Almost ten years ago, we talked with LaFrae Sci, an internationally sought composer, drummer and educator who teaches at Jazz at Lincoln Center, who is also a founding teaching member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in N.Y.C. As a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, she has taught master classes and performed in more than 30 countries. This experience led LaFrae to develop and launch the NGO Groove Diplomacy, whose mission is to create youth engagement programs internationally using musical expression as a vehicle to empower, ignite, heal & create mutual understanding. Tom Tom caught up with LaFrae to see what she’s up to in 2019.
[Tom Tom] It’s been almost a decade since we last spoke. How have you been? What have you been up to?
[LaFrae Sci] I have been busy, creating new musical works, writing for large orchestral ensembles, teaching, touring, and feeling grateful for this big musical life I have.
What drew you to jazz music?
As a founding teaching member of Willie Mae Rock Camp, do you see a difference in perception around female drummers today compared to when the camp first began?
Perhaps. I would say there is always more work to be done, however – but programs like WMRC have created a space for girls to try something new and move from being a spectator to an avid participant.
Not only do you teach at Willie Mae, but you’re also an educator for the prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center. What has that experience been like?
I taught regularly at JALC for several years, and co – wrote the first jazz curriculum for the Middle school aged student. The experience tightened up my teaching chops and my ability to work with a large ensemble. A big take away is that most middle school students can’t really retain more than 3 main points per teaching session, and guess what…most adults can’t either. I’m at a place where I can freely apply the lessons learned from that experience as a freelance clinician, and in the Artistic Director capacity at my own organization, Groove Diplomacy Inc.
When did you realize music education and composing were callings alongside playing?
I hear there are over 4000 jazz programs in universities in the U.S.A. alone – and if that number is not correct, it still doesn’t change the fact that jazz has moved from the tour/club to the academic setting, so teaching comes with the package. Once I started teaching and touring with State Department tours, I saw a way to use music to make meaningful cross cultural connections and really empower and inspire young people, and that made me want to do more.
Do you find any challenges in being a female drummer in a male-dominated (mainstream) music scene? Or is reception different in jazz compared to hard rock or alternative music?
In many ways, I defy genre and play ALL (and I mean ALL) types of music. I have also built a eurorack and I am into analog synths, and I work with Ableton as well. I have a wonderful network of folks who call me, recommend me, and I also create my own work at this stage in my career as Artistic Director of my organization. For me, its really about having a vision, building a concept and then creating the project or collaboration. Right now my favorite group is a 9 piece band I have in Siberia called Shungite. We play a blend of African American folk, jazz, afrobeat, blues with a mix of Siberian folk instruments and electronica. We call it folk fusion.
As a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, can you tell us about your NGO program, Groove Diplomacy?
Groove Diplomacy is a Non-Profit/NGO based in Brooklyn, New York that collaborates internationally with U.S. Embassies, other NGOs, academic institutions and organizations creating musically based projects that empower, engage and give agency to the participants. Recent projects have focused on female empowerment, entrepreneurship, educational diplomacy, citizenship, cultural celebration, and sustainability. I’ve also co-created jazz camps internationally, and developed a jazz orchestra in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia that I have been writing music for and performing with for 7 years. When in town, I do day long masterclasses at schools about music, or subjects like the blues and the great migration. I love the musical history of my African American culture, and I enjoy sharing it.
Tom Tom is turning ten this year. Looking back, what advice would you give yourself ten years ago? Alternatively, what do you feel has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the past decade?
Advice: Learn to be of service through the music and find a way to impact others, not just entertain.
Biggest lesson I learned in the last decade is that there are many paths one can take on this musical journey – its most important to find the one that that suits you and allows for maximum growth. I’m not sure I would have the skills and experiences I have had if I had chosen to only pursue work with major label artists. I’m on the road less traveled and that’s fine by me.
Your current band, Sonic Black, is also rooted in presentation. What is the mission of your band?
Sonic Black, which is rooted in the African American tradition and tours, performs and conducts workshops and master classes teaching about the African-American history, jazz, the blues, and improvisation. Its a collective, and all members are amazing performers, and educators alike. Our tours include masterclasses and high energy performances.