The Center for Life Beyond Reed

Picture of Cole Perkinson '13

Cole Perkinson '13

Watson Fellowship

As reported in the May 11,  2013 Oregonian:

By David Stabler

Cole Perkinson is drowning out the mellow jazz piped into a downtown Starbucks.

He balances an mbira, a Zimbabwe thumb piano, on his knee and plucks the metal keys. His thumbs fly over the keys, sending a jazzy, joyful tune through the coffee shop. People look up from their phones and laptops to see a blond young man in an African print shirt creating raucous, impromptu music.

In three months, the Reed College senior will be in Zimbabwe, surrounded by musicians playing the music he loves.

Perkinson, 21, just won a $25,000 Watson Fellowship to study music in Africa. The terms of the fellowship require him to go abroad for exactly one year, to countries he's never visited, for the purpose of deepening his knowledge about a subject.

Thing is, Perkinson is a science guy. He graduates from Reed next month as a physics/chemistry major who is fascinated with robots and semiconductors. Ask him about his senior thesis, which he just turned in, and words such as "quantum dots," "nano crystals" and "exciting electrons" spring from his lips.

But, he can't live without music. Even though Cambridge University accepted him into its master's program in physics, he turned it down because he couldn't resist a musical safari through Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Ghana.

Music came early to Perkinson, whose father, a math professor at Reed, is an avid musician. David Perkinson persuaded the family -- wife Diane, daughter Joy and Cole -- to take marimba lessons from MyLinda King, the former musical director of Portland's popular marimba band, Boka Marimba.

When the kids were young, the Perkinsons' basement in Eastmoreland resonated with boisterous rehearsals of world music.

In addition to several African instruments, Cole Perkinson plays Irish fiddle and classical violin and piano. His piano teacher, Jeffrey Payne, founder of the Portland contemporary ensemble Fear No Music, says Perkinson is a natural.

"In his best performances, it seems like the listener is not really aware that he's playing the music. Rather, the music seems to be playing itself," Payne says. "His playing has drama, humor, intensity and lovely melodic shaping."

If you visit Saturday Market, you may hear Perkinson. He frequently performs there with the Supadupa Marimba Bros. Here they are at Saturday Market.

To win the Watson Fellowship, Perkinson wrote a 1,500-word essay and survived a personal interview. His project will be to study traditional African music and how it informs contemporary African music. He leaves Aug. 1 for Zimbabwe, where he knows a few musicians from their travels to Portland. From there, he'll visit musicians in Botswana, then Johannesburg, Cape Town and Ghana.

He's drawn to the social aspects of Zimbabwean music as much to the sound, he says. "They make their music exciting and fresh by listening to the sounds being made around them. They adapt what and how they perform to the occasion. It depends on the audience, who you're playing with."

His parents believe Perkinson will grow from his year in Africa.

"It will be transformational," Diane Perkinson says. "He said, 'Mom, this is what I want to do.'"

"He absorbs music effortlessly and very quickly," David Perkinson says. "He's played with a lot of Zimbabwe musicians and I see their reactions when he plays with them. They're very surprised and they really like it. He was very quiet when he was young and I had no idea he could be so comfortable on stage."

Perkinson himself has high hopes for the year and beyond.

"I'm hoping to come out of the year being a better-informed musician. I know without a doubt I'll play music all my life."

Previous profile: Sasha Peters '15 | Next profile: Noah Shofer '18