Students energized by new drumming class

5th- through 12th-graders encouraged to join


Those who come to the East Side Freedom Library after school on a Tuesday or Thursday may hear a little extra racket. 

Throughout the school year, drummer Babatunde Lea is teaching a free African Drumming class to kids in fifth through 12 grade. 

The class, supported by a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, is being taught on a semester-basis, with students building skills to do a performance at the end of each semester.

On a recent Tuesday, students from the Arlington Hills Community Center came by the library to feel the rhythm. 

The class started with kids having a chance to experiment with instruments. They they had a variety to choose from, from various African-based cultures — Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian and West African.

The students passed the instruments around — tamborims, pandeiros, agogo bells, ganzas and surdos from the Afro-Brazilian tradition; congas from the Afro-Cuban tradition and djembes from the West African tradition.

The elementary-aged students slapped the drums and hit some cowbells, and when Lea would start a little rhythm, some of the students would start doing a little jig. 



Drumming for the mind, body and spirit

Lea said he’s known nothing but drumming. His family — 12 aunts and uncles — drummed when he was little. He said he’d watch them in parades and loved feeling the beat in his body.

“I could feel the drums in my feet ... and it would travel up my legs, and it was just a thrill to feel that, and I said ‘Yeah, I gotta do that,’” he said. 

Lea started drumming when he was 11, back in 1959. He said he came across a drumline group trying to practice, and they kept messing up a certain part. He asked if he could help, showed them the missing beat, and he’s been drumming ever since.

He moved to California when he was 18, and in the 1970s, learned much of the Afro-inspired drumming — the same stuff he was teaching the kids during the Tuesday afternoon class — from well-known drummer Bill Summers. Summers had played with Herbie Hancock, the foundational jazz and funk artist.

Lea said he’s made his living traveling the world playing music, something he’s thankful for. Now he plays with a group called Rhythm’s Mama, an Afro-Cuban/Latin jazz group that plays at local spots like the Black Dog Cafe and the Green Lantern in Lowertown. He and his wife moved to St. Paul three years ago so she could teach at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie. 

While Lea loves playing, he also loves sharing his knowledge — he’s been teaching kids for the past 40 years. He said his favorite part of it is “watching the lights turn on in their heads.”

He also said he believes drumming is important for overall well-being. 

“It’s my contention that the ancestors, what they say about the drums is that it tunes up your being,” Lea said. “It links your mind body and spirit together. It makes you a whole human being, it makes you healthy.”

Lea describes himself as a musician, artist and an activist. He subscribes to a theory of thought that not only is drumming good for your overall health, it’s also good for organizing and critical thinking. 

“Drums give you energy and it organizes your mind so you can be a critical thinker, and that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I want to build critical thinkers, so they see what’s around them and see that they can change it and drumming gives you the power to change things.”



Practice makes perfect

For the last hour of the class, the students helped move the instruments downstairs, some barely taller than the congos they were maneuvering. Lea went through each of the instruments, telling the students the names and showing them the specific techniques to achieve certain sounds.

For example, on the pandeiro, he showed them a “thumb-toe-heel-toe-thumb” method, where one hits with the side of their thumb, then tips of fingers, then the heel of their hand, then repeating the steps backwards. 

Lea moved onto teaching the kids call and repeat chants in a foreign language. They practiced the words and eventually Lea started playing the large Afro-Brazilian drum called the surdo. He played it with a soft mallet in one hand, and used his empty hand and started singing.

By the end of the class, the students were really into it, dancing in their chairs and throwing their hands up to say “Hey!” during each chant. 

Lea would also invite students up to lead the chants themselves, where they shyly mumbled the words; all left with smiles on their faces as Lea complimented their abilities. 

“I hope I’ll see you on Thursday,” he said.

After class, Lea said the kids had a strong start. “I was seeing that all of them have facility. All they have to do is just keep doing it.”

The African Drumming class meets every Tuesday and Thursday, 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier St. The class is open to kids in fifth through 12th grade. Students of any ability are welcome to join at any point during the school year.


-Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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