Just before I left college Katherine Dunham came to Cleveland to do some master classes and she brought a drummer with her. The drummer’s name was Mor Thaim and he was playing a djembe drum. I had never heard or seen a drum like that before. The sound of the drum made my head swim. During the 60’s I was the only African American in my college dance class and had never seen live African dance. However, when I danced to the sound of the djembe it was as if I had finally found my true self. Just before Ms. Dunham left, she called me to her and whispered in my ear the following words. These are the sounds and movements of your ancestors. I was never the same again.
From college, I went on to live and work in New York City. By this time I had become an accomplished drummer for dance classes and was playing both congas djembe and various percussion instruments. I played for a lot of modern dance classes, sometimes carrying two drums through the subway and up three flights of stairs. One day shortly after I arrived in New York some one told me about Chuck Davis and his dance class. I finally found out where he was teaching and made my way to his class. When I walked in, I felt as if I had been transported into a totally new world. The place was packed with people dressed in African clothes and the drums were playing and little children were running in and out between our feet. It was hot and smelled of natural oils and sweat. Everyone spoke to me as if they knew me and welcomed me into their family. I went down a few steps to the dance floor and saw the drummers all lined up in a row. They were all men except for some women playing the shekere and bell. I asked one of the drummers if I could play and it was if he couldn’t believe that I actually asked the question. Then he said that I was welcomed to play the bell. So I did and I kept coming back because it felt wonderful being in that environment.
One day I came to class early and Chuck Davis asked me if I wanted to play for the warm-ups before the “real” dancing started. I said sure and I had a great time, however, I still wanted to play with the men. It never happened.
Then I found out about Baba Olatunji and I started taking classes with him. He was always accepting and willing to teach anyone. I remember that I was so enthralled with meeting him and taking class that I kept looking at his face and smiling during the class. Finally he said “watch my hands and not my face”. I still say that same phrase to my students.
Next I heard about this woman drummer named Edwina Lee Tyler. When I would go the play for the dance classes I would carry my drum in a green duffle bag. As I traveled through the subway with my green duffle bag people would call out to me “Hey Edwina”. Of course I did not answer and I bet a lot of people thought Edwina was being rude.
I did finally find a way to get in touch with Edwina and she invited me to come to her apartment. I was totally freaked out! I got my nerves together went to meet her. People had talked about her so much and had such wonderful things to say about her I expected her to be at least six feet tall. Instead this very petite woman answered the door. She might have been short but she was definitely a power house. She invited me in and there were other women there and I felt as if they were sizing me up. Here I was the “country girl” from Ohio with all of these savvy New York Women. Edwina turns to me and basically says “Show me what you working with”. OMG! My mouth got dry, my hands were shaking, my knees almost buckled and I said to myself “what have you gotten yourself into? “ I realized that I had no choice but to play my drum and pray. So I played with my eyes closed and then drums started appearing from everywhere and the women started playing with me. My life has not been the same since that experience. Edwina and I have traveled this path sometimes together and sometime apart but I have always loved her.