Go Do Pa! Baba spoke the words he had invented

1996. “Go Do Pa!” Baba spoke the words he had invented and they sailed out across the audience of erstwhile drummer students. Olatunji was conducting an African drumming seminar at the end of the Santa Monica pier in the recently resurrected Ashgrove folk music emporium. He had a few young drum teachers with him. They warmed up the audience with the basic rhythm patterns painted on a big panel that they placed at the front of the stage. The young drum teacher stepped to the front of the stage, in front of one of my women drumming students sitting next to me. He glared down at her drum which was sitting on one of my custom made djembe stands. “What is that!!” He pointed at the stand accusingly. She shrunk from fright and pointed at me. “It’s his!” The young teacher studied me, looked at my stand, back at her stand. “Not bad.” he said and walked away. When Baba Olatunji finally took the stage, I got the impression that this was a very old routine for the master and his coterie of drummers. It had the feeling of being road weary, phoning in their parts; thinking about what they might do after the gig. I knew the energy well. It was the road musicians lament. It really shortchanges the audience though. They feel the dissatisfaction from the performers and they don’t really know why. When the players let it show, it is unprofessional, no matter what kind of entertainment or infotainment is occuring. But Baba was a force of nature. He was getting older, but he could still play, inspire, sing, teach and just be great. He was in top physical condition; sinewy arms, piercing deep gaze with bright lights in his dark eyes. His smile was there but hidden behind a somewhat terse teaching style. He was the academic, historian, brilliant drummer, sacred messenger, drum prophet. He would introduce each drum pattern, then play it, saying then singing the notes, hitting the drum hard. Then the group would start up, about two dozen yuppies. It was a pricey event. The tempo inevitably sped up after the first couple of times through the pattern and would fall apart. Baba would have to stop it. Then he would go on to the next pattern, infinetly patient and start it up, get everyone going, then it would inevitably speed up and fall apart again, then he would stop it. He could not command the tempo over such an intense crowd. They wanted what he was teaching, but they couldn’t relax and receive it. Suddenly I saw our rhythmic condition. Our speeding up is cultural, technological, psychological, contagious and compulsive. Therapists were sending their OCD cases to our store to experience the laid back grooves. People were instinctively coming to the drum to heal, not necessarily to become traditional African drummers. I decided to pop off a little just to get the energy up a notch. Baba was using mallets on two tall drums. It was obvious that his hands were in bad shape. When I hit some extra notes, he looked up, searched the crowd. He looked down at me. He raised his long thin arm up into the air over his head, waved his leathery hand to stop everyone from playing. When he lowered his arm his long black fingers pointed at me. “You!” He said in that basso profundo that had the history of the African drum imbedded in it. “Play!” He commanded, “Over this!” He switched back to playing the djembe, with his hands. I listened for about a New York second and figured it was in a three or six beat combination, so I slid in and started a melody on top of his immaculate groove. He lit up. After a minute he stopped and said, “Play over this!” He took off again. More energy, faster tempo. In a four beat this time. Sort of like a Memphis Sissie Strut. He grinned went I got sassy. This was suddenly a whole bunch of fun. The rest of the audience sat and watched. After the third uptake in tempo and groove, a women student interrupted us. “Can we play something slower now?” Baba came out of his trance and frowned at her. “That was NOT fast! THIS IS FAST!” He took off, and we were together like two on a toboggan. He was really clipping along and I was throwing some swinging grooves on top, some Afro Cuban tripolets against his solid, intricate uptempo burn. His big grin opened up and we both started laughing as we flew through the groove. It was a heavenly moment. But the woman fidgeted again, so Baba shut it down. He was sweating, but he slowly stood up, his student teacher hovering just in case, he came down off the stage and put his hands on my shoulders and pulled me forward until our foreheads touched. Then he went back up and finished the seminar. During the break, he sat with me and talked about his life. It was a private moment. He trusting that I understood what he had to unload. The music business had not been generous to him. “No money from any of the records.” “Not even ‘Drums of Passion’?” First time I heard his groundbreaking album, it set my adolescent rudimental drummer’s brain on fire. “None. Not even on Planet Drum with Mickey. Not even a thank you to me when he got the Grammy….. and I sang on it.” I studied his aura, he was still so strong. He was a testament to the survival energy inherent in what he was teaching. What he had done was more than money, and he knew that. He was not complaining- just explaining. I loved him even more. But I realized that I had to address the inherent problems in our drumming groups from inside our culture first. I used the tambourine on my foot to keep everyone from speeding up. He had used it back in the fifties but it wasn’t traditional African. He was bound by tradition that he had helped create. He had me drum on stage with him and Aiyo, the Yoruba drumming priest in LA. I respected Aiyo a great deal. But there were undercurrents of emotions that remained unexplained. I decided to teach in my own fashion; basing the grooves on relaxed familiar RnB tempos, hitting the drum lightly to save our hands, getting everyone to support the downbeat as the anchor note, and including even the beginners in the groove, because their contribution was essential to the healthy community energy of a good drumming group. I loved Baba and I felt his consideration toward me and was very honored. I learned a great deal from him. The path of healing myself and others with the drum came into focus ahead of me. It was a fork in the road, where I decided to teach the foundation rhythms as healing tools instead of traditional African drumming which I loved. It opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Baba enjoyed the way I played because I was not mimicking his style. We all have our own rhythmic vocabulary and it’s a miracle that we can play together at all. The downbeat is a tool for us to agree on and support a common groove with our individual creativity included. Baba showed me that to become a great drummer we must become great people.

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