Groove diplomat LaFrae Sci is an award-winning and internationally acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, educator, and composer. Her work transcends genres, cultures, and boundaries, yet it authentically and reverentially embraces many creative traditions. She is a bold conceptualist, an in-demand drummer, a jazz musician, an electronic musician who builds her own synths, a musical ambassador, a podcaster, a band leader, and a film composer. To date, her professional career spans 30 years and she has shared her purposeful creativity with 38 countries. Coursing through her vibrantly varied trajectory is the idea of making music with intention.
“The philosophy is groove makes you move, movement creates unity, community, and change,” the Brooklyn-based musician shares. “There is a great tradition of spirituals and freedom songs that have been transformative for the Black experience and beyond. Blues music historically was a healing music that came out of great hardship, and jazz music was the soundtrack to the Civil Rights era. My heroes focused on creative ways to empower their community. I’m all about the roots and the fruits of the blues from spirituals to afro futuristic soundscapes.”
As a singular artist, a boundary-bashing visionary, and an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, LaFrae has been featured in media outlets such as Modern Drummer, NPR, Jazz Times, and The New York Times.
As a composer, she writes for film, theater, and large and extended jazz and classical orchestras. Her work in these realms is informed by her vibrantly expansive music grounding in blues, jazz, classical, various ethnomusicological traditions, rock, pop, hip-hop, and also her bold adventures in electronic music. LaFrae’s artistry is enhanced by her work building modular and analog synthesizers, and through this, she has created and composed her own palette of sounds.
LaFrae has worked as a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department and the founder of the NGO Groove Diplomacy Inc. (www.groovediplomacy.org). This artistic platform offers empowering cross-cultural musical collaborations, transformative educational programs, and critically-acclaimed and award-winning performances and compositions. LaFrae was recently awarded a New York State Council of Arts Composer Grant for her afro-futuristic soundtrack for the Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker at the Lamama Theater in NYC. She has also curated potent youth educational performances at the Apollo, including the sold-out and well-received show LaFrae Sci & The Groove Diplomacy Blues Orchestra String Stories: The Roots & Fruits Of The Blues, and the upcoming Florence Mills: The Queen of Happiness. In addition to these milestone accomplishments, LaFrae’s resume includes being an educational consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center, curriculum writer and director of JALC’s Middle School Jazz Academy Brooklyn Chapter, and she is also founding teaching member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in N.Y.C.
Onstage and in the studio, LaFrae has built a robust profile as a band leader and a support musician. She is the founder of such artistic collectives as Shungite, Sonic Black, the 13th Amendment?, and an 80-piece youth big band which has had the distinction playing a series of sold-out shows in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Russia, performing LaFrae’s own “orchestral jazz piece” of Mikhail Bulgakov’s oft-banned novel The Master and Margarita. LaFrae’s youth big band has also played at NYCs Winter Jazz Fest and BRIC’s Jazz Fest. LaFrae has played drums for The Burnt Sugar Arkestra, The Black Rock Coalition Orchestra, Valerie June, Keziah Jones, Sandra Bernhard, Eli Yamin, Vernon Reid, Kelis, Nancy Sinatra (w/ Morrissey), blues greats Jr. Mack and Pinetop Perkins, Irene Cara, Bumblefoot, Cyndi Lauper, Reuben Wilson, Rachel Z, Kelis, and Dr. Lonnie Smith. For her work with Sandra Bernhard, LaFrae has the distinction of being the first female drummer/musical director in Broadway or off-Broadway history.
LaFrae grew up with a strong grounding in the arts and her own Black culture. Her grandmother was an organist at Mount Pisgah AME Church in Lake City, Florida. Her mother was a choreographer for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, before becoming the director of the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar House for over 20 years. LaFrae’s father was in the Air Force, and her family was constantly moving around the globe. LaFrae was born in Okinawa, Japan, and grew up with a pan-world perspective, and a strong grounding in her identity as an African-American woman.
Within this rich cultural background, LaFrae organically began to explore music, soaking in her grandmother’s work as a church musician and playing keys, and carving out her own path playing drums in marching band and flute in concert band. During college at Oberlin, she studied political theory and economics. There she became focused on drums, homing on the power and joy of jazz and blues. This was a formative time when LaFrae had the opportunity to learn from and perform with many members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. While she was getting a grounding in jazz, she was also grinding it out as a hired gun musician, throwing her drums in the back of her car and driving 3 to 5 hours to play any gig she could. LaFrae moved to New York in 1999 with $600, a drum kit, and a backpack of clothes. Her first gig in the Big Apple was backing urban pop-superstar Kelis, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Today, LaFrae juggles a busy schedule of performing, educating, and composing. Her career has been defined by innovation, reinvention, and honoring cultural ideals and traditions. Reflecting on her refreshingly eclectic journey, she says: “I think the most important lessons I’ve learned are to trust the Universe and live in gratitude.”