Culture and Community — Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma

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Some of the albums featured in the display. Photo courtesy of TRACEN Petaluma

Story by Lt. Cmdr. Travis S. Collier, TRACEN Petaluma

Culture and Community — these were the two themes of the Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma, Calif., -based events honoring African-American History Month.

The first event, held on Feb. 12, 2014, was a display of African-American musical and literary works from a collection curated by Petty Officer 3rd Class Craig Sikes, an accomplished musician and a veteran band member of his own group. Using a collection that included several first-edition records by John Coltrane and Gil-Scott Heron, and a biography of artist and former Coast Guardsman Jacob Lawrence, Sikes showed how pivotal African-Americans were in the birth of country and rock-n-roll music by playing several songs linking old spirituals and slavery working songs to the origin of the blues genre.   

Sikes began with a medley of “Moses” by the Georgia Sea Island Singers, “Berta, Berta” from the album “Roots of the Blues,” and “Shake Your Hips” by Slim Harpo which then carried over to better known works such as the classic spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”  Sikes continued with a mix of Mahalia Jackson’s “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Hit the Road, Jack” by Percy Mayfield, skillfully carrying the audience along through oral epic songs to a more contemporary musical form.

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Kirk Waller, a professional storyteller, entertains and educates the audience gathered for the music portion of TRACEN’s Black History Month. Photo courtesy of TRACEN Petaluma

The next event, a celebratory meal held on Feb. 19, 2014, and featuring guest speakers Ms. Gloria Robinson and Mr. Kirk Waller, blended the perspectives of both the local Petaluma community and the community developed through African-American traditions. Training Center Petaluma’s expert chefs from the Food Services “A” School prepared a variety of dishes of African-American and pan-African origin, including spoon cornbread, egusi soup, kuku paka chicken (an African version of coconut curry), Cajun catfish, and cous cous.

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Music fans enjoy a traditional African-American beverage and peruse some of the albums featured in the music portion of the event. Photo courtesy of TRACEN Petaluma

Robinson is a longtime Petaluma resident and founder of the non-profit group Petaluma Blacks for Community Development (PBCD).  Founded in 1977, PBCD’s purpose is to bridge potential racial gaps dividing Petaluma’s population.

The second speaker was a returning artist whose impressive storytelling ability captivated the audience.  Kirk Waller is a professional storyteller — having been awarded the J.J. Renaux Emerging Artist Grant by the National Storytelling Network, among other honors — who participated in last year’s observance.  This year’s performance was equally exceptional.  Waller began with the “Ballad of John Henry” which not only showed the audience how the original banjos were strung over the top of African drums, but also gave a quick demonstration of why banjos are still considered percussive instruments.  Waller continued into a stirring performance of Charles Chestnutt’s “Po’ Sandy” and got the audience moving with his own take on “Frog Went A-Courtin’” and “Bear Went A-Courtin’.”

Culture and community.  The events held aboard Training Center Petaluma for this year’s African-American History Month observance accented both the artistic culture of the African-American experience, and the strong ties to community as the group evolved over time.

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