NEW YORK TRADITIONS:
The Gallery of New York Folk Art
Cheryl Thomas’s Autobiographical Statement
The fruit of a gourd vine—an edible member of the squash family—and one of the oldest vessels in instrument-making due to its natural resonance, is my medium of choice. The entire process is done by hand—from unpacking the dirty gourds I receive directly from the gourd farms throughout the United States, to the finishing of the products for sale and display. With some items and instruments, as in the case of the shekere (Shay-ka-ray), bowls,and certain types of rattles, the gourds must be cut, cleaned out, and treated inside, whereas other items and instruments, such as the wide variety of rattles, the gourds can be beaded, painted, or crafted as is.
My forte, which is an ancient traditional technique called “Beading,” is a combination of bead stringing and macramé, which is accomplished one row at a time working circularly, and produces what is called a “skirt.” The beads I use range in mediums from plastic pony, to “E” and silver-lined glass. I also use crystal chips for the Crystal Rattle Collection. The “skirts” are beaded with braided nylon line in test pound weights according to the size of
the gourds, and held in place with braided nylon top cord. Shekeres are cut with a handsaw and the open-ended
rattles are drilled with an electric drill.
I provide quality, hand-crafted, professionally constructed shekeres, rattles,and a variety of gourd items and instruments to the individuals, businesses and venues which possess an awareness of and a curiosity about the uses of the gourds.
My involvement in the awareness and knowledge of the shekere, and the people who were currently into the instrument, grew from viewing and listening to the use of the instrument as a live musical accompaniment to African dancing and drumming. My love of the shekere led me to study its playing ability and become an original member and co-founder of Women of the Calabash—a percussion ensemble featuring gourd and calabash instruments—which is still in existence today,and founder of my own gourd orchestra, Gourds of Afro Sounds, featuring “Lady Shekere.”
My passion was fueled when my mentor,Chief Bey, master percussionist, showed me the basic construction of
the shekere. Armed with this information, I became my own apprentice,“beading” shekeres day and night. The professional musicians I knew at the time began to ask me to construct shekeres for them. With individual, large, and small business discussions over the phone, at my studio or their place of business, I was constructing shekeres to meet specific needs and amounts.
The experience of being a professional performer of the shekere gave me the ear training to know how resonate a shekere should sound. The beadwork, or “skirt,” comes in various beads, colors, designs, and have been purchased and shipped all over the world by such companies as Latin Percussion, Inc., New Jersey; Sam Ash Music Company; and Drummers World, Inc., New York, and exhibited at such institutions as the Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Goddard–Riverside Community Center, and used as hands-on activities or permanent exhibits at historic houses, manors, mansions, museums, homesteads,and various public and private schools and organizations.z
From my professional involvement in the field as an instrument-maker, researcher, lecturer, and teaching artist, I am known as “The Gourd Lady,” and as a professional performer,and member of the Musician’s Union local 802,I am known as, “Lady Shekere.” As “Lady Shekere,” I conduct classes in the art and science of playing the shekere, workshops in crafting of shekeres and rattles,and lecture/demonstrations, seminars, and series of the various gourd items and instruments I have collected and hand-manufactured.
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The gallery is made possible with the generous support of the
William Gundry Broughton Charitable Foundation.