Remembering Mau Mau: Beloved masked drummer of Boulder’s Pearl Street died in September

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include Karen Hightower’s first name.

Regulars on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall knew him as Mau Mau — a mysterious, masked street performer whose rhythmic drum beats were a near-constant presence on Pearl Street during the spring and summer months.

But to his family, friends, and anyone else who knew him personally, Claude Clayton, who died Sept. 13 at age 71, was a man with a contagious laugh, a gentle spirit and a generous heart.

Born on Aug. 30, 1951, Clayton spent the first few decades of his life in New York City. He was a master barber who owned his own barber shop for years, and according to his daughter, Rhainy Clayton-Cole, he saw a number of high-profile clients, including a former attorney general who used to frequent Clayton’s shop before he was in law school.

Clayton’s nephew, Ayo Clayton, said his uncle kept that “barber shop energy” with him for the rest of his life.

“He always had that spark and smile,” said Ayo Clayton. “He was always genuinely interested in how you were doing, [having] genuine talks with you and provoking conversation with his talks.”

Family members and friends also said Claude Clayton had always been musically inclined — first, he played the bugle in the Riversiders Drum and Bugle Corps, a competitive all-Black marching band, alongside his brothers Calvin, Donald and Ernest. Later, in the 1980s, he joined a senior drum and bugle corps called the New York Skylines, where he learned to play the horn. And in his barber shop, Clayton frequently played jazz records from artists who were relatively unknown at the time (although some later became famous).

“Music was a driving force in his life, and no matter the activity happening around him, music was on and usually the topic of conversation as well,” said Shane Faddis, a longtime friend of Clayton’s.

But Clayton also faced challenges as a single father raising four children. Clayton-Cole, his youngest, said he single-handedly raised her and her brother, Thomas, starting when she was only three months old.

Ayo Clayton remembers his uncle as being fiercely devoted to his children, and later, his grandchildren.

“(He was) always loving and hugging them, never cursing around them — the discipline he put himself under … it was just profound,” said Ayo Clayton. “To see this man take the best of what he had and give it to his children — I just have not seen many examples of that.”

In the mid-1980s, Clayton and his family relocated to Denver, where his mother was living at the time. He loved the outdoors, and would frequently take his children camping, hiking, fishing and snowboarding with him as they were growing up.

After spending many years working and raising his family in Colorado, Clayton retired and began what family members called his “encore career” as a street musician in Boulder. When he performed, he went by the name “Mau Mau” (taken from the name of an uprising in the 1950s that led to Kenya’s independence from Britain), donned an African mask from Cameroon — with strips of fabric that he’d pulled from an Ethan Allen sofa hanging around the edges — and played a set of djembe drums from Senegal.

When asked why she believed her father adopted the Mau Mau persona, Clayton-Cole said, “It was someone else that he embodied when he drummed. I think it provided his viewers healing of some sort.” She said he also enjoyed cultivating an air of mystery around himself.

According to Clayton-Cole, Clayton grew to love Boulder so much that he would often come up to town and spend the weekend in an old Volkswagen Eurovan that he’d converted into an overnight camper.

“He fell in love with (Boulder) and just loved it so much, he got rid of his place, he put everything in storage and said, ‘I’ll see you when I see you.’ He lived life on his own terms and he was very unapologetic about it. He really led by example that way. If he said he was gonna do it, he was gonna do it, no matter what it was.”

For the rest of the weeks and years when Clayton wasn’t performing, Clayton-Cole said, he stayed closely involved with his family and helped raise his grandchildren, some of whom live in the Denver metro area.

Clayton’s legacy since his death seemed destined to live on as his friends, family and acquaintances described a kind, loving man who gave his all to his family and had a “magnetic” energy that had to be seen to be believed.

“There’s not a sufficient amount of words to express what he meant to our family. To describe him is difficult. But to know him is to experience him,” Clayton-Cole said. “It’s hard to put him into words. He’s indescribable. (But) he was a treasure. He was a treasure to our family, and he’s impacted so many people over the years.”

Reflecting on his old friend, Faddis said that calling him “magnetic and vivacious” would be “a gross understatement.”

“His energy could, and would, fill a room instantly,” said Faddis. “He had a unique ability to be serious, but also joyous and playful at the same time. He loved and embraced the embodiment of life, and in his presence you couldn’t help but smile all the while.”

Peter Waszeciak, a Longmont resident who visits Boulder regularly with his wife, Karen Hightower, said the two of them were saddened by Clayton’s death and that they would miss hearing Mau Mau’s drums on Pearl Street.

“He was a riot. He was a real funny guy. We would talk to him all the time and he always had something good to say, and he was a lot of fun,” Waszeciak said.

Hightower said that, for her, Mau Mau’s drumming created the “heartbeat” of Pearl Street, and that she took comfort in hearing him play. She also described him as a “great, gentle soul” and said he was “greatly missed” already.

Clayton’s family declined to specify his cause of death.

Clayton is survived by three children, their spouses, and 12 grandchildren: his daughter, Rhainy Clayton-Cole, and her husband, Anubis Heru; his daughter, Katrina Morrison, and her husband, Neal Morrison; his son, Thomas Clayton, and his wife, Belinda Clayton; and his grandchildren, Jenna Clayburn, Raani Clayton, Nola Cole, Ahmi Cole, Askari Heru-Cole, Sadeeq Clayton, Laila Morrison, Yusef Morrison, Naima Clayton, Isaac Clayton, Cashus Clayton and Laquince “Quincy” York. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Tiye Clayton, in 2020.

A private memorial service will be held in Boulder.

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