A line of African drummers on Saturday led a procession for Baba Melvin Deal to Union Temple Baptist Church In southeast D.C., where he was officially named as one of the ancestors by leaders of a cultural community that loved him so much.
Deal, founder of the District’s African Heritage Drummers and Dancers, died on Sept. 21, but during a three-hour memorial service, it was clear that his legacy and contributions to the arts community extend far beyond his education at Howard University and his half-century of teaching dancers and drummers.
“Baba Melvin Deal was wonderful man, a good man, a good teacher,” said the program’s master of ceremonies. “Everyone who dies is not an ancestor. Surely, Baba Melvin Deal, by all means, you were a servant of the people who filled the world with the sounds of the drum.”
Union Temple was the perfect venue for Deal’s memorial service because right behind the pulpit is a famous painting depicting the Last Supper with the country’s most prominent African American icons seated around the table with a Black Jesus in the middle.
The choir loft was filled African drummers, dancers and icons from the Pan-African community who learned so much from Deal, a D.C. native who led many community celebrations in his life, from the revival of former Mayor Marion Barry to the installation of Father George Stallings as the head of the Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation.
Stallings, in his flamboyant style, preached about Deal’s life and spirit, which he said “dwells in all of us.”
In many ways, Deal’s work transcended faith. His contributions to his beloved city include having trained countless at-risk youth in dance, holding residencies at all of the major D.C.-area universities. He also helped found the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
In a 2017 interview, Deal said while reflecting on his life’s work of performing, choreographing, managing and promoting African dance that when he started dancing, most people assumed that ballet was the only form in which one could succeed.
However, Deal had an affinity to African dance and chose to follow his intuition and desire. At the time, decolonization efforts were in full force on the African continent.
“The drum is the centerpiece that connects the spiritual world and physical world that allows the voice of God to speak to the people,” Deal told The Informer in a 2019 interview.
Deal, who often had up to four engagements a week, trained hundreds of drummers and dancers over the years in the traditions of African culture, including honoring the ancestors, the pouring of libations, the symbolism of the drum and the symphony of people dancing to a joyous rhythm.
“I believe that the ancestors of Africa brought me to the United States to work Melvin Deal and many other groups in the area,” Joseph Ngwa, 80, a native of Cameroon who had worked with Deal since 1982, said in a 2019 interview. “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.”
Though he didn’t have any biological children, he was “Baba,” or father, to hundreds of young men and women he trained to appreciate the importance of the drum, dance as it relates to African culture.
“I use the power of the drum to remind people where they came from and who they are,” Deal once 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.”