At Penn museum, art of Africa resonates with musicians

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology invited a half-dozen area musicians to learn about its ancient objects, write a song, and return to the museum to perform.

Nothing warms up a 2,000-year-old stone sculpture of a goddess on a pedestal like some dancing music.

“We, who love Africa, know Africa has offered so much more to the world than acknowledged,” said guitarist Timi Tanzania, a.k.a. Dub Warrior. “So to come into a place where we see that acknowledgment being given, it is the essential part of us being here—to see Africa in this grace.”

Tanzania brought his guitar to the Africa room of University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, and played a few licks during a tour of the exhibition with his hip-hop/reggae band, The Urban Shamans. They were there to glean inspiration for a new song.

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The museum invited a half-dozen area musicians to learn about its ancient objects, write a song, and return to the museum to perform. They will all return to the Egyptian hall on March 28 to perform a concert.

Last revamped in 1984, the Africa room at the museum is looking worse for wear. The glass cases are stale, and the lighting is gloomy. The objects representing once-great kingdoms seem lackluster.

The museum is soliciting advice from the public about how to upgrade it. To engage visitors in the future of the exhibition, multimedia interactive displays in the hallway pose questions about power, medicine, art, and music related to Africa, both ancient and contemporary.

The musicians trolling the ancient displays were hand-picked by Zachariah Hardin, a hip-hop DJ on radio station WNJC (1360 AM), with ties to Africa-centric musicians.

“They dig deep into the culture,” said Hardin. “When you listen to the music, it’ll make you pick up a book, make you want to go out to an exhibit. Now that they are here at the exhibit, they are going to inspire youth that are writing right now, youth that’s trying to put knowledge and wisdom into their lyrics.”

Ahmad Graves-El of the band KNomadz says he has been inside a museum—any museum—only twice in his life. “I’m 37 and here experiencing something that is totally blowing my mind,” he said

An ancient musical instrument made out of ivory and snakeskin caught his attention.

“You put those two things together—that combination that is unheard of,” said Graves-El, whose hip-hop handle is The Lung. “And then you can make sound out of snakeskin? That sticks out to me, right there. That was the biggest thing, for me.”

A docent, who led the musicians on the tour, explained how the masks, weapons, and textiles were used by African tribes. Some of the musicians were no stranger to traditional African culture, and turned the tables on the docent.

Levi Joynes, aka Levi Hudari Sungu’Ra, of the Urban Shamans explained to the docent details about some of the drums and stringed instruments on display behind glass.

“I play those instruments, personally. And study them,” said Joynes. “So it’s good to see [them] preserved.”

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