by The People’s Minister of Information JR
Elilta Tewelde and I have been good friends and comrades since I was a teenager. Ever since I have known her, she has been a Pan African organizer in one way, shape or form, teaching Africans born in the Americas about our brothas and sistas from the continent, and vice versa.
She recently was living in Chicago and took a group of young Black male bucket drummers from the hood to Senegal, West Africa. She filmed the whole experience and is fundraising to get the documentary, “Drum Beat Journey,” made.
Hopefully after reading this, those of you with the means can donate generously to this important project. Meet international renaissance woman Elilta Tewelde as she talks about the project at the center of her life.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about the work that you used to do in the Chicago area? What neighborhoods did you work in?
Elilta Tewelde: When I moved to Chicago in 2005, I started work as a youth advocate for an organization that worked with young men who were wards of the state. After that I began work as a case manager with women and children who were homeless and seeking permanent housing. The organization I worked for provided permanent housing and support services.
A few years later I began working for the Chicago Urban League as a case and project manager within the Workforce Development Program. The neighborhoods I worked in were Englewood, Rogers Park, Bronzeville, Roseland, South Shore, Woodlawn and Chatham.
M.O.I. JR: What attracted you to the bucket drummers that you brought to Senegal? How old were they?
Elilta Tewelde: I was attracted to their vibrant energy. The musical sounds and vibrations that they were able to produce from the buckets and sticks reminded me of African drumming.
Ages during our trip to Senegal: 15, 17, 19 and 19.
M.O.I. JR: What was the significance of Senegal, out of all the places in Africa?
Elilta Tewelde: I was interested in Senegal for many reasons. I didn’t want to travel to an African country that people were already familiar with. Many folks who talk about the continent or who have traveled to the continent of Africa speak about South Africa, Ghana and Ethiopia. Senegal has a long history of drumming and dance.
Also, one of the main drums played in Senegal is called the Sabar, which is played with a stick in one hand and the other hand is used to play on the drum. I felt that was a great connection to make with bucket drumming. Typically African drums are played with both hands.
Another reason why I chose Senegal is because of the location; it’s surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Since the young men are born and raised in Chicago, they don’t have the opportunity to experience what it feels like to be near the ocean and also swim in it.
I didn’t want them to come to Senegal and stay in the city; I specifically chose for us to stay in a small fishing town outside of Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. For creative purposes, the footage by the ocean looks better than footage only being shot in the city.
Senegal also has a history of having been part of the Atlantic Slave Trade, so I felt it was important that the young men recognize that, so we spent a day at Goree Island and paid homage to our ancestors who had to endure that horrific experience. Overall, Senegal has a rich culture filled with art, music and dance.
M.O.I. JR: When did you y’all go?
Elilta Tewelde: July 2012
M.O.I. JR: How far had most of your participants gone from home before they made this trip with you? How did the trip affect them?
Elilta Tewelde: The furthest they’d traveled was to Indiana or Wisconsin, no more than 45 minutes to an hour’s drive from Chicago. None of the drummers had been on a plane.
The trip affected them in a major way. Senegal has a strong spiritual energy, so the boys experienced a lot of transformations during our two-week visit. They saw the importance of community and the roles that elders, children and parents played in that environment.
An example of community was during meal time. In Senegal everyone eats off of a huge plate, meaning that everyone sits in a circle and eats together. During that time family and friends have the opportunity to talk and share stories.
This experience was foreign to them because they are used to eating when they’re hungry and not sitting and eating together as a family. Although it took some time for them to adjust, they began to adapt and enjoyed meal time.
This trip allowed them to be free and express emotions that were bottled up in them for a long time. We worked out a lot of personal issues that were individually affecting them, and other times it affected the group as a whole.
The house we rented was right across from the Atlantic Ocean, so the young men had different scenery from what they were used to in Chicago. It allowed them to be quiet at times and to reflect.
They experienced the true meaning of what brotherhood feels and looks like amongst men of all ages. They built friendships within the short time we were there.
They developed a new understanding of what a country in Africa looks like and how they saw many faces who look like them, allowing them to feel a connection to a culture they never knew existed. This brought a feeling of pride and confidence in them.
M.O.I. JR: Why is it important for this film to be made?
Elilta Tewelde: It’s important for this film to be made because there are many layers to the story of the bucket drummers and it brings a different perspective about our young Black men who come from neighborhoods that are normally portrayed in a negative manner.
There is still a strong disconnect between African Americans and Africans in the diaspora. This film will show in a small but significant way how Africans throughout the world are connected.
“Drum Beat Journey” is bringing that connection through drumming. It’s crucial for young Black youth nationally to have a study-abroad program that allows them to travel to the continent of Africa and learn about their ancestry so that they can broaden their minds about Africa as a whole.
This film will reveal the importance of investing real time in our youth and exposing them to a new culture through travel. Given the history of America and how this system has affected Blacks, especially Black men, it’s important that this film is completed so we can show the positive impact that this journey to Senegal had on our young men.
This film can also be used as a blueprint for creating summer-abroad programs to different countries in Africa as a rites of passage journey for young Black youth.
M.O.I. JR: How much do you need to raise?
Elilta Tewelde: $15,000. We’re crowd funding on Indiegogo, at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/drum-beat-journey–3.
M.O.I. JR: How could people stay in touch with you?
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filmmaker Elilta Tewelde talks about fundraising for her upcoming film Drumbeat Journey, which chronicles a study-abroad trip that she organized for youth in Chicago that are involved in bucket-drumming to go to Senegal to study the history of drumming.