Leading in Central MA: Gallery of African Art’s Zach Combs
Monday, January 13, 2014
Combs attended Connecticut College, majoring in Anthropology with a minor in African Studies, and a focus in Elementary Education. He was awarded the prestigious and highly competitive Watson Fellowship, which funds travel and research for a full year outside of the United States to exceptional graduating seniors. Inspired by the drumming he learned about as an undergraduate, Combs chose to live and study in Mali, West Africa for his year abroad.
A Conversation with Zach Combs
SW: How did you become involved with the Gallery of African Art?
ZC: After completing my major in Anthropology with a minor in African Studies at Connecticut College, I was awarded the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for a year of independent study and travel abroad. My project was to study the “apprenticeship model for African drumming” in Mali, West Africa. There I apprenticed under Master Drummer Ibrahima Sarr, and conducted research on Malian culture in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Almost twenty years later, I heard that a lecture on Mali was being given at the Gallery of African Art, so I attended. Coincidentally, the speaker was a nephew of a musician I work with. I introduced myself to him in his native language, and our conversation caught the attention of Gordon Lankton, the founder of the Gallery. Our relationship grew from there.
SW: For those not familiar with the Gallery of African Art, can you tell a little about it?
ZC: The Gallery of African Art is both a traditional museum and an interactive educational center. The Gallery began with the private collection of retired industrialist and art collector Gordon B. Lankton. It has grown with the donation of several other private collections and includes masks, figures, household items, religious icons, vessels, musical instruments, tools, textiles, and jewelry. This diverse collection is crafted by hand in a variety of mediums including stone, bone, fabric, wood, shells, clay, bronze, beads, raffia, and gourds.
In addition to the collection on display, there are a number of interactive pieces to help immerse visitors into African culture. Ongoing art, music, dance and other participatory programming help us to inspire both an appreciation for African culture and a better understanding of African customs. The Gallery holds drumming and dance classes, group tours, in-school residencies and concerts.
SW: What was your career path prior to this position?
ZC: Since 1993 I have been working to develop a cultural bridge between the United States and West African traditions. I produced an instructional video on djembe music, Mali Djembekan. I also organized and performed in educational presentations, drum workshops, dance classes, and theater performances featuring musicians and dancers from the United States, Mali, and other West African countries. I formed Crocodile River Music & Media LLC, managed musicians, booked world-music productions, and developed educational programs, and corporate leadership events.
SW: What was it about West Africa that made this your passion?
ZC: It started with the music, but almost immediately grew beyond that. The incredible people of Mali really touched me. They are some of the best hosts I have ever been around, really making me feel welcome and part of the “family”. The wonderful art, dance, music and food really cemented it all, and now it’s been over twenty years of being connected with all of this.
SW: The Gallery is active in the community. What partnerships or projects are you working on now?
ZC: I am excited for the opportunity to lead the Gallery of African Art in creating working partnerships with New England schools, Clinton businesses, and community organizations in Central Massachusetts. This fall, we began to launch both outreach and in-gallery programming that will showcase African art, music, and dance. Through a recent grant from the Sun Hill Foundation, an outreach program is now available to 20 area schools. The grant provides matching funds to take schools on an interactive musical journey through Mali, Spain, Brazil and Trinidad, that we call Trinidad 2 Timbuktu. The whole-school assembly performance follows a day of in-school residency with instruction from master drummers, as well as a 1-month installation of pieces from the Gallery’s collection. The grant also will help fund 10 school field trips to the Gallery of African Art.
SW: Who or what has had the greatest influence on your life?
ZC: My grandmother June Lupkay, really made an impact on my life. I spent a lot of time with her when I was growing up, and she taught me the value of treating people well. She would volunteer to drive cancer patients to their chemo appointments, and I would often ride with her. She made sure I learned to treat everyone with respect, no matter their social status. That really served me well when I went to Mali, and has become a core part of who I am now.
SW: Your favorite quote?
ZC: “Dooni Dooni, kononi be nyaga da.” It’s a Malian proverb that translates as, “Little by little, the bird builds it’s nest.” That is exactly how we are approaching it at the Gallery, and so far it has served us well. It also gives our students encouragement to keep working on their drumming, as it’s so easy to play a djembe, but really hard to get proficient at all the techniques and different rhythms.
SW: What is something that few people know about you?
ZC: Most people who know me from the Gallery of African Art might be surprised to know that I am a total golf nut. I play with my dad at least once a week, even when it’s raining or cold. We take a trip together every fall to Mt. Mitchell North Carolina, and play every day for a week.
SW: What is on the drawing board for the museum in 2014?
In February, the Gallery of African Art will partner with Coffeelands World Gifts Espresso Cafe, in downtown Clinton. They will be hosting a series of free performances by notable African musicians in conjunction with lectures/demonstration in the gallery. We are so pleased to have such incredible artists. On February 6, 2014, Yacouba Sissoko, a Kora player from Mali will be performing and on February 20, 2014, guitar player Banning Eyre will be featured. Banning is an NPR contributor and Afropop Senior Editor. Other artists are being scheduled.
We are also planning a show of Ethiopian art for the end of April. Ethiopia is a connection point between the Gallery and the Museum of Russian Icons. We have some recent donations and loans of various Ethiopian artifacts, including Coptic crosses, basketry, wedding dresses, Ethiopian Icons, and other items. This will be the first themed temporary exhibit we are curating, and are very excited to have so much help and support from the local communities in this effort.
I encourage people to call me directly at 978.265.4345 to get involved or to get more information.
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