huge children’s company where these brothers and sisters learn how to play conga, or as well as dejmbe and bongos and all these other percussionist instruments, and have a true language, or a true understanding of not just three or four instruments, but just a whole diaspora of instruments and being able to communicate and understand — because that’s what basically happened, is that they had to adapt certain things to other things, etc. etc.

Courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes

It’s exciting to me, to see what’s coming and was being developed in Azania. The children’s drum company, Azania Drum Core. And it’s just a huge excitement to understand and see what’s going to be done in like, two or three years from now. 

Black liberation starts with education, and starts with understanding who you are, what you are, and what you’re capable of.

If we feel like the only thing we’re capable of is things that are rooted in American colonialism, then it’s difficult to understand that you are unique. What we’re told, and how we started, was from slavery. We don’t know exactly where we come from. And because we had to… in a very short time, we had to develop music, we had to develop art, we had to develop food, I can only speak to African Americans, but if we as African Americans understand and begin to connect with the true history that was before us, and where we came from… I think that that starts putting into perspective the possibilities of what we can be.

African drumming is a beautiful starting point. And so once you step into that door, it’s like, “Okay, you really want to learn? Then let’s learn about it.” And so then it opens you up to learning about the Malinké people, where the Malian Empire, Mali itself getting all of these countries that have been playing these instruments. And so then, from there, you can start expanding your knowledge to what happened. Why was West Africa such a rich place to take and bring us to the Americas and the Caribbeans, etc., etc. It’s a beautiful starting point, that once you get into it, and then it’s like, alright, let’s learn more. Let’s learn more. It opens up so much, so much.

Johnny (camper): I love it because I get to play, and have fun when I play with people I love and enjoy.

Courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes

Visit Azania Drum Core’s website and follow them on Instagram to learn more.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Introduction written by George Chiligiris and Morgan Ciocca

Photography by Old Town School of Folk Music resident photographer Sulyiman Stokes

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