Melvin Deal is celebrated at the Thurgood Marshall Center in northwest D.C. on Dec. 26. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Melvin Deal is celebrated at the Thurgood Marshall Center in northwest D.C. on Dec. 26. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

On the first night of Kwanzaa, members of the Ethiopian community hosted a celebration at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Northwest that began with a chorus of drums accompanied by African dancers under the direction of Melvin Deal.

For decades, Deal has been a community priest who has been at the center of celebrations, spiritual services and special moments across the region to help connect people to Mother Africa. Whether it is a Kwanzaa service or the recent 175th anniversary of the District’s Galbraith African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one can count on seeing Deal and his rhythmic procession of drummers.

“The drum is the centerpiece that connects the spiritual world and physical world that allows the voice of God to speak to the people,” said Deal, 75, a District native who has dedicated his life to connecting people in the D.C. area to the ceremonies of Africa through performance and teaching students in the city’s public schools.

Deal often has four engagements a week and over the years he has trained hundreds of drummers and dancers in the traditions of African culture that include honoring the ancestors, the pouring of libations, the symbolism of the drum and the symphony of people dancing to a joyous rhythm.

One of the closest people to Deal is Joseph Ngwa, 78, a native of Cameroon who is has been working with Deal since 1982.

“I believe that the ancestors of Africa brought me to the United States to work Melvin Deal and many other groups in the area,” Ngwa said. “The drums are the opening invocation for the presence of the ancestors. I came to the United States to become a physician but drumming is more powerful than being a medical doctor because it is reawaking of the ancestor’s children who were dumbed down by their enslavement.”

Ngwa is usually standing shoulder to shoulder with Deal during the ceremonies and even though he doesn’t have any biological children, he is “Baba,” or father, to hundreds of young men trained to appreciate the importance of the drum as it relates to the African culture.

“I use the power of the drum to remind people where they came from and who they are,” he said. “And even though we have been dumbed down by the oppression of slavery, we do not forget that we come from Africa and Africa is not a jungle and it never has been.”

Both Deal and Ngwa have mentored and taught hundreds of District schoolchildren. Deal teaches drums and dance at the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts and Ngwa teaches drums at the Woodlawn School.

Ngwa said the drum “rekindles the children’s learning faculties and helps in their holistic development.”

“Melvin Deal is really an anchor that keeps us tied into our cultural roots and it helps to remind us that while we are here in the United States our origins are not here,” said Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, who welcomed Deal and the dancers during the Community Kwanzaa Imani Celebration and African Conscious Award Presentation at the church on New Year’s Day.

Deal said that while the ceremonies are loud and often seem chaotic, it is all part of a divine order.

“The icons, the drums, the horns, the rattles, the people and the chief are part … because many people and dancers are telling a story about the importance of moral and ethnic values that help people find their place in society,” he said.

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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