What’s the connection between drumming and social empowerment?
West African rhythms were brought to the Caribbean through the Triangular Trade and then secretly passed from generation to generation in defiance of plantation owners. Thus, keeping the drumming tradition alive was a crucial part of African resistance to slavery. Drumming was critical in the preservation of self and one’s cultural traditions. I learned about this from my first drum teacher, Robertico Arias, in my late 20s, and supplemented this with independent research.
You’ve only been playing drums since your late 20s?
Yes and no. W
hen I was a kid, I would set up a makeshift drum-set in my room. I would sit on the edge of my bed with a desk chair in front of me. My cymbals were pots and pans hanging off the knobs at the top of the chair back. Overturned Quaker Oats boxes on the chair were toms. An overturned wastepaper basket made a nice floor tom. I used 12-inch wooden rulers as drumsticks. I would play to top 40 songs I listened to through a headset-style transistor radio. At the time, my drumming did not go beyond this homemade drum-kit.
What triggered your re-discovery of drumming in your late 20s?
I was 27 and on the verge of burnout after several years of community organizing and leadership development work. I bought a set of congas just to have something to hit. One day I was free-styling softly late at night after a long day at work. And I just got lost in it. When I stopped playing, I wrapped my arms around the body of the drum and laid my head on the conga head. I felt a joy and peace I had never known before. I thought, “I am home.”
After I taught myself for one year, Robertico—a master percussionist—was recommended to me. This became key to what I’m doing today, since Robertico emphasized the cultural and social aspects of Afro-Caribbean drumming along with the techniques.
The timing was fortuitous, because by now I was seeing the shortfall in community organizing work that sought institutional power without uprooting the deeply embedded societal hierarchy privileging whiteness, maleness, and upper-class status.
What type of community organizing work had you been doing?
After college—I got a dual degree in psychology and anthropology from Colby College—I spent 18 months in India with an organization called The Concerned for Working Children (CWC) based in Bangalore, and then 18 more months working with the Center for Community Action (CCA) in Robeson County, N.C. These three years were a real “boot camp” in community organizing.
How did your work with CWC and CCA influence your views on community organization and social empowerment?
I learned that raising consciousness and organizing for change must be centered in the grassroots community’s voice and experience.
I also learned that issues must be understood in their complexity and interrelatedness, and that work for change should reflect this. Soup kitchens and relief agencies are important but they are not enough.
Thus, Robertico’s teaching came at the perfect time, and I started to think about drumming as a tool for social empowerment.
How do young people benefit from working with Rhythm and Roots?
The positive effects are tangible. R&R gets them working with kids from different racial and economic backgrounds and can promote mutual understanding.
One student whom I began teaching when he was 9 required that his mother stay in the room during the workshop when he first started studying with me. He also hardly spoke and was barely audible when he did. Now he is one of the leaders of his ensemble, and is quick to share his opinion, particularly when other students aren’t stepping up. He regularly takes the stage with intensity and takes real risks in performance. His mother has spoken to me of the way drumming has brought him out of his shell in ways that continually surprise her.
Another student has told me that R&R gave him something positive to focus his energy on and thus helped him avoid joining a gang.
I’ve also seen how members of my ensembles have initiated drumming performances in their schools, religious institutions, and family gatherings, without any involvement from me. I see this as the culture of drumming permeating other aspects of their lives, of them bringing this community-based tradition into their communities of their own accord.
How can people who don’t live near Providence support Rhythm and Roots?
Rhythm and Roots is not a 501(c)(3) organization. My goal is to create not an institution but a culture of collective study and performance of Afro-Caribbean percussion based on the community-centered values inherent to this tradition.
Individual donations are a small but important part of our operating budget, and people who would like to donate can do so through our fiscal agent, the Rhode Island United Methodist Association, or RIUMA (www.neum.org). These donations are tax-deductible since the fiscal agent is a 501(c)(3). We also welcome in-kind donations, especially hand percussion instruments, new or used.
What are your hopes for R&R for the future?
(1) To develop more sustained multi-year partnerships with organizations, institutions, schools, and even other organizations similar to R&R. (2) To cultivate relationships with volunteers as well as with Caribbean master artists. (3) To increase the “multiplier effect” of this work. I want to see more of our students teaching the work to others, who can then teach the work to others. The website for Rhythm and Roots is currently under development. Nisha Purushotham can be contacted at email@example.com.
Ranjit Souri (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches writing and improvisation classes in Chicago.