After a prolonged illness, beloved professor, mentor, musician and director Ernest Brown passed away on April 3 at the age of 64.
He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Susan Revotskie, and their four children.
Brown arrived at the College in 1988 and joined the music department as a full-time ethnomusicologist, a study focused on non-Western music. Brown received his degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Washington and then moved from the West coast to teach at the College. Since then he has taught several courses including “Music Cultures of the World,” “History of Jazz,” “History of African-American Music” and “Black Music and Post-modernism.” He also collaborated with Sandra Burton, senior lecturer in dance, to found Kusika in 1989. Brown later founded the Zambezi Marimba Band in 1992.
Outside of the classroom, Brown was conducting his own research around the world. He did short research projects in Trinidad, Cuba and Ghana and wrote his dissertation on Zambian royal xylophone and drum bands. It was this focus within his own research and his personal relationships with musicians around the world that led to his involvement with Kusika and Zambezi. “This new ensemble allowed him to teach a genre of African music that is less widely known in the United States,” Burton explained. “Brown’s scholarship and excellent connections to the community of musicians from the African continent supported the development of marimba and mbira music at Williams and on the east coast of this country.”
Burton also spoke to Brown’s personal commitment to helping the group to flourish. “His leadership helped build broad support for Kusika in the music department and Africana studies. Brown led Winter Study courses to Ghana and Cuba that deepened student understanding of the source of the music and dance they were learning,” she said. As anyone can tell from a Kusika or Zambezi performance, Brown’s enthusiasm also helped to build a group of students who are equally as passionate about these types of music and dance.
Music major Laone Thekiso ’12 came to the College after hearing the marimba band. “I sought him [Brown] out,” Thekiso said. “He was a hard person to track down, [but] he was very easygoing.” Theskiso has been involved in Zambezi throughout his four years at Williams and has seen how Brown’s influence and motivation aided the development of the group. “He was very progressive,” Theskiso said. “He was pushing for whoever was being creative to do what they wanted.”
Professor of Music and Music Department Chair Jennifer Bloxam explained that Brown also singlehandedly built the marimba set that Zambezi uses. “He was such an innovator. He brought materials to build instruments from Africa,” Bloxam said. “Over the years he created a set of chromatic Zimbabwean marimbas with an expanded number of notes for an expanded repertoire of songs.” It was this mindset of innovation that motivated Brown to create one of the most elaborate marimba sets on the East coast out of an area of study that did not even exist at the College prior to his arrival.
“Ernest Brown always had a smile on his face,” Bloxam said. “He was just the most affable fellow.” She also spoke about his “graceful dignity” even when his illness was beginning to take its toll on his work over the past few years. Despite retiring in December, Brown attended the marimba Winter Study performance at the end of January. “There was nothing but pure joy on Ernest’s face,” Bloxam said.
Brown has left a powerful legacy on this campus in every aspect. Thekiso explained that even after Brown became sick, he always played a supporting role within Zambezi. “You could really rely on him having your back. If you took your case to Professor Brown he would most likely support you,” he said. In the end, it was Brown’s personality that helped make Zambezi and Kusika such strong artistic forces they are on the campus today.
Burton explained exactly how important these two groups have become to this campus and its diversity. “Zambezi and Kusika have become traditions at Williams that are part of Brown’s legacy as a scholar, teacher, musician and community builder. His passion for learning and creating was inspiring. His tenacity, humor and dedication to our work is a powerful part of our history and foundation,” she said.
According to Rick Spalding, chaplain to the College, Brown’s family has requested that we celebrate and pay tribute to his rich and abundant legacy of scholarship, mentorship and companionship in conjunction with this year’s final performances of the groups he helped to found on May 5 at 8 p.m. A group of faculty, staff and students who were close to him are in the process of planning the components of that celebration of his life.
“Next year we will present our World Music concerts as a distinct series within our visiting artist concerts, under the title ‘The Ernest Brown World Music Concert Series,’” Bloxam explained. The World Music concerts have traditionally been part of a larger concert series, but will be rededicated in Brown’s memory this coming year, according to Bloxam. “It’s a way to pay tribute to Ernest, who brought music and musicians from beyond U.S. borders to Williamstown, and to highlight the importance of this presence on our campus,” she said.
Brown’s legacy and easygoing personality will be remembered on this campus and around the world. They will live on through the vibrancy of Zambezi and Kusika and through the appreciation of music from around the world. “He was very young at heart,” Thekiso said.