Amma D. McKen has been a lifelong member of a vibrant community who describe themselves as Yoruba traditionalists or Lukumi, practicing a way of life and religion of West Africa. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, McKen has sung traditional sacred Yoruba music since she was 14 and is recognized as a Priestess of Yemonja. The Yoruba refer to God as Olodumare, as well as deities known as Orisas. Orisa worship was spread to the new world through the slave trade and, in order to preserve their religious traditions against repression, the African slaves matched the Orisas to Catholic saints. McKen holds several roles and titles in Yoruba, including the title of Akpon, a lead singer and officiator for the drumming and dancing celebrations. Akpon is a title held by very few people and is critical to keeping the tradition in place. McKen became the first African American female Akpon to produce a musical recording of the traditional songs, titled Alaako Oso: Owner of the Songs is Eloquent. Sought after to lead Bembes (dancing celebrations) throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean, McKen preserves the traditional songs of Yoruba and helps participants connect with the history and spiritual context of the tradition. McKen is the director and co-founder of Omiyesa, a cultural music group located in New York, where she offers a wide range of apprenticeships, workshops, and lecture-demonstrations in Afro-Cuban and Orisa songs, dance, and music. In 1998, she collaborated with the African American Dance Ensemble, directed by Chuck Davis, and the Carolina Theater to stage the well-received production Cultural Journey Back to the Roots.
NEA: Amma, I would like to begin by just having you tell us about the Yoruba people.
Amma McKen: The Yoruba clan is a group of West Africans from Southwestern Nigeria, and the Yoruba religion is a complex combination of theology and ritual. The Yoruba people are, I would say, devotees to the elements of nature. And forces such as the rivers, the wind, the ocean, and the mountains. And actually how this works is that we are the intermediary, the Orisha I should say. The Orisha that are worshipped through the elements.
NEA: What are the Orishas?
Amma McKen: Okay, the Orishas are gods that are represented by each element of nature and act as an intermediary between god and man. And there is one Supreme Being, which is called Olodumare. Olodumare has several praise names: one that would relate to the sun, Olorun; one that would relate to Olojortni, the father of the day; and the praise names go on according to however it relates. And so that's the one Supreme Being, and then some of the other divinities are: river, Oshun; ocean, Yemanja; thunder and lightning, Shango; the crossroads, Eleggua. The element of iron is Ogun, which would relate to all forms of travel, trains, plans, railroads, and all other elements that have the iron element involved. Blacksmiths. All of those different characteristics relate back to a particular element.
NEA: The Yoruba tradition predates both Islam and Christianity. And one way that it spread to the west was, in fact, because of the slave trade. Explain how the Yoruba preserved their traditions in the face of both enslavement and Christianity.
Amma McKen: Right, they preserved the traditions again through, like you said, slave trade, by holding onto their language, holding on to the songs in the language and of course the songs sing a history of the Orisha, a history of life. The Yorubas are very poetic in how they deliver the tradition. And we find that in the translations of a lot of the music. John Mason is a scholar of Orin Orisha, which is a book of translations. And in that book when you read about the translations of a particular song, it looks as though you are reading poetry. And it's very descriptive. So going back to the question, how is it preserved? It was preserved through slavery, again people held on to their traditions and passed it down through the years.
NEA: Wasn't there also a real adaptability of being able to look at the intermediaries and then identify them with Christian saints? So the mother of Jesus would be Yemanya, and Shango was Saint Lazarus. Is that right?
Amma McKen: Shango, Santa Barbara.
NEA: Okay, which is so innovative as a way of holding on and adapting at the same time.
Amma McKen: And I agree, because you see it within so many other traditions. You can date back as far as the Kemetian tradition in Egypt. And the deities are represented in the same way, even share the same colors as the deities of the Yoruba tradition. Then you will find it in Greek mythology as well, all of the different gods that represent an element of nature. And all of this is you know, nature is nature, so the river is going to be the river and the characteristics of what the river is is going to be about what the river is, regardless of where you are in the world. The element of the ocean, where all life begins, is Yemanja and Olokun, whether you're in Egypt or whether you are in ancient Greece or you are in Brazil, Cuba, or Haiti, the ocean is going to be the ocean. And the characteristics of the ocean don't change. It's just a difference in the language, I would say. That's the only difference that there is.
NEA: Now, you were born in New York City.
Amma McKen: Yes, I was.
NEA: How did you first learn of the Yoruba?
Amma McKen: Okay, I'm a dancer. I went to Benjamin Cardozo [High School], which is predominately populated by white, Jewish children at the time when I was going. There was an integration of Blacks in order to make it non-segregated. At that time when I attended that high school, it was all white.
NEA: We're talking in the ‘70s?
Amma McKen: We're talking in the early ‘70s, late ‘60s. So we were bussed, actually, to Bayside. I lived in Hollis. We were bussed over to Bayside and it was a wonderful school. My sister went. I went. It was a wonderful experience. It was a great school. The teachers were great. And we, coming out of a Black neighborhood, we were integrated with other white students, a wonderful experience. From that I was in a dance class. I was in a modern dance class. And there was another student who had said to me, "There's a dance class in our neighborhood, an African dance class. It's on Saturdays at two o'clock. Would you like to attend?"
NEA: Was this a white student who said that to you?
Amma McKen: No, no, no it wasn't actually. It was a Black student, and one that I actually met in Benjamin Cardozo, did not know from my own neighborhood, but met her at the school that I was attending. So she said, "There's a dance class in our area." I said "Okay, good, great." I started taking the class. In the class I met one of my main mentors of this music, and he's the late Chief Hawthorne Bey, an original member of Porgy and Bess. Yes, actually he passed away about four or five years ago at the age of 92.
But he was an original member of the Porgy and Bess cast. So he was actually the dance instructor. I was taking this class every Saturday at two o'clock. And then they said, "Well how would you like to attend a bembe?" I was like "What is a bembe?" They said, "Okay, why don't you just come with us on Sunday at 12 noon." And I went to this bembe, and I must say I have been going to bembes and I have been singing at bembes since the very first experience that I had. And I would say that's at the age of 14.
I entered the bembe. Everyone was in white. They were drumming, and of course it was an African-based tradition. I really wasn't very clear on what it was about. But of course, as time went on I investigated what this was all about. And I entered the room and it was just, it felt enlightening. It was a feeling that came over me that said "This is me. This is what I am. I have such a wonderful, wonderful, light spiritual feeling about this. And this is something that I feel like I need to be a part of." And because I always like to sing. And then there was also the element of dance, which was already there, but I was always a singer. I was told at the age of six, I was sitting on the step of my house singing, and singing, and singing all day long. So now I'm at a bembe and the drumming is going on. There's a set of drums that is called bata drumming. And there are three drums. There are people that are singing. There is a lead person that is singing the lead. He has a response of a congregation. And just the overall feeling of joy is in my soul. And now I am now taking on, I would say, the something that I was born actually to do. I just felt like this is a divine order, ah-ha moment, and I'm glad that I saw it and realized it at a young age to know that I think this is something that I have come on this earth to do. So I better go for it. It's my passion.
NEA: Can you just tell us or describe what Orisha music is?
Amma McKen: Orisha music has many different levels. Orisha music can be sung a cappella without instrumentation. Orisha music starts with prayer and invocation. I would say that that is the main point of what it is all about. It's prayer. It's, "Iyere Pipa", long prayers, prayers, and flattery. When one is trying to speak to an element and you are flattering -- you're speaking to the sun, the sun, "Oh you are so beautiful today. The warmth that I feel from you warms my soul. It brightens me. It gives me energy. It gives me vitality. It gives me sustenance." I receive vitamins from the sun, all of the different elements relating to the sun in flattery, in thanks, that's how the music starts. It starts with invocation and prayer. And that doesn't necessarily have to have a drum, a bell, a sakara, a bata, a dundun, any of the instruments.
And that is one of the main things that I tell -- because in the classes that I teach I say, you know, "It's important. I'm going to teach you this song. I know many people are accustomed to ‘Well I'll sing the chorus.' Sing the lead, sing the chorus, so that you can have the whole song, so that you can have the whole prayer, so that when you are by yourself and not in a choir and when you want to pray by yourself you can go to the river and you can sing five songs to Oshun. And you will know the lead, and you will know the chorus, and you will have the prayer in complete."
NEA: And it is, as you mentioned, a call and response. There's a leader and then the assembly responds.
Amma McKen: Right.
NEA: Both Jazz and the Blues have roots in Orisha, correct?
Amma McKen: Yes. And I would say that that's just the music that has followed the slave trade and has ended up in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and gone to places like New Orleans and other places in the South. And it's just a matter of drummers handing the music down, the lineage, to other musicians. And the musicians taking those same rhythms and elaborating on them and making different variations, but then basically we know that in music there are basic meters. There are 4/4's and there are 6/8's that extend from traditional music of all different places in the world into Classical music and into all different realms of music.
NEA: I want to talk a little bit about process, because in listening to your voice and the way you use it it's extraordinary, but you had to have been taught how to sing in that particular way. No?
Amma McKen: No, it was basically listening to some of the mentors that actually were the ones that were at the bembe that I first attended and the ones that I attended throughout I would say close to 40, almost 40 years, about 39 years. And that was something that I wanted and I feel that if you are passionate enough about wanting something, regardless of what it is, you can get it. And I use myself as an example to tell other people, you know, that have dreams and endeavors about things that they would like to do in their life, and I just say, "Go for it. Go for it. It's there for you to receive it, you can get it."
In the classes, too, I may start out with a class of 20 and end up with a class of ten. And that's because people are excited about it. They want to get it. And when they get there people have blocks when it comes to other languages. They're excited. They like how it sounds. They listen to the CD. They may even be in a bembe and hear the music, and then they go "Well, I would like to learn more about this." And they get to class and then I start losing people, because it just becomes too complicated. And then the ten that stay, what a joy, because they're intent about getting it, because they want to get it. And I think that it becomes easier to grasp if you have already taken the blocks away, and you're going full speed ahead, you know, without any distraction about the fact that it's another language and about the fact that I'm going to give you the songs in a print out. I give everybody a handout. I give everyone the words along with the translations. And I say to them, "You can use this as reference. Okay, good. You have it. I'm glad you have it. All right. Put it away." Not really put it away, but don't focus all of your attention on, "All right, I'm trying to say this word. I'm not familiar with it." And now it slows you up. And the difference that I see is that the children that I teach learn faster than the adults, because they do not read the paper.
We have been conditioned to learn in a certain way. And this is an oral tradition. This is an oral tradition, so it's all in how you hear it and retain it. When I'm teaching a class of adults I have to change around the order and the way that they would normally learn. I taught 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds who have memorized this entire CD. They did a concert. They were three, four, and five, and within in the first 15 minutes of our first rehearsal they sang track number two, "Arada-Accapella", which is even a little bit more difficult than Yoruban tradition because the Arada tradition is Ethiopian and so the words are tongue twisters.
Tongue twisters, they are difficult. And even when I was taught that particular group of songs it was a little difficult for me, but I was determined to get it. But the children learn faster than adults, because they're just listening and they pick it right up and throw it right back at you. And what a joy, what a joy. And so I say, you know, it's just a matter of reconditioning your way of learning in reference to getting this. And so for me, I'm like the child who I hear it, and it sounds great, and just let me hear it one more time, and I got it now.
NEA: Now, you also, aside from teaching in classrooms from public elementary schools to Duke University, you run the gamut. You also have apprentices, and that's a closer kind of relationship. Talk about how you go about choosing your apprentices and then working with them.
Amma McKen: The apprentices usually are people that are picked from the class. They usually come to the class, and I find that out of the 20 people that registered, 10 stay, and 3 are like "Okay, where are you singing this weekend?" And they're interested in being on the scene just as I was. They also say to me, "How long is it going to take me to be at the point of where you are?" And I tell them, "It's a matter of the amount of time that you are willing to put into learning." I did it every weekend for 39 years of my life. And I raised six children through that whole process. And they have stories too that they could tell you. But they are very proud of me, having to come to this point to receive this award.
NEA: How did you feel when you found out you'd been named an NEA National Heritage Fellow?
Amma McKen: As you can see, I have to take a moment. I just get very emotional about it. It's a part of my life and something that I enjoy doing so much, and I really never realized the impact that I would have being a keeper of the tradition, a keeper of the faith, carrying the torch of my ancestors and the elders whose shoulders I stand on. It's just very large.
Chief Hawthorne Bey, one of my mentors, who was my first teacher, someone had applied for the award for him, and he never got it. He died at 92. And so I say, although this award is for me, I share this award with him.
NEA: What did your kids say when you told them?
Amma McKen: They were ecstatic. And it was my eldest daughter who wrote the proposal, who wrote the letter and actually sent the letter in. So I actually called her when I found out, and she was ecstatic. She was really ecstatic about it.
I'm also a seamstress. I was sewing one morning sewing at the machine. It was about 9:30, and the phone rang, and wonderful Barry Bergey [NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts] was the carrier of the great news. And he called me and he was, I think, a little more excited than I was because it took me a minute to really realize what was going on. He says, "Do you know what this means?" And I was like, "I think I do." And then, you know, he continued on, and he says, "Do you know an Ayoka Quinones?" I said, "Yes, that's my daughter." He said, "Well, she's the one who wrote the letter." I said, "Oh my God." She did tell me when she wrote the letter and sent the CD in. And I think shortly after that I said, "Well, have you heard anything?" not knowing actually how the whole process happens. She says, "No, I didn't hear anything, Mommy. You probably didn't get it." And that was September of 2007. And then I didn't really think about it again after that. I just continued on doing what I do, and then I got the call. So that was the beauty of it all – it just came totally unexpected.
NEA: What about your mom? You said your mom is 84?
Amma McKen: Yes, yes she's excited. She is very happy. I give thanks to my mother for letting me be me.
NEA: At 14 you become immersed in the Yoruba tradition. I'm assuming that was not your mother's religion?
Amma McKen: No, I was born and raised a Catholic.
NEA: So she had to adjust.
Amma McKen: Yes, she adjusted well, and you know, there was nothing wrong in it. Chief Bey again, going back to him, he used to come and pick me up. And my father used to come out to the car and say "Okay, all right, this is my daughter," and what not. He met my parents, and he says, "I'll get your daughter home safely." And so it was always a pick up at the house and a drop off at the house. And you know, until of course I continued on and went on myself and started my own group.
NEA: What was that like? Talk about starting your own group.
Amma McKen: Well, it was over a period of time, because I started and I was with Chief Bey and I was with a group of other drummers and singers. And then just as the years went on the dynamics of the group started changing. I was going on other levels as time went on. At the age of 14 of course I wasn't going to be on the same level that I was at 20. And so I would say that it's myself and my husband who started the group pretty early on. I was young. I was about 18 or 19 when we started our group.
NEA: You're also, and I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly, an akpon , a title held by very few people. Can you explain what that is?
Amma McKen: Okay, the akpon is the lead singer who actually officiates our ceremonial gatherings -- bembes. The akpon is the person that is the lead singer of the group. The akpon also holds the title of what my CD is Alaako Oso, which means The Owner of Songs is Eloquent. And akpon also means flatterer. So the akpon is going to be singing and they're going to be singing great things about the Orisha or great things about a person. Akpon is a flatterer and the owner of the words in eloquence. That's the title of akpon.
NEA: Among the many things that I find so interesting is that you have preserved the original songs of the Yoruba. You're one of the people in that chain who have done that. So people can actually hear these songs the way they were sung centuries ago. And at the same time, you've also recorded with Cuban singers. That adapts the songs, so there's a merging of the two traditions that enhance both. So you've both preserved the tradition even as you've expanded it at the same time. Can you speak to that for a little bit? Working with the Cuban singers, how does that merger enhance both traditions?
Amma McKen: I think it enhances both traditions in that what makes it consistent is that you're singing to a particular Orisha. And in the Yoruba tradition, because it was held so dear and carried on through the slave trade, you may sing a song about Allako in Nigeria, and it is sung with a slight variation the same way in Cuba, with the same rhythm, the same melody. You may go to Brazil and hear the song sung similar. You may go to Haiti and hear that same song sung in a similar fashion. So it's amazing how the tradition was preserved throughout the many years; throughout it actually migrating to different parts of the world.