Orchestra Jammbo'laya offers feast of music from African diaspora for under-served BIPOC youth

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — The percussive beat of drums echoes through the room at the Douglas Community Association Center at 1000 West Paterson Street. The drumming is answered by the sweet notes of a violin, then the deeper thrum of a cello, and then the sonorous chords of a double bass. This music is created by some of the youngest musicians. This is Orchestra Jammbo’laya

“We had talked for a long time about doing something like this,” says Jordan Hamilton, creative director. “Then during the Covid pandemic, in 2020, we decided to establish Orchestra Jammbo’laya — an orchestra for black and brown kids to learn strings with an emphasis on drums. No horns as yet — in an ideal world, we would like to add more instruments.”

The “we” in those early conversations consisted of community partnerships between the Suzuki Academy of Kalamazoo, the Helen L. Fox Gospel Music Center, Djembe Yaru, and local artists and composers led by artistic directors Jordan Hamilton, Nataniel Waller, and Jacob Olbrot. 

“We wanted to explore the African diaspora esthetics of music,” Hamilton says. “And while anyone is welcome to join, our hope is to encourage underserved Black youth in our community to explore instrumental music by Black composers from the Americans, the Caribbean, Europe, from anywhere. Black composers are not usually in the educational curriculum, so this gives the kids a chance to learn about them and play their music.”

The first group of young musicians to gather came from 3rd to 12th grade and had at least some musical background. The original group of seven young musicians grew to 17, but the numbers vary back and forth as new kids join while others graduate. 
“No auditions are necessary, only a desire to play. For the younger, less experienced kids, we rewrite sections of the music to meet their skill set,” Hamilton says. “We get together every week for warm-ups, and we talk about the composer before we start to play. Each class builds on the previous class. At first, they are split up into sectionals, but then we all come together to play.” 

When deciding upon a name for the orchestra, the founders turned to the concept of jambalaya, a feast of various meats, seafood, and spices originating in Louisiana — a kind of melting pot of different cultures coming together to create a feast for all to enjoy. The word jambo means hello in Swahili, the most spoken language in Africa. The word jamm means peace in Wolof, a language spoken in West Africa, while the term jamming refers to an impromptu coming together of musicians playing different styles of music.  

“And sometimes we just call it O. Jamm for short,” Hamilton says.

Hamilton’s own instrument of choice is the cello, which he has played for over 20 years. 

“I had a great music teacher in second grade who got me started,” he says. “I grew up in Maryland, but I came to Kalamazoo for my master’s degree in music at Western Michigan University — and stayed.”

Hamilton’s repertoire spans music from the classics such as Bach to contemporary artists like The Beatles and Chance the Rapper. Orchestra Jammbo-laya Co-founder Jacob Olbrot is the executive director of the Suzuki Academy of Kalamazoo and director of strings at Kalamazoo Kids in Tune, a Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra and Kalamazoo Public Schools orchestral training program. He is also a member of the Traverse City Symphony Orchestra. 

Co-founder Nathaniel Waller is also the founder of Djembe Yaru, Kalamazoo’s West Afrikan drum and dance group. He is a master drummer who has performed all over the world and currently also teaches at Kalamazoo College. Other members of O. Jamm include instructor and violinist Lexi Terrian, project manager Ashtun Hamilton, and Tavia Pipkins, communications director. 

Not only do the young musicians learn about other composers and musicians in their lessons, but they are also given the opportunity and training to compose their own music. 

“We give the kids prompts to write their own pieces,” Hamilton said. “We talk about the characteristics of the music, how they want their listeners to feel when they hear it. We play their pieces as well as those of professional composers at our events. The students can get very creative. You can tell that some of them have a real hunger for music, so our goal is to give them as many opportunities as we can.”

One of the most popular events for the orchestra is their Jamm Fests, week-long camps during which the young musicians gather for more intensive lessons and music-based activities — even building their own instruments — and conclude with a performance. The next Jamm Fest is scheduled for June 2024 and registration will be available online. 

“Right now, we are inviting not only students but also instructors of like mind to join O. Jamm,” Hamilton says. “One of our goals is to build an orchestra of 20 to 30 students to travel across Southwest Michigan and perform.

"What this orchestra offers is an opportunity for self-discovery even more than execution, not necessarily to become professional musicians but to form relationships in music, to make connections with each other, and give the students the confidence to experience more through music.”

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Read more articles by Zinta Aistars.

Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.