Adorned in a brightly-colored hat, Roland Jackson is almost always seen cradling the South African thumb piano that won him an invitation to the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. The piano is called a mbira (pronounced em-beer-a) and consists of a wooden base with attached metal tines of varying lengths. It’s played by holding the instrument in the hands and plucking the tines with the thumbs.
Jackson has been perfecting his craft for nearly 30 years, but was drawn to the instrument initially for reasons that are both technical and practical. The mbira was essentially a small, portable replacement for the djembe (pronounced jem-bay), a West African drum 14 inches in diameter and 2 feet tall.
“I wanted to translate rhythms from the djembe to the mbira,” said Jackson. “I love the djembe, but I couldn’t sit in the guard shed as a lifeguard with my djembe.”
Although he loves both instruments for their ability to create beautiful music, they signify much more than mere tools of the trade. His introduction to the instruments was an awakening of an appreciation and understanding of his African ancestral heritage. That journey would eventually take him to perform in front of audiences in Ghana and South Africa.
“The Ghana trip stirred my spirit,” said Jackson. “I came back to the U.S., resigned from my job and moved from San Francisco, California, to St. Helena Island, South Carolina.”
In South Carolina, Jackson immersed himself in the culture and language of the African-American Gullah people, a community of African Americans known for preserving more of the African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other community in the United States.
Looking back on his life, Jackson is quick to point out what he considers a great irony. Early on in his career, he thought of his music as a gift to other people—something to entertain them, or something to make them happy. Now he’s come to see himself as the biggest beneficiary. His music has taken him to faraway lands such as China and Italy, birthed the idea for his first children’s book Jamari’s Drum, and ultimately led him home. The greatest gift, however, is his sense of self.
Jackson is an Air Force Veteran and first-time festival participant from the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System. He is extremely grateful for the opportunity to share his music and for all the volunteers that have made this event possible.