There are other words in Northern’s vocabulary that have been swapped out over the years. He refers to colleagues and collaborators who have “died” as “ancestors.” To escape the stuffy, academic associations tied to “improvisation,” he prefers “spontaneous creativity.” And there’s one word he’s expunged without assigning a substitute.
He steps out the front door, then freezes, like he’s forgotten his wallet or left the oven on.
“Hear that?” Northern asks. “The birds are just fantastic today.”
He’s headed to his Friday afternoon class at Jamon Montessori Day School in Silver Spring, where he’ll welcome about two dozen children into a 45-minute drum circle that’s almost entirely nonverbal. Northern says he’s learning as much they are. “Musicians have said to me, ‘Man, where’d you get that beat?’ I say, ‘Man, a 5-year-old taught me that beat.’ ”
His career as a music educator started at P.S. 49 in the Bronx after returning from Europe in 1958. One morning, he was greeted by a monstrous noise. His students told him they were simply imitating the sounds outside the classroom window. “Just like I used to do on my fire escape!” says Northern. “I had forgotten that. Right then and there the words ‘sound awareness’ popped into my head.”
“Sound awareness” became the name of his methodology, the Sounds of Awareness became the name of his ensemble, and he developed both throughout the ’70s while teaching at Dartmouth College and Brown University. (It was his students at Dartmouth who started calling him Brother Ah, a joke on a vocal tic of his, which he embraced upon learning the word had significant meanings in ancient cultures.)
Between semesters he flew to Africa, where he studied traditional drumming and the sounds of nature for seven consecutive summers. “My musical studies were in the forest,” he says. “I would literally get into conversations with birds.”
He met his wife-to-be, Ayana, in Tanzania, (Northern has two middle-age sons from his first marriage, which ended in 1969), and the couple eventually settled in Washington, where they would raise their daughter, Dara, now 21 and away at college.
He worked at Washington’s Levine School of Music in the ’80s, and since then has taught at other schools and programs, including the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program, which brought him one of his most accomplished students, Rich Harrison, the writer and producer of “Crazy in Love,” a 2003 R&B hit that transformed the girl from Destiny’s Child into Beyoncé.