Madeleine Yayodele Nelson, 69, African-inspired musician, Westbeth resident

Madeleine Yayodele Nelson playing a shekere, her signature instrument, at Westbeth. Photo courtesy Valerie Ghent

BY GABE HERMAN | Madeleine Yayodele Nelson, a percussionist who fused traditional African influences with African-American music and culture, died Wed., Sept. 5, according to her son Ayodele. A longtime resident of Westbeth Artists Housing, she would have turned 70 on Sept. 16.

Nelson founded the musical group Women of the Calabash in 1978. The group would be honored by the National Council for Culture and Art, featured on HBO, and play alongside the likes of the Temptations, Ashford & Simpson and Philip Glass. Nelson played in other groups as well and throughout the world. She performed for several world leaders, including President Barack Obama. Her playing was featured on Paul Simon’s album “The Rhythm of the Saints.”

As well as performing, Nelson taught music to thousands of people around the world over the years. And she was a skilled maker of the shekere, an African percussion instrument made by hollowing out a gourd, then wrapping it with beaded netting.

A memorial will be held for Nelson on Sun., Sept. 30, at Symphony Space, on Broadway at 95th St., from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The event is open to the public, and Madeleine’s son Ayodele said that, so far, he expects about 750 people to attend, based on the huge response he has been getting from people after his mother’s death. He said there will be seven musical performances and that 50 to 60 musicians have requested to attend. For decades, Nelson was involved in a program called Curriculum Arts Project that was run through Symphony Space.

Ayodele requested that those attending the memorial wear light, bright colors.

“She never wore black,” he said of his mother. He added that he is “essentially organizing her last show” and wants it to be a celebration that reflects her life, because she was always smiling and people were enriched and uplifted just being near her.

“I know that she was like a saint. There’s nothing anybody can say that’s bad about her,” Ayodele said. “So I want this to be something that people will remember, because I know they’re going to remember her.”

Nelson grew up in Pittsburgh, the second-youngest of six children. Her sister Judith Dilday said Madeleine, simply, was a “wonderful” person.

“Everybody loved her,” she said. “She was vibrant, she was happy, she was talented. And she just had a great personality.”

With an outpouring of love and sadness from many people after Madeleine’s death, both conveyed directly to the family and on social media, Dilday was asked if she knew the reach of her sister’s effect on people.

“I’m sure I don’t know how much of an impact,” she said. “But I know she has had a tremendous impact on people, especially in New York.”

Ayodele said he always had an idea that his mother impacted many people, but didn’t realize just how much.

“It was more than I even could imagine,” he said. “And I always knew that she wasn’t just my mother — I had to share her with the world. And now I’m finding out it’s even deeper than I thought.”

Ayodele said that since his mother’s death, he has been inundated with phone calls from people from all different walks of life who knew her. He noted that she taught a Sunday shekere class for 41 years, sat on the Council of Elders at Dance Africa, where she also performed since its beginnings in the late 1970s, and taught music at the Fresh Air Fund summer camp. He said he heard there was a memorial for her in Guyana because she would teach there every time she could visit.

Some of Madeleine Yayodele Nelson’s shekeres in her Westbeth apartment. Photo by Gabe Herman

Nelson had taught at the Fresh Air Fund, which provides free summer camp to low-income New York City children and other year-round programs, for the last seven summers, including this past one, according to Alicia Skovera, the organization’s director of camping and year-round programs. She said Nelson also worked there in year-round programs, through which she positively influenced thousands of lives, including children and staff.

“She was so beloved,” Skovera said. “We have had an outpouring of parents and children reach out to us, just letting us know how upset they are and how much she touched their lives, and staff, too.

“What really stands out is that once you’ve met her, that was it,” she said. “She kept up with people, she picked up on energy and could look into your soul, and knew how to make it better and what you needed. And what a wonderful thing to have.”

Skovera said the Fresh Air Fund is looking into how to honor Nelson, perhaps by creating a music room in her memory and possibly accepting several of Nelson’s instruments, which Ayodele has offered to the organization.

Ayodele said his parents met on the set of the 1974 film “The Education of Sonny Carson,” in which his father was an extra playing drums and his mother was a barber for the film crew. On the set, Nelson saw a man playing a shekere and asked if he could teach her how to play. He said no, but that he would teach her how to make one, and that was her introduction to the instrument.

Ayodele said his father, who died about nine years ago, had a company called the Calabash Dancers and Drummers; Madeleine started her own group, Women of the Calabash, because she wanted to separate from the macho male culture that often existed in the music world and for the women to do their own music.

“She didn’t want someone telling her what to sing, what to play, what to wear,” Ayodele, 44, told The Villager during an interview while standing near a wall of his mother’s instruments in her Westbeth apartment where he grew up. “She wanted to prove, ‘Not only are we as talented, we can have an impact on the world and inspire women.’ ”

Musician Valerie Ghent was a friend and neighbor for decades at the famed affordable artists’ housing complex at 55 Bethune St. She, too, recalled Nelson’s impact on people.

“I remember the first time I saw Women of the Calabash at the Westbeth Music Festival — I was spellbound,” she said. “To me, Madeleine was a force for empowerment for all people.

“Playing music with Madeleine was a joy! Singing while she was onstage with us, I felt I could do anything,” said Ghent, who played with Madeleine at Joe’s Pub. She recalled her last time with Madeleine, seeing her on Bethune St. where they both played an mbira, an African instrument that Nelson had with her.

“With her calm, steady generosity, her unconditional love, every encounter left you uplifted, feeling good,” Ghent said. “I use the present tense here on purpose, because like many people, I feel Madeleine is with us still, and will be in the years to come.”

Ayodele said his mother actually suffered a heart attack on the Saturday four days before she died, but she didn’t realize this and thought she had the flu. The next day she felt better and was even joking in front of her building.

“This is a lady who always had a smile on her face,” Ayodele said. “Even when she was upset, she pushed through everything.”

She then went Upstate for a reunion with Women of the Calabash, which was the first time the four women had been together in 10 years.

“They spent three days together making music, laughing and joking,” Ayodele said.

After returning home on Tuesday, she did a rehearsal, but on Wednesday while walking in Hudson River Park, she collapsed.

“She lived her last days the way she lived her whole life, smiling, joking, traveling,” said Ayodele, who is an audio engineer and producer. He credits his sharp ear for pitch and tone with growing up listening to his mother and Women of the Calabash playing in the apartment, and his mother always making corrections when a sound was off.

A 2014 interview of Madeleine Nelson by author Terry Stoller is posted on Westbeth’s Web site. In it, she says that, as much as she gave to others through performing, she also got a lot out of it, too.

“For me, performance is a constant learning experience,” Nelson explains in the interview, “and something that makes me so happy and makes other people happy — which is why I like the stage. I’m a very shy person.

“The stage gives me a chance to be that other Madeleine Yayodele,” she adds. “I get to teach, I get to perform, and I get to make people feel good. It’s win, win, win. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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