Young drum troupe taps into a tradition

Music: The Kuumba Zulu Drummers is one of a handful of city youth groups pursuing the passion for percussion.

Drumming up interest in rhythm

May 05, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Fifteen eager children crouch in a half-circle at Bethel Outreach Center, part of a small, aging church school in West Baltimore. The youths toss playful glances at each other and bug their music teacher with chatter. They occasionally miss a beat.

Mostly, they don't.

Using their thighs to hold the instruments in place, they pound on the heads of ishiko, djembe and bougarabou drums.

The drums shout back, filling the tiny room with a thunder that fuels the looks on the faces of their parents, proud that their children are members of the Kuumba Zulu Drummers.

The group of kids, ages 4 to 12, has performed throughout Baltimore, including at the International Rhythm Festival. It's among a handful of youth groups citywide that play African drums.

Each time they huddle, for practice or performance, they get a hands-on dose of their culture's historical passion for percussion.

"I'm glad that I'm celebrating my ancestors and stuff like that," said Everrett Shorts, 8, a group member for three years.

Vivian Curtis, 10, has been with the group for four years. "It's fun, and it helps you to concentrate more on what you do," she said.

The group's manager, Tiria LaBoo, whose son, Asa, has studied under Moziah Saleem for five years, said the group's instructor "allows the drummers to create their own rhythms, and he teaches them traditional African drumming."

During practice, Saleem calls out names of famous African-Americans, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., which the children have assigned to rhythms they've created.

City Council President Sheila Dixon invited the drummers to perform at a Black History Month program at the Ivey Family Support Center in Park Heights. That same month, the group released its first CD, "Kuumba Drummers Live at Artscape."

"They're excellent," Dixon said. "I want to get my son, Joshua, in the group."

Dixon applauds the regimen Saleem requires of the drummers.

"I like the discipline they have," she said. "He looks at their grades, and that's important. He also exposes them to so much of their history."

The Kuumba Zulu Drummers are the brainchild of Saleem, a Catonsville native who left Catonsville Community College after 13 months to pursue a musical career. A drummer who plays several instruments, he has performed with such artists as Patti Austin, Leon Russell and Cissy Houston.

He also teaches a six-week course at Good Shepherd Center, a school for troubled teen-age girls in Halethorpe.

Saleem fell in love with African drums after meeting members of the group, African Dreamland, in Nashville, Tenn., in 1991.

"They were some very spiritual brothers," Saleem said. "They were one of the premier reggae bands in the South. We did a lot of traveling. They were the ones who introduced me to the African drum and the whole Rastafarian culture."

Saleem changed his drum of choice - and his look. His dreadlocks hang halfway down his back. But his love of music and sharing it with children hasn't wavered.

He said he's trying to fill a void in Baltimore schools.

"I've heard they're putting music into the schools," Saleem said. "They're getting trumpets, pianos and all of these things, but they're not dealing with the culture as far as who we represent."

Saleem teaches African drum classes at six schools, including Ashburton Elementary/Middle School, Bethel Christian School and Holy Spirit School. He charges $25 per kid per month. The Kuumba Zulu Drummers grew out of that work.

The city schools music curriculum includes African drumming and music, but it isn't taught regularly in public schools, said Jill Warzer, music curriculum specialist.

"We don't have a lot of [drumming] troupes in the schools, but it's included in the curriculum, and the teachers implement it to the extent of their expertise," Warzer said. "We definitely include a lot of songs from Africa, singing games and things that express the culture of the continent."

Twenty-seven percent of Baltimore's public high schools lack musical instrument programs, compared with 40 percent at the middle school level and 80 percent in elementary schools, Warzer said.

A free after-school drum program at the Barclay School began this year, said Kevin McGowan, an official at the school, which has grades from pre-kindergarten through eighth.

Up to a dozen children have taken part in the program, which is sponsored by Sankofa, a Baltimore-based African dance and drumming company.

"I think it's very good for the kids," McGowan said. "The kids realized it's work, it's practice, but those that have stuck with it ... are getting quite a bit out of it."

Saleem's dedication shows as he instructs the kids. Because he wants them to perfect their playing, it's not unusual for him to stop and make them repeat a rhythm.

He's just as sincere about helping them in other ways.

Drummer Geneka Young 12, said Saleem is "more than just a music instructor," sometimes playing basketball and soccer with the pupils.

"My purpose was to show them that playing drums takes discipline and focus," Saleem said. "To play a drum, you have to know where you are, what you're doing. It's spiritual, it's educational."

Connie Hardy said the group has helped her son, Terry. "It gives you an opportunity to do something, to stay off the streets," Hardy said. "And it teaches discipline."

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