‘Music man’ brings drumbeat to Midland Library

See how this cancer survivor now spends his days, helping kids enjoy making music. Hear him play and sing in Gresham next week …

Fashioning a drum to show at his workshop, musician and educator Newel Briggs prepares a sample for a workshop at Midland Library.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

It was clear that the parents and kids who came to a “make-it-yourself” drum workshop at Midland Library the morning of February 14 knew nothing about the extraordinary background of the instructor, Newel Briggs.

They did know that the dreadlocked man with the gentle smile is a music legend in the Pacific Northwest, having played guitar with Curtis Salgado and the Stilettos, and later sharing the stage with Ziggy Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, and other reggae legends.

Briggs didn’t discuss his storied rock-music past with East Portland News either, but he spoke with pride about his time working with the Young Audiences and the Regional Arts and Culture Council Arts in Education and Neighborhood Arts programs.

Newel Briggs hums a tune to himself, as the prepares this homemade drum.

“Then, I got into my ‘other life’, which was being an advocate and a case manager for at-risk youth with Portland Public Schools, Youth Opportunities Center, and Open Meadows,” he said.

Then, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer eleven years ago, Briggs revealed. “I had to do eight weeks of radiation, five days a week. I tell folks that I should be good for quite a while now, that pretty well ‘pickled’ me!”

The music community held fundraising concerts to help defray his medical expenses; he’d been laid off a couple of years ago. “So, I decided that I wanted to get back more in touch with my ‘art side’.”

Mom Kailynn Miller watches, as budding artist Leilani creates decorations that will soon adorn her drum.

Now, having turned 60, Briggs said he’s found a different way of being involved in music and working with kids. “At the Sellwood Branch Library a few weeks ago, I helped kids make their own banjos from boxes and strings.

“Today, we’re making drums out of common household items,” Briggs remarked as he started making a one with a flower pot, covered with rubber from inner tubes, and stretched tight with twine.

“But first, the kids will give their drum a personal touch,” Briggs pointed out. “They’ll color and decorate with construction paper that we’ll hot-glue to the flower pot.”

Briggs does the difficult parts for the kids, like using his vintage Tandy Leather punch to make holes in the drum heads.

Briggs looked happy and contented helping workshop participants.

“The best part of this for me is hanging out and being able to share my love of music with kids,” Briggs smiled. “My grandfather showed me how to make these when I was a young boy. Hopefully, this craft will help these youngsters learn that they can make music in their home, and in their life, without spending a lot of money – by utilizing the simplest things.”

This drum is ready to make music, says Newel Briggs.

Briggs will share his musical heritage next week: “I’ll be singing old slave songs while playing my guitar, mandolin, and banjo,” he said. “I was raised by my grandparents, the first people in my family to be born free, and I’ll be singing songs I learned from my grandma.”

On March 24, see Newel Briggs’ presentation, “Folk Songs & Stories from the Rural South”, at 4:00 p.m. in the Gresham Library, 385 NW Miller Avenue, (in Gresham), 97030.

© 2015 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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