All roads lead somewhere. For Cole Perkinson ’13, they lead to Africa.
Cole, a chemistry-physics major, has been awarded a Watson Fellowship to spend a year in Africa exploring native music.
The Watson Year provides fellows with an opportunity to test their aspirations, abilities, and perseverance through a personal project that is cultivated on an international scale. Watson Fellows have gone on to become international leaders in their fields including CEOs of major corporations, college presidents, MacArthur “genius” grant recipients, diplomats, artists, lawyers, doctors, faculty, journalists, and many renowned researchers and innovators. The program offers a stipend of $25,000 to 40 fellows from 40 liberal arts colleges to pursue an independent study of something they are passionate about in a country that is not their own.
For Cole, that passion is Zimbabwean music, which he has played with his family since he was 10 years old.
“It’s some of the most fun music around to play,” he says. “There’s room to explore in the music and invent everywhere.”
In addition to its complex rhythmic patterns and vast range of moods—from exuberant dancing to spiritual ceremony—Zimbabwean music is a profoundly social activity, Cole says.
Son of professor David Perkinson [mathematics 1990–], Cole is also passionate about chemistry and physics and has been active in Reed’s Science Outreach program. While at first glance the two fields seem to have little in common, Cole believes they have much in common.
“I think there’s an inherent connection between music and mathematics,” he says. “You often see people who are interested in both, they seem to go together. They’re both pursuits that are abstract and because of that, they beautiful in their own sense. They’re not trying to achieve some sort of secondary goal.”
Setting down his backpack, which bulges with fearsome textbooks, Cole points out three of his favorite African instruments: the hosho, the mbira, and the deze.
The hosho is a pair of gourds with seeds inside that create a percussive rattle when shaken. The mbira, also known as thumb piano, is a wooden board sprouting a profusion of metal keys which vibrate when plucked. Cole says that the mbira is more commonly recognized instrument because, “sometimes people see things like it at farmer’s markets,” but a mbira boasts more keys. The deze is a round hollowed-out gourd which serves to amplify the mbira.
Cole will spend time in five African nations: Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, and Ghana. In each country he will work with traditional musicians and then travel with groups that play more modern music.
In a strange twist of fate, the school where he will be working with the Botswana Marimba Band happens to be the sister school of his high school.
Cole says the social aspect of the project excites him most. “Meeting new people, particularly musicians for whom this music is really important, is very exciting for me.”
After he completes his musical tour of Africa, he plans to reapply to Cambridge for graduate school. (He was accepted this year, but chose to pursue the Watson instead.)
At Cambridge, he hopes to pursue a master’s or PhD in the physics department at Cavendish laboratory and to further his knowledge of music by getting involved with chamber and choral music. One of the reasons he is interested in Cambridge, he says, is the “high level of science and musical opportunities.”
For the next year, however, he sees himself playing a lot of marimba music. He leaves for Africa on August 1.