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To the Beat of Her Own Drum: OAC Heritage Fellowship Recipient Linda Thomas Jones Makes Music Meaningful

To the Beat of Her Own Drum: OAC Heritage Fellowship Recipient Linda Thomas Jones Makes Music Meaningful

Sometimes, those walking past Fasi’s Cultural Experience in Cleveland have no choice but to go inside.

“I have people who come into my shop because I grab them off the street. I’ll be sitting and looking out the window, and spirit will tell me, ‘Go get that one,’” said Linda Thomas Jones, owner of the center and recipient of a 2017 Heritage Fellowship Award from the Ohio Arts Council (OAC). “I’ll bring them in, and they will say, ‘Oh, no. I’m not going to play any drums.’ And I say, ‘Sit down.’”

Jones, who is often called Mama Fasi by her students, has a specific way of teaching.

“I’ll put a drum in front of them,” she said. “The first words they say and the first rhythm they play is called ‘I Like to Play.’ And they repeat that, ‘I like to play. I like to play,’ as we’re playing.”

Once they’ve settled into this rhythm, Jones mixes it up a bit.

“I tell them, ‘Now, don’t listen to me. I’m going to change. You have to maintain what you’re doing, no matter what I do.’ I’ll start playing … and you’ll see these big smiles on their faces,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘This is like life. You have a destiny, and you’re supposed to stay on your path. You can’t let anyone else pull you off of your path, no matter what.’”

It’s a lesson that Jones has learned through her own experiences. Considered one of the founding mothers of female African drumming in the United States, she began drumming at the age of 18 while studying at Case Western Reserve University.

Jones said she knew she had found her calling as soon as her hands touched the skin of the drum, but this natural connection was not as evident to others. At the beginning, she said, it was a struggle to gain the respect of her male peers.

“I wanted to play. I kept asking, ‘How come I can’t play?’ And they said, ‘Women in Africa don’t play drums,’” Jones said. “I said, ‘Well, until I go to every village in Africa and never see a woman play, I am not going to believe you.’ It turns out, there are some societies where only the women play drums.”

Although Jones eventually bought her own drum, she still faced an uphill battle in pursuit of her passion. The men tried—unsuccessfully—to intimidate Jones by “power out-playing” her.

“They played as loud and as hard and as fast as they could play, hoping that I would just give up. I didn’t,” she said. “I stayed right with them, and I found a way to breathe through it. I found a way to break the rhythms in half so I didn’t have to play as hard as they did. And after a while, they were breaking a sweat, and finally, they stopped.”

Jones continued to play the drum for Case Western dance classes, providing accompaniment for visiting artists such as Erick Hawkins and Katherine Dunham. Later, Jones played in New York for several years before returning to Cleveland to raise her daughter. In 1980, she founded the Imani African American Dance Company with Marjorie Witt Johnson.

The rest is, as Jones would say, “herstory.”

“It’s ‘his story,’ most of the time. It is not her story,” she said. “This is about my story.”

Jones opened Fasi’s Cultural Experience in 2016 and has started teaching others the art of playing through an approach that is rooted in respect for one’s ancestry and the role of the drum in African culture. Drumming holds power, she said, and it’s important that musicians of all ages and backgrounds understand that.

In addition to the classes she hosts at her shop, Jones has worked to bring drumming to diverse audiences through her work with the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. As a teaching artist with the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning (CAL), she has shared her arts programming with students attending Cleveland-area schools.

"Linda is a great teaching artist because of her focus on the whole child," said David Schiopota, the director of programs at CAL. "She doesn't just teach kids how to make music with African drums. She teaches them self-respect, generosity, kindness, and compassion. Through her demeanor and communication, she exemplifies the lessons she tries to teach. When you attend a workshop with Mama Fasi, everybody plays!  No one sits on the sidelines."

In July 2017, in recognition of her community outreach and artistic accomplishments, Jones was named a recipient of an Ohio Heritage Fellowship Award for Performing Arts.

"Linda's Heritage Fellowship award is well deserved not just for the great work she has done over the past 20 years of partnership with CAL, but because of all the ways she supports and engages her community in making music, embracing different cultures and learning from each other across generations,” Schiopota said.

On Wednesday nights, Jones teaches a class called Girls and Grandmas Drumming Together, disproving once again the misconception that women cannot play.

“I have 4-year-old girls all the way up to 95-year-old great-great-grandmothers,” Jones said. “The energy is just amazing. Some women start to cry. Some women laugh. I have women who have been coming to me for the past seven years. They don’t want to miss a class.”

Overseeing it all is Jones’ own grandmother, whose picture on the wall serves as an inspiration and guiding light.

“My grandmother was someone who … loved children, who loved everybody. I learned how to treat people from her, I learned how to soothe children from her, I learned how to be stern, yet gentle,” Jones said. “She was my model. And for me, this is a continuation of her life’s work.”

More information about Jones and Fasi’s Cultural Experience can be found at drumwomanproductions.net.

To learn more about the Ohio Heritage Fellowship program, visit oac.ohio.gov/heritagefellowships.

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Video by the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning



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