|Sonia Valle teaches art at Leopold
2017 Africa Fest at Central Park
The Rhythms of Africa
down the street during my first week in Madison. I think I was cold. It was winter and I didn’t know that I needed to dress really, really warm.
And she looked at me and said, ‘You can’t walk around like this.” She actually gave me her coat. The snow just came. Sometimes you go out
and all of a sudden, there is snow when you didn’t expect it.”
Valle has made her living as an art teacher at Leopold Elementary School for the past 19 years. But she has kept her culture alive, within her
and without her, through her music and the places her music takes her and the people she meets along the way.
“My performance and my patois and my dance keep me connected to the culture,” Valle said. “Without that, I think I would be nothing or
something different. I think we need culture. We need our history. It is important to maintain my identity and my roots. The drumming has
evolved in its own style. I know there is the Nyabinghi style of drumming from Jamaica. And then there is the other style of the Kromanti with
the Maroon kind of drumming with the mixture of that. That’s what I like. I like the sound. I like the beat sound that the drum makes.”
The music that Valle performs has its roots in the rhythms that the Africans who were slaves brought with them from West Africa.
“There are some similarities to the beat of African drumming,” Valle said. “Sometimes when I listen to the old Jamaican style of drumming, I
can hear it in Sierra Leonean music. I can hear it in music from Gambia. When I listen to some of the griot music like Baaba Maal, I can hear
some of my own culture and Jamaican sounds in it.”
Most often, people associate reggae with Jamaica. But while reggae sprang from Jamaica, it is not its indigenous music.
“Reggae is different,” Valle said. “It’s the old stuff that is dying that I’m doing. I don’t think that it is really dying. But it is the old music like what
my great, great, great grandparents or what I grew up with as a little girl that was before reggae. Reggae came from that kind of sound. I didn’t
even know about reggae when I was growing up because I was in my own little world. And I remember my sister was singing this song about
‘feel like bombing a church,’ you know the Bob Marley song. ‘I feel like bombing a church now that you know that the preacher is lying.’ She
was walking around the house singing it. And I’m like, Don’t let momma hear you sing that song.’ We were raised Christian. And she said, ‘Oh,
that’s nothing. That’s Bob Marley.’ This was my younger sister. And I said, ‘Who is Bob Marley?’ And she said, ‘You never heard of Bob
Marley?’ And I said no. She introduced me to the music. And I got hooked on a lot of the songs and I listened to it.”
While other people may perform the music and borrow from it, the music itself can never be separated from Jamaica because it arose from the
rich soils and the experiences of the people who gave it birth.
“People talked about the lives that they had,” Valle said about the origins and content of the songs she performs. “The word for ghost in
Jamaica is duppy. One of the songs said, ‘If you want your duppy ball, why, why, why? If you want your duppy ball, why, why why.’ They
just make these songs out of their daily lives, even about evening time. ‘Evening time, work is over now with evening time. We walk by the
mountain. We walk by the mountain. We walk by the mountainside. Make me put the bickle pans away. Make me sing and dance and play up on
the mountainside.’ People were coming from work and singing. The sing about the donkey and they call him jackass with his long tail. Or some
women sing this song about men, ‘Woman a heavy load, woman a heavy load, woman a heavy load, when the money isn’t enough, when the
money isn’t enough, when the money isn’t enough, them call you a lazy man, them call you a lazy man.’ It’s call and response and then the
woman says, ‘Let me call you a lazy man.’ There is this whole beautiful song.”
And it is that rich soil that impacted Valle too.
“I grew up by the ocean and I think that had a big effect on me,” Valle said. “I love the water. I could go down to the ocean and scream as loud
as I could or ding as loud as I could to the waves. I remember doing that as a child. We talk about poverty. I think see so much here. As a
child, we didn’t have a lot. But I didn’t even notice. We had our problems, but now that I look back, I can see that it was joyful. Our culture was
very rich and my family never went hungry. I feel blessed.”
Most importantly, Valle realizes that culture and music is not static. You have to keep sharing it for others — and even those who come after
you — to understand and appreciate.
“I think Africa Fest is very important because it connects us to our cultural heritage, to our roots,” Valle said. “It is one of the highlights of my
living in Madison. I look forward to it every year. I work in the kids’ area. I do the face painting. I do it with Koso Weller. We want the younger
generations to keep it going. We want kids to come and experience the culture so that they can continue it just like I did as a child. You just
have to continue to share the culture. Never stop sharing the culture and be visible. The quieter we get, if we stay in the background, no one
will see what’s going on. And I think that is how things die. You can’t keep it to yourself. You have to share it. You have to put it out there for
others to see how beautiful it is.”
And beautiful it is!
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
It was as much a concert as it was an interview when I sat with Sonia Valle, one of the
performers at Africa Fest on August 19th in Central Park. Valle would sing from time to time to
give me a perspective on what she was talking about.
Valle learned her craft almost by osmosis in her native Jamaica. And whether she used it little or
lot, the rhythms and the culture always stayed with her when she moved to Tallahassee, Florida
in the 1980s and eventually came to Madison in 1992.
Valle is a little shy, but it was the music that allowed her to meet people and integrate into
Madison’s African community.
“Afi Lake, Barbara Trused, Coritha Cash, Rose Onama and I formed the Goongoo Peas,” Valle
said. “I came up with the idea of the Goongoo Peas. Pigeon peas, when you look at the shell of
the pea right before it is ripened, there are so many different colors on it. And I thought of the
African Diaspora and how we have such a vast mixture of cultures. We got together because of
the singing, using our voice and just singing. People recommended that we should meet so and
so. From there, we formed the group. I met Coritha through The Black Star Reggae Band. I met
Rose through the African Association. I met Barbara through the schools. And I met Afi walking