Music: Great Explorations

Ambitious South African project inspires local musician Clark Wheeler

Kurt Strecker

Clark Wheeler

Clark Wheeler is barely old enough to order a beer. Yet, at the tender age of 21, he´s already been around the block — living in the Kalahari desert for six months (by choice), submitting recordings to Smithsonian Folkways (pending response) and now releasing his first solo album, Stars and Thorns.

Wheeler isn´t your typical college drop-out. After his first year studying music composition at Indiana University, he left, reasoning that there was no need to pay thousands of dollars to study something he could learn on his own.

“You don´t need a degree to be a performing musician,” he says. “I didn´t see any reason to stay.”

Instead, Wheeler sought out his own education. At the time, he wanted to be a modern Jazz pianist and his biggest influence was John Coltrane.

After reading that Coltrane was interested in international musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Baba Olatunji, he started delving into the World music section at the library and buying lots of CDs. At some point, Wheeler discovered the music of the Kalahari Bushmen. It called to him.

“I don´t remember how I found Bushman music, but it just captivated me,” he says. “I thought it was incredible, and there was hardly any stuff to find, literature or recordings … but I had enough that it had me hooked.”

Wheeler finished the school year in May 2006. In June, at age 19, he arrived in South Africa and stayed until December, living with villagers and recording their traditional music. He slept with families in their huts as well as outside in the bitter desert cold with nothing but a sleeping bag and layers of clothes. He endured loneliness, homesickness and the frustration of the language barrier for six months during his attempt to help preserve Bushman music.

Wheeler´s journey served as a literal rite of passage — his quest to preserve obscure African music led to self-discovery as well as a new perspective on life here. What spurred him to go, besides his love for the music, was initially a sense of disenchantment.

“Basically, growing up in middle class suburban Ohio … I was just kind of sick of the lifestyle around here,” Wheeler says. “Like the comfort of it and how everybody just seems to be getting their own … and sliding by on the surface of life. I don´t want to sound cynical, because when I came back from Africa I ended up appreciating tons and tons of stuff I never thought much about before about America. … The opportunities are huge, the fact that you can pick anything you want to do in the world and do it.”

Wheeler did just that, as a teenager, and learned things they can´t teach you in college.

“The Bushmen are considered the oldest race on earth,” he says. “For the longest time, they were still uninfluenced by the rest of modern society. So there´s been a lot of controversy in recent decades about people moving in and encroaching on their land and kind of forcing a new lifestyle upon them because they were nomads. I had read all this stuff by activist groups about leaving them be. They don´t want to be left alone. They want to know what´s going on in the rest of the world. They don´t want to live in a bubble.

“But they don´t need handouts. They need their minds to be changed. They need to be informed and empowered and educated.”

This is what Wheeler hopes to do for those who listen to his music. He says he still wants to be a performer but that his scope has changed. Now, rather than play abstract instrumental Jazz, he´s about the meaning behind the words to a song — the message.

On Stars and Thorns, he pulls from the traditions of Folk, Gospel and old Delta Blues, both in feel and content. His music is simple, sincere, raw, infused with a feeling of longing and elements of old Spirituals. The title indicates the devotional purpose to the songs — but rather than preachy they´re quiet stories of human folly and love.

Wheeler is glad he went to South Africa and hopes to go back, and he certainly wishes to finish the project and find a distributor for the Bushman recordings. But after some reflection, he feels his own music is how he can best touch others.

“The world has a lot of problems,” he says. “People need help and I need help, too, but I need to offer help. I just feel like music is one of the most powerful things that we have. It can get inside someone and move them or give them comfort or inspire them — heal them too, I think. So I just want to perform for people and with people.”

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