Our dear friend and colleague Ernest D. Brown Jr., Professor of Music at Williams College from 1988 until his retirement this past December 2011, passed away on April 3, 2012, after a long illness. As a teacher, performer, and scholar, he dedicated his life to the exploration and celebration of African and African-American musics, introducing countless members of our community to music and musicians little known in the Berkshires before his arrival here 24 years ago.
After earning his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1969, Professor Brown began his study of ethnomusicology at UCLA and then at the University of Washington, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1984 with a dissertation on the Zambian royal xylophone and drum bands. In 1987 he received a Fulbright Fellowship for research in Zimbabwe, and later conducted research projects in Trinidad, Cuba, and Ghana. He published on such diverse topics as music in Trinidad, Black children’s game songs, and the impact of African performers, such as Miriam Makeba, on American music in the 1960s. As a performer, he studied Zimbabwean marimba and mbira music from Dumisani Maraire and Ephat Mujuru, and Ghanaian drumming with master drummer Obo Addy.
In 1989 Professor Brown and Director of Dance Sandra Burton co-founded Kusika, the Williams College African Dance and Drumming Ensemble, dedicated to the performance of traditional African music, dance, and storytelling from Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Senegal. Three years later Professor Brown founded the Zambezi Marimba Band, for which he designed and built a set of marimbas to play marimba music from Zimbabwe and Zambia. Generations of Williams students have experienced the thrill of learning and performing in these ensembles under his tutelage. He also opened the door to the college’s cultural interaction with Africa itself – bringing performers here for residencies and often traveling there himself, sometimes for research and other times as a cultural emissary sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Professor Brown likewise brought a new dimension to the curriculum at Williams, offering such courses as “Nothin’ but the Blues,” “African Rhythm, African Sensibility,” and “The History of African American Music.” He also taught courses at Harvard University, Mt. Holyoke College, and Northeastern University.
Words cannot express our gratitude for the wonderful legacy Professor Brown leaves to our department, the college, and the community, a legacy that expanded our musical horizons and experiences tremendously. We’re a different and even better place thanks to his time with us, and we will miss his warm smile and indomitable good humor even in the face of great challenges. We honor his memory and celebrate his life with the inauguration in 2012-13 of “The Ernest Brown World Music Concert Series,” dedicated to bringing musicians from across the globe to share their musical talents with the Williams College community.
Photo by Marcela Villada Peacock