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Amma D. McKen

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Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Amma D. McKen has sung traditional West African sacred Yoruba music since she was 14 and is recognized as a priestess of Yemaya. Bethesda, Maryland, 2009, photograph by Alan Govenar
Amma D. McKen (center), Bethesda, Maryland, 2009, photograph by Alan Govenar
Amma D. McKen, Bethesda, Maryland, 2009, photograph by Alan Govenar
Amma D. McKen, photograph by Charles Nyaku, courtesy Amma D. McKen
Amma D. McKen, photograph by Charles Nyaku, courtesy Amma D. McKen
Amma D. McKen, 2009 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Alan Hatchett
Amma D. McKen's ensemble, 2009 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Amma D. McKen, 2009 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Amma D. McKen's ensemble, 2009 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Alan Hatchett
Amma D. McKen, 2009 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Amma D. McKen, 2009 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart

Amma D. McKen began singing traditional Yoruba music when she was 14 while growing up in her native New York City. A fellow student told her about an African dance class on Saturday afternoons in their Brooklyn neighborhood. The instructor was Chief Hawthorne Bey, an original cast member of Porgy and Bess. Through the class, McKen was invited to a Bembe, a party for the Orishas, deities that represent elements of nature and serve as intermediaries between humans and Olodumare, the supreme being. McKen, who had been raised in a Catholic home, immediately felt at ease amid the drumming, dancing and call-and-response singing of the Bembe. “It was a feeling that came over me that said, ‘This is me. This is what I am,’ ” she recalled. “I have such a wonderful, wonderful light spiritual feeling about this. And this is something that I feel like I need to be a part of.”

McKen has devoted her life to preserving the traditions of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, who kept their religion alive in slavery, in part by identifying the Orishas with Christian saints. The music, she said, “has followed the slave trade and has ended up in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and gone to places like New Orleans and other places in the South. And it’s just a matter of drummers handing the music down, the lineage, to other musicians. And the musicians taking those same rhythms and elaborating on them and making different variations.” The drums are tuned to play the tones of the Yoruba language so that they speak directly to the Orishas and invite them to participate. During a Bembe, spirit possession may take place.

Recognized as a priestess of the goddess Yemonja and as an Akpon, or song leader, McKen has been called upon to officiate and lead the singing at Bembes throughout the United States and the Caribbean. She became the first African American Akpon to produce a recording of the traditional songs, Alaaka Oso: Owner of the Songs Is Eloquent. In 1998, she collaborated with the African American Dance Ensemble and the Carolina Dance Ensemble to stage "Cultural Journey: Back to the Roots." She co-founded and serves as director of the musical group Omi Yesa.

In teaching, McKen finds that she must use a different approach with adults than with children, who are generally more receptive to an oral tradition. But she feels that “if you are passionate enough about wanting something, regardless of what it is, you can get it. And I use myself as an example to tell other people. … ‘Go for it. Go for it. It’s there for you to receive; you can get it.’ ”

Bibliography Mason, John. Orin Orisa: Songs for Selected Heads. (Brooklyn, New York: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1997.)
The Orisha Project: An audio & photo documentary of black Americans living the Yoruba traditional religion in The US. <http://orishaproject.tumblr.com/

Discography McKen, Amma. Alaako Oso: The Owner of Songs is Eloquent. CD Baby, 2012.

Watch

Amma D. McKen, 2009 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Amma D. McKen, 2009 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts


Listen

Amma McKen, 'Eleggua,' Alaako Oso: The Owner of Songs is Eloquent, CD Baby, 2012

Amma McKen, 'Oggun,' Alaako Oso: The Owner of Songs is Eloquent, CD Baby, 2012

Amma McKen, 'Oya,' Alaako Oso: The Owner of Songs is Eloquent, CD Baby, 2012

Amma D. McKen talks about her upbringing. Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'Did you have a teacher?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen talks about the origins of her name, interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen talks about Yoruba traditions in New York City, interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'What is the Yoruba tradition?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'What are the practices of the Yoruba tradition?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'What are the song traditions of Yoruba?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'What is the meaning of Orisha?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'How do your Yoruba religious practices affect your day-to-day life?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen 'What are the relationships you have with 'God-children' and 'God-siblings?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'What's the connection today between Yoruba practices in New York City and those in Nigeria?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'How did Yoruba practices come to New York City?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen sings "Oshun," a song giving thanks for water. Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'What does it mean to you to be able to carry on the Yoruba tradition?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009

Amma D. McKen answers the question 'What keeps you going?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 23, 2009