Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2007

Pam Parker releases her third CD

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Master of music: Singer-composer Pam Parker, who has been an electrician and holds a nursing degree, now works at an information technology firm.
It’s a blustery November evening, but Pam Parker of Silver Spring is snug — singing, climbing the scales and rehearsing in a Wheaton home studio.

Scott Giambusso, a bass player in the small musical group started a few years ago, holds rehearsals at his house most Wednesdays. Davy Yarborough brings his horns, Francis Thompson, drums, and Dan Reynolds works an electric piano. All are local musicians and teachers of music who have come into an after-work and weekend performance life built around Parker’s singing.

The group, which has no stage name, played for the fourth time at Blues Alley jazz club in Georgetown Monday night to celebrate the debut of ‘‘Bread and Roses,” Parker’s third CD release.

‘‘Let’s do ‘Harvest,’” someone calls out, a 1976 Isley Brothers socially conscious song that still carries well 40 years later. ‘‘Harvest for the World” is on the new CD, and Parker croons it like water over pebbles, the words running slow, each sound round and polished.

‘‘All the babies together,” she sings in a velvet timbre of remarkable clarity, ‘‘everyone a seed. Half of us are satisfied, half of us in need.”

Critic T.J. McGrath wrote in Dirty Linen, the hipster music magazine, that Parker ‘‘has a big voice ... but she also knows how to whisper a good lullaby. Some of her best songs are the quiet and thoughtful ones.”

She and the group play blues, swing, jazz, folk and protest songs. Her son Jobari Parker-Namdar, who studies music at Howard University, is a regular, while her older, non-musical son Damian Parker shows up to help lend a hand.

Together only a few years, they performed on the field stage at this year’s Takoma Park Music Festival, and have done Strathmore in North Bethesda. She sings for the Congressional Black Caucus, and sang at the 88th birthday tribute to Pete Seeger. One of the songs she wrote was chosen as the theme for the popular Sophie’s Parlor radio show on WPFW radio 89.3 FM.

Growing up as one of three daughters of John and Wilma Parker in the District’s Columbia Heights, Parker, now 45, remembers music as central to family life. Her parents and siblings attended and grew up singing at the Gospel Spreading Church of God in Christ across the street from Howard University.

Oddly, she was the only one who didn’t sing, she says. ‘‘I was too shy when I was young.”

Her father worked as a Defense Department analyst, while mom was a stay-at-home with the children. Hard times followed his death when she was still a teen. A young man at her church became abusive, she says, and when she was 15, she gave birth to Damian. She was 22 when her 16-year-old sister committed suicide.

‘‘We were close, more like mother and daughter. It was devastating,” Parker recalls.

Later, her older sister became a heroin addict and died of AIDS at 47.

‘‘Her gift to me was that I never needed anything from the drug culture,” she says.

But Parker needed a job, and after graduating from Cardozo High School, won a full scholarship to American University. The scholarship funding ended in her senior year, and she had to drop out without a degree. Through an apprenticeship program run by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, she became an electrician. She went on to get a nursing degree from Montgomery College, but today works a desk job at an information technology firm in Arlington.

‘‘I went to union rallies,” she says, ‘‘and there were these protest songs that I really got into. One day, one of the guys noticed me singing along, and asked me to get up to sing at a rally.”

‘‘I think I sang ‘Harriet Tubman,’ the civil rights song, and everybody just went crazy, telling me how good it was,” she remembers, laughing at the memory, ‘‘and it occurred to me that I could sing.”

For eight years, Parked worked as an electrician in Maryland, Virginia and the District, becoming involved with social and political causes, getting arrested at anti-apartheid rallies, picketing against the covert wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua — and singing all the time.

When South African Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and traveled to Washington in the 1990s, Parker met him and his then-wife Winnie. It was a ‘‘culmination of sorts, proof that non-violence is a powerful force, that all his suffering and all the stuff we put up with here had meaning,” she says.

Although Parker never learned how to read a musical score, she learned more about music as she became involved in her son Jobari’s life. Through him and her union contacts, she met most of the band members.

‘‘If I hadn’t gotten into music, I sometimes wonder, would I go through life numb, reclusive and shy,” she asks. ‘‘Just in a daze.”

‘‘Before music, I don’t even remember being happy,” says Parker, ‘‘Now I am filled with it.”

Pam Parker’s CD’s are available at the AFL-CIO bookstore in the District and the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, and online at www.laborheritage.org and www.aflcio.org. Her Web site is www.pamparker.com.