A conversation with Melanie DeMore Part Two

Read on for part two of the lovely, inspiring conversation between member Lily Emerson and this year’s Keynote Speaker, Melanie DeMore.


On Body Percussion, and the Gullah Stick:

MD: Well, you know, I was a founding member of the band Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, and our band did African American roots folk music, so old slave songs, music from the Gullah Sea Islands, moans, hollers, the music that is really the roots of all American music. That’s part of the preservation of those cultural roots. So, in the band, I was the sticker: the person who played the pounding stick, from the Gullah Sea Islands of the United States.

And so, our group was five African American women, and it was a percussion driven acapella ensemble. We did not play around. We were grammy nominated, for our children’s album, called Shakin’ a Tailfeather, with Taj Mahal, Eric Bibb, and us. We did another children’s album, Hippity Hop, a hip hop album for kids. We did a lot of albums, and a lot of assemblies for kids.  

Any songs that I wrote for any of my students or anything, I would make sure that there was a physical component as well, so they weren’t just standing there. That’s how I started my Gullah stick pieces. And you know, for a number of reasons, it’s  a whole nuanced experience with the sticks. So I wanted to create pieces for our Black History Concerts that involved all 150 kids in my choir. There was no one else doing that anywhere — especially with 11-year-olds, and with that many people.

Part of it to me, with the Gullah Stick, is the preserving of that particular culture, because many people do not know anything about the Gullah Sea Islands of the United States.

I wanted them to know about the culture of the Gullah people, and to have that experience of pounding together. And how it’s part of thinking about music and rhythm and about song as food, as vital to living as anything else.

Music and Gullah Sticks “tightening the weave” of community:

And so, we would make the sticks, and this is the whole thing — I do this with big choirs all over the place now — but the whole idea of using the sticks not only rhythmically, but to give the participants the experience of creating their own family heirloom, and being really clear about the story of who they are, and how that’s contained in the stick.

You get together with some people in your section in your choir, or whatever it is, there has to be food and beverages, and you come together to decorate them.

Part of the thing is that there must be something from everybody else in your group on the stick, each one [of the marks] represents a different person in their group. I ask that each person to bring a little something, so that on every stick, there is something of somebody else in your group, because that’s the way it is in life. We are part of each other.

When you see it from afar, what you see is that “oh, these people are all connected to each other,” but each stick is individual. So, it’s a group that has agreed to be together, but it’s made up of individuals, so when you look at it you see all these different things, but you see the thing that ties it together. … So it’s really about community building, which is the entire premise of everything that I do musically, whether it’s little kids or professional choirs, that is the entire purpose: the tightening of whatever community that is. Tightening the weave.

It’s just so important, especially these days. What are the things that tie us, that connect us, to each other?  

On music as a multi-textured experience, and not patronizing kids :

It just gets all over me when people think they’re being so cute, and they patronize little kids. It just gets all over me. Why are you talking to them like they can’t understand sh*t? Excuse my language. Just saying. . .  

I feel like if you’re gonna do music, whatever it is, it needs to be a multi-textured experience, so what I love with my little kids and my little kids’ choir, is that they are invested from a personal point of view with their own little bodies, into what they’re singing about. They know exactly what they’re singing about, because we talk through everything. Even with my little five, six year olds: “we’re singing this song, what do you think that means?” I want them to be 100% clear about and take responsibility for what they’re singing about, and to take possession of what they’re singing about, because I think that’s really important.

I think the main thing that we need to remember is that music, again, not only is it food, it’s the thing that ties everybody together and makes them equal. It is the one time when people are singing together and making music together, in that moment, they are together.

We can’t wait to experience Melanie DeMore at the 2016 National Conference in Los Gatos, CA!


  1. AWESOME! Can’t wait to hear here at Los Gatos!

  2. Wow. Can’t wait.

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