Circle of Music, Circle of Safety

Kera Washington '93 sits among the African drums that Yanvalou members play.

Photo by Richard Howard

Kera Washington ’93 didn’t come to Wellesley for music—but music captured her. Washington is a music teacher in the Boston Public Schools and the director of the College’s Yanvalou Dance & Drum Ensemble. She’s also its founder, though she always shares that credit with Professor Emeritus Gerdes Fleurant. We caught up with Washington before she headed to rehearsal.

How did you get involved with music here?

I was having trouble getting to all my early morning classes, and I noticed that the music department had classes that were a little bit later. I also noted that there were two music classes that were taught in black studies that were not cross-listed in the music department. I did not understand that. I went to speak with the chair of the music department to see why, and she told me it was not possible to study them in the same way you could study other types of music. These were Caribbean music classes and African music classes, folk and ritualistic music of the Caribbean, folk and ritualistic music of the African diaspora. There wasn’t the same kind of theoretical basis for this type of music, [she said.] I did not know why this was wrong, but I knew this had to be wrong. I found myself in the midst of a hastily prepared meeting of minds, and I was able to take those [black studies] classes in the music department as independent studies.

When did you start playing?

Prof. Fleurant said to me, we cannot just read about this music. We have to do it. If you want to understand it, you’re going to have to get inside it. We can’t do it, just the two of us. [But] he did not know me yet. He did not know Wellesley women yet. He had said you need at least five people. I twisted the arms of my friends and brought five people the next day. And that’s how Yanvalou started.

Yanvalou is a big part of College celebrations. When did that start?

It would probably have been Flower Sunday. That became part of our tradition. And then of course baccalaureate, and convocation, and the inaugurations of our presidents. It’s been an amazing journey to have Yanvalou become a part of the fabric of this institution. We’re coming up on the 30th anniversary in 2020.

What has Yanvalou meant to you?

What changed me from a biology major to a music major was this music. Drumming, rhythms from the African diaspora, Haitian rhythms, Brazilian rhythms, West African—there is something in this music, the way we have to come together to play it. You can’t play it by yourself. It’s not solo music. It’s music that asks us to rely on each other and to create a safe space for each other.

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