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Musician/singer finds harmony in school arts post

Starving musician? Not this one. Mark Davis landed the perfect day job to fuel his lifelong penchant for performing.

A singer and percussionist, he performs with Voodoo Katz and Bare Bones. In college, he traveled across the country with a popular band called Crazy Jane.

However, music isn't the only egg in his multifaceted basket. By day, he serves as fine arts curriculum specialist for Kanawha County Schools. A former teacher who knows first-hand about the importance of the arts in education, he works to promote arts programs for county school kids with the same exuberance he brings to his music. 

Singing was his first and abiding love, starting with the church choir as a boy in St. Albans. When he discovered percussion, the joy of that rhythmic pounding, he made room in his heart for both drums and song. They coexist commendably. For years, he tied them together with a third passion — the rewards of teaching, instilling creativity.

Extensive travel, including three trips to Africa, have polished his cultural world view.

At 41, he exudes a contagious eagerness about the second act of his life journey. Whatever awaits around the next corner, he will embrace it with characteristic energy.

 

"I grew up in St. Albans. My dad was a C&P Telephone worker, a lineman. He was a Korean War veteran in the Marines and did that kind of work in the artillery.

"I started singing in the church choir when I was 5 or 6. I sang solos in front of the whole congregation. My father still sings in the choir. My sister was always a singer. But I took it and ran with it as a career.

"In this job now, I think about my music experiences in elementary school. We had maybe a music specialist come by once a week, or the classroom teacher would do it. So we're a lot better off now.

"Probably the first thing I ever played was the door facing. Or the door stop with the spring. I always had an interest in percussion, but I didn’t come to it until later. I was a singer first.

"I played trombone in junior high and high school and took voice lessons and percussion lessons formally.

"I was in the school bands and stayed in the church choir. I had an excellent teacher, Ken Johnson, the band director at Stonewall Middle School. He started a rock band, my first rock band, in eighth grade. It was the first school of rock. No one else was doing it at the time. I got to be the singer. It turned me on to a whole new world.

"I've played in bands since I was 14. The first professional band I played in was Crazy Jane in college. We toured the East Coast, a lot of venues in Boston and New York. When the summer hit, I hit the road. We played Colorado, California, Idaho. Get in the van and go play and move on the next day.

"We had three albums out. This was in the '90s until 2000. The guitar player, Andy Park, and I wanted to keep playing together. We got together with Ahmed Solomon, the drummer in the Mountain Stage Band, and said let's play this Caribbean-African music. We're the Voodoo Katz. We've been in existence since 2001. I'm the singer and percussionist. When the economy went sour, live music took a hit and opportunities to play here locally just aren't there like they were. But we do a lot of private things. It's a big band.

"And I sing with Bare Bones, an a capella trio with Bill and Becky Kimmons. I started with them in 2007.

"This job feeds my performing career and performing feeds this job. They feed on each other.

"When I was in eighth grade, I knew I wanted to teach music somehow. I had a vocal scholarship to WVU. In music school, I was in the elementary classroom, and I thought, 'This is what I want. This is a lot of fun.' The spark lit.

"I did that for 15 years. I was at Elk Elementary Center most of my career. My first year,  I was an itinerant teacher. I had six schools. I loved the creativity with kids. The sky's the limit with elementary age kids.

"My 16th year, my predecessor here was retiring. Now I'm the fine arts curriculum specialist. I may be the only one in the state on a county level. I have K-12. I get them all the way up. We have visual art and music, and we have a dance and theater program at Capital High.

"We have strings in the elementary schools. We did have fifth and sixth grade band, which  was always a big deal. That's what got me my start. But the middle school change did away with band. I would love to get it back. We just don't have the people to do it.

"I think nationally people are realizing that arts are a part of the whole person, and you can learn a lot through the arts. The research is out there. All these people in the arts, we have to advocate and say this is important. We have to reiterate. The first time there's a budget cut, they think arts. But it's as much a part of an education of a child as any subject. It's just not tested. It's very difficult to measure, what you learn in the arts.

"Visual arts teach the ability to recognize patterns and be creative. If you think about a company that's going to hire somebody later in life, they want a creative person, someone with ideas. The arts foster that.

"I just went to a Kennedy Center conference. I go every year. We had a lot of speakers talk about brain research. As humans, we have to be able to differentiate between tones. Our mother's voice is one of the first things we can identify. Music develops that part of the brain, the ability to recognize sounds. It's fascinating.

"We are servicing all our elementary schools with an art and music specialist where it used to be the classroom teacher. We have fine programs in our secondary schools. It's amazing when I go to these all-county concerts and I hear what these groups can do. We just had band ratings at Capital High. I was blown away.

"I produce about eight big events a year. Spring is the busy time. All-county band. The all-county juried art show. All-county strings. In the fall, I supervise the majorette and band festival.

"I do miss teaching. But I'm in classrooms a lot, working with teachers, and I still interact with kids. I teach at UC on Tuesday nights, a class for teachers who want to be elementary generalists. I give them their music credits. I still teach camps and a lot of that kind of thing.

"I would like to see arts integrated in Kanawha County Schools. A classroom teacher who wants to teach a science lesson on volcanoes should know how to pull in some dance and some visual arts. We need some training in that area.

"There are a lot of hats I wear in this job. We have a partnership with the Kennedy Center and the Clay Center. We're arts partners to offer professional development for our teachers.

"We're big travelers. We went to Ireland last summer and hung out with Pat Donohoe  for a few days in Killarney. I went to Haiti and the Domican Republic, so Ireland seemed like the next step. The Celtic music is obviously a draw. I played in a group, the Appalachian Celtic Consort, and the music always spoke to me.

"I've studied in Africa, in Ghana two summers. My wife and I went to South Africa. Her father was working there, so I've been to Africa three times, twice on study trips studying music, culture and dance.

"Africa changed my perspective. I first went in '96, my first foreign trip and going to a developing country like Ghana. People are living in mud huts, but the spirit was there, the smiles on people's faces. They want to share their culture. They're receptive.

"In the smallest village, you can have this amazing percussionist. Has anyone ever heard of him anywhere else? Is he on MTV? No. But I thought, every village needs a drummer. Whether it's Charleston or this little town in Ghana or New York City, all villages need a drummer.

"I got to go back in 2006. And how things had changed. Cell phones took over. You would be out in the middle of nowhere, and this chieftain in traditional clothes would have two cell phones. If one didn't work, he had the other one, a backup.

"I still sing all the time. Halfway through my sophomore year, I thought, 'Those percussionists are having a lot of fun.' When you play percussion, you can play a lot of things. Anything you hit, scrape or shake is percussion.

"So I auditioned and left the vocal department and became a percussion major. But I was a doing both. To keep my scholarship, I had to stay in my applied program and choir, plus take percussion lessons. They didn't know what to do with me. But that's what makes it so fun, getting to do both.

"I was very proud to be Kanawha County Teacher of the Year in 2012. I started here in the fall of 2012. I love this. I can't think of anything I'd rather do. Maybe be in the circus? I get to work with musicians from all over the state. I've composed pieces for the West Virginia Dance Company in Beckley for their touring performances. That's another thing, composing. Voodoo Katz is mostly all original. I don't crank out songs. It takes me a while to craft something.

"The paper did a story a few weeks ago about my Vinyl Village. I have about 5,000 to 6,000 vinyl records, so I go out and DJ with that. Records are a big hobby of mine.

"I don't know if I've realized the dream yet. I feel like I'm still moving forward and learning. I think there are great things ahead. I take them as they come. I'm excited to see what's coming down the pike."

Reach Sandy Wells at 304-348-5173 or sandyw@wvgazette.com.


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