"Quiet!" shouts a teacher to the ranks of students marching single-file into the auditorium at Federal Hill Elementary School. "Listen to my instructions. You have to be respectful!"
The first- through fifth-graders in the After School Academy enrichment program are wound up, and their teachers look tired. All this is about to change.
On stage, dressed in colorful African clothing and surrounded by homemade musical whatchamacallits of all shapes and sizes, stands Abu the Flutemaker, who has come to teach a kind of respect that has nothing to do with being quiet.
A native Baltimorean and self-taught artist, Abu was once known as William Emerson. That was before he began making musical instruments out of coffee cans, inner tubes, coat hangers, porch columns, trash cans, rolling pins -- in his own words, "out of anything." Twenty-five years, hundreds of musical craft shows and thousands of funny-looking, beautiful-sounding instruments later, the 58-year-old still rivets rooms full of antsy kids with his whimsical reuse of mundane objects.
Abu's philosophy is simple but elegant: "Anything that makes noise can be a musical instrument. It's just a matter of knowing what to strike it with, where to split the air column and how to tune it."
One by one, Abu introduces his instruments to the students by name, ingredients and sound. Variations on the clarinet include the "chunkaphone," made from a rolling pin and named for its girth; the "Base Clarinet," once a baseball bat; and the "Clarabu," made from a chair leg and a bike-horn bell and named for its creator.
"When you make your own thing," he tells the kids, "you can name it like you want to name it."
A favorite with this audience is the "Bedpostaphone," a saxophone that began life as a bedpost.
"A bedpost!" One second-grader can't believe her ears. But when Abu begins to play the "Pink Panther" theme, hearing is believing. There is widespread wiggling, giggling and air-Bedpostaphone playing. There is also clapping along -- and hasty shushing of clapping (grown-ups take a little longer to catch on).
Abu plays a duet with Jim Dow, a musician and retired corrections officer. They play "Fever" on Bedpostaphone and a real bass clarinet. The two instruments sound remarkably similar.
"He paid $1,400 for that," says Abu, pointing at Dow's instrument, "and it sounds just like a bedpost!"
The string section includes the "Electric Coat Hanger Harp" and the "Bass Harp," a conglomeration of metal trash can, 2-by-4 plank and parachute cord.
Percussion? There's the "Wrenchophone," the "Army Helmet Bongos" and the "Thunder Drums," three 6-foot drums made from the porch columns of a demolished rowhouse.
"I got there just in time," says Abu. "The landlord was going to throw them away."
Even with workshops in the basement, on the back porch, on the third floor and on the roof of the Marble Hill rowhouse where he lives with his wife, Saajidah, an administrative assistant at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, instruments have a way of spilling over into his house.
"My wife is sick of it," he confesses. "She says, 'You took my living room, you took my bedroom!' "
"Recycling" is his word for it. Abu traces his calling back to watching a parade up Baltimore's Madison Avenue when he was 4. Impressed by the drummers in the marching band, he made his own drum out of an oatmeal box and two pencils.
He grew up poor in West Baltimore's Sandtown, living with his father and stepmother until he was 12. They left, and he was shuffled among various relatives. He dropped out of Carver Vocational Technical High to go into the Air Force at 17. After the service, he got his GED and went to the Community College of Baltimore, where he studied sociology and psychology for two years, hoping to be a social worker. But he left CCB before graduating to pursue his own artwork -- painting, then music.
He played and sold musical instruments on corners in the early '70s, then started performing in the schools for $35 a show, riding his instrument-laden bicycle as far as Essex.
Over time, the art he developed was as much life skill as art. It could be called Magical Pragmatism, about turning hard knocks into drumbeats.
He tells the story of being stranded in Miami with his wife without enough money to get home to Baltimore. He discovered a trash bin behind an industrial plant, filled with large oval-shaped plaques of wood. Knowing there was a religious conference in town just then, Abu decorated and painted "Praise God" on the plaques, then sold them for $2 apiece. Soon the couple had enough money to go home. Before they left, Abu went back to investigate the lucky trash bin -- and discovered it belonged to a toilet-seat manufacturer, who had no use for the leftover holes.
"One man's junk is another man's treasure," he is fond of saying. "One man's trash is another man's band."
No culture is safe from Abu's creative borrowing. India inspired the "Butar," a one-string sitar made from a dresser drawer. Hawaii echoes through the gas-can "Abukelele." According to fifth-grader Vanda Spratley, the Japanese bamboo "Shakuhachi" flute "sounds like George of the Jungle when he was becoming a man."
But of all the cultures represented, only Africa rivals American jazz for center stage. Besides the drums, Abu's collection includes two kalimbas, or thumb pianos, the larger of which has keys made from the steel bands on a logging truck. The baby "Sarlimba," made from a sardine can and strips of Walkman headbands, hangs from a leather shoelace around Abu's neck.
He has never traveled to Africa, but his work has. A high point of his career, he says, was seeing a video of a tribal ceremony in Ghana, in which a tribesman played one of his painted flutes.
Early in his career, when he sold instruments on the street, Abu found that pretending to be African lent legitimacy to his instruments in the eyes of potential buyers. But one day, he overheard a group of African-American boys talking. "He can do that kind of stuff," said one to another, "because he's from Africa."
"They thought the only way they could be creative and make stuff was to be from some faraway place like Africa," says Abu. "That's when I decided to stop lying."
William Emerson changed his name when he embraced Islam 28 years ago. Signs of his devotion are apparent, from the printed prayer on his dashboard, to his preshow mike check in Arabic, which translates as: "And from around you there will be people. Some will enjoin you to goodness and kindness. Then join the right and forbid the wrong."
"When I was coming up in school, I was slow, and I was a class clown. Now I want to teach kids, even if they're not academically gifted, not to give up hope in themselves. God gave everybody a talent or gift, and you can sharpen it and make a living, using your hands and your imagination, and learning to use as many tools as possible."
The name "Abu," which means father in Arabic, was given to him because of his love of working with children.
Today he performs mostly for young audiences in schools, rec centers and churches, often through the federally funded Chapter One program, which supports cultural enrichment in the public schools. Many of his shows include instrument-making workshops, in which participants make their own rubber drums and flutes and get a lesson in playing them. He also plays occasional gigs with his band, the Junkbusters.
About his frequent pro bono performances at juvenile detention centers and shelters, he says with characteristic modesty, "You gotta give something back."
Despite media appearances over the years -- from Marc Steiner's local radio talk show to NBC's "Today" -- Abu says he could always use more business. He charges $300 for a show and workshop, and does about five a month. Other rewards come in unexpected forms.
"Sometimes a guy in a band will see me and tell me, 'Abu, you're the cause of me being here playing the sax.' You never know who you're really touching. Just as I don't remember who the drummer was in that parade."
The Federal Hill show ends with a group concert. There aren't enough instruments for everyone, so one teacher chooses students who have been good to go up on stage. Tum, Tum, tarum-tum-tum, goes the unison beat, while the unchosen look on in disappointment. But no, there will be another round, and another, until everyone -- even the teachers -- has been up on stage, pounding, strumming and squawking: Tum, Tum, tarum-tum-tum.
Everyone gets a turn.
To hear Abu
Abu the Flutemaker has several engagements this week:
Carney Elementary School Outdoor Festival: 3131 Joppa Road, 6 p.m.-7 p.m. Friday, $2, open to public; adults must take a child
"My First Drum" Father-Son drum-making workshop: (mothers and daughters, too) Druid Hill Park pavilion, 3 p.m.-6 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Lesson is free, drum kit is $20.
Abu can be reached at: www.musicalwizard.com or 410-669-1837
Pub Date: 5/26/98