Born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, Coleman was first drawn to the drum while attending junior high school in the early 1960s. Growing up in what was at that time a primarily Latino community, there was ample opportunity to hear Afro-Caribbean drumming performed by top Cuban and Puerto Rican percussionists such as Mongo Santamaría, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, and Daniel Ponce. During his teen years, he was provided a rare entrée into the music and culture of the African continent as well, at a time when few in the U.S. had any knowledge of such traditions and only a tiny handful of new immigrants from Africa had yet made their way here (most of these being college students from the newly independent nations of Nigeria or Ghana). By chance, not just one but all three of Coleman’s older sisters had married African American performers who had reconnected with their heritage and become pioneers of African drumming in the U.S.: Babafemi Akinlana (born Al Humphries), Chief Bey (born James Hawthorne), and Nana Yao Opare Dinizulu I (born Augustus Edwards), the latter of whom traveled to Ghana in 1965 to trace his ancestry, a journey echoed in Roots author Alex Haley’s similar visit to Gambia seven years later. Along with a few others (including Roger “Montego Joe” Sanders and Sonny Morgan), they had all studied and performed with Babatunde Olatunji, a Yoruba musician who had come to the U.S. from his native Nigeria in 1950. Best known for his 1960 album Drums of Passion, Olatunji was probably the first household name in the world of African drumming.
During this time, when many African Americans were searching for new and more authentic spiritual paths, a few inhabitants of New York City discovered Orisha, a traditional faith from their ancestors’ homeland of West Africa. Although it had originated in the Yorubaspeaking corner of southwest Nigeria that Olatunji was from, its ceremonies were already being practiced on both sides of the Atlantic, having been maintained since the 19th century by communities of African descent in the Latin Caribbean (most notably but not restricted to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil).
“I’ - i’, ba - shé . . . I’ - i’, ba - shé . . .” In the basement studio of his West Akron home, Baba David Coleman patiently coaches two of his students, first verbalizing, then playing the interlocking rhythms of the iyá, itótele, and okónkolo—the large, medium, and small members of a family of hourglass-shaped “talking drums” called batá— which rest horizontally across the players’ laps and are played with the outstretched fingers of both hands. If executed properly, the synchronized beats effectively emulate the low, medium, and high tones of the Yoruba language of Nigeria, producing phrases that can actually be understood by its speakers. It’s important to get it right, because, for believers, these rhythms aren’t just for enjoyment; they are the primary means of connecting with the orishas, divine messengers with the power to intercede on behalf of humanity.
Mention his name to almost anyone in the area who is involved with African music, and they are likely not only to be aware of Coleman and his reputation, but to have actually benefited from his knowledge, either directly or by way of one of his many students. After 50-plus years of teaching, his extended “family” of former pupils is now spread out across the country as well as far beyond, like the branches of the iroko, a venerable African tree for which his society is named.
A handsome and charismatic figure, usually clad in the white garb favored by the children of Obatalá, Coleman has a sagacious demeanor and a youthful visage that belies his chronological age—he is nearing his eighth decade. He also has deep Kent ties, having made the Tree City home more than once over the course of his life. It is thus of particular significance to his local admirers that he will return to Kent for a long-awaited solo performance for Standing Rock Cultural Arts’ “Around the World” Music Series, to take place on Saturday, October 14, 2017 at 8 p.m. (Originally scheduled for the series’ inaugural season in 2015, he was forced to cancel that appearance due to a bout of ill health, from which he has fortunately now recovered.)
Although Spanish and Portuguese plantation owners had imposed Roman Catholicism on their enslaved African workforce, traditional religious practices remembered from home continued, hidden in plain sight through the conflation of the orishas with individual Catholic saints (hence the Spanish term Santería). Drumming, which, along with the speaking of African languages, was allowed to continue in these areas during the colonial period, was the essential means of communicating with the religion’s divinities, inviting them down from the heavens and into the ceremonial space, each orisha responding to his or her particular rhythmic pattern and accompanying song. The vibrant, visceral nature of these African-derived ceremonies being thought of as complementary to the more quiet, staid Christian liturgy, it is not uncommon for adherents to participate in both, attending a bembé ceremony on Saturday night, then going to mass in a Catholic church on Sunday morning. In the Latin Caribbean, the same “rhythms of the saints” are sometimes transposed from the batá to more conventional secular drums such as congas, and knowledgeable listeners can even detect their use in popular genres such as rumba, mambo, and salsa. Over time, elements of the Orisha tradition (which is also known as Lucumí in Cuba) have even found their way into American popular culture: Desi Arnaz’s Ricky Ricardo character from the I Love Lucy TV series of the 1950s popularized a song called “Babalú” (its title being a reference to an orisha named Babalú Ayé), and Beyoncé even made reference to the orishas Oshun and Yemayá in her celebrated maternity photos of early 2017, which were taken by Ethiopian-born conceptual artist Awol Erizku.
As Coleman tells it, he became a professional musician in 1964, when Babafemi, impressed by the 16-year-old’s talent, began inviting him to join him for performances and ceremonies, introducing him along the way to numerous prominent musicians (including Olatunji himself), and eventually initiating him as a servant of Obatalá, the most powerful of the orishas, also known as the “Father of the World.” He soon found himself performing regularly as drummer/singer for bembé ceremonies, and, along with Babafemi and fellow drummer Richard “Pablo” Landrum, was hired for an outdoor performance/workshop on 111th Street by Dr. William “Billy” Taylor’s newly established “Jazzmobile” program, one of the Free Outdoor Summer Mobile Concerts it presented all five of New York City’s boroughs. After several years of further instruction from Chief Bey and many others in the community, Coleman’s first real teaching job came in 1977 when he was given his very own classroom at P.S. 113, on West 113th Street in Harlem (right next door to the house in which the legendary magician Harry Houdini once lived), teaching drumming from 9 to 5. In subsequent years, he had the opportunity to share the stage with many of the most important names in the world of African and Afro-Caribbean music, and got to know many of them well. Notable among these was Chuck Davis, the forefather of African dance in America, with whose dance company he performed and toured widely beginning in 1970, even performing on one occasion at New York’s Lincoln Center.
Another powerful force in Coleman’s development was “Papa” Ladji Camara, a master drummer from Guinea who in the early 1960s, just after his nation’s independence, became the first to introduce American audiences to the djembe (a large goblet-shaped drum originating in the Mandinka culture of Mali, whose name, according to Coleman, means “everyone gather together”). Camara, who had been a close friend of Chief Bey since the two first met in 1959, joined and toured with Olatunji’s troupe for several years beginning in 1963, and eventually established his own drumming and dance studio in the Bronx in the early 1970s.
Now that, 50 years later, all of these players of the past generation have passed on, Coleman believes himself to be the most senior African American akpon (the Yoruba name for the cantor who leads Orisha ceremonies) to have originated from that early New York scene, and his membership in this select group of practitioners is documented in John Mason’s 1997 book Orin Òrìsà: Songs for Selected Heads. In this light, his sobriquet Baba (meaning “father” in Yoruba) is not just a nickname, but in fact a title denoting his status as established ceremonial leader. His reputation is such that for four years in a row he was invited to bring his batá to Bahia, Brazil for a religious freedom conference, to show solidarity with the Candomblé religious tradition, which suffered official discrimination and some believed was in danger of being erased from that nation’s cultural landscape.
Coleman first came to Ohio in 1989 with his first wife, Linda Thomas Jones (also known as Mama Fasi), a graduate of Case Western Reserve University and herself a respected drummer, educator, and Yoruba spiritual leader. Their home on Cleveland’s East 93rd Street became a hub for African drumming, and the two taught many female students to drum, something that Chief Bey had encouraged, but which was at that time still a rarity. It is there that Coleman met ethnomusicologist, instrument builder, and educator Dr. Craig Woodson, with whom he continues to have a productive working relationship. He relocated to Kent in 1992, while his current wife Lyneise Williams (now a professor of art history at UNC Chapel Hill) pursued a master’s degree at Kent State University. Together with Williams, in the early 1990s, he formed the Iroko Drum and Dance Society, an assemblage that would have wide cultural ramifications, and which continues to the present. “Everyone does everything,” as he puts it: “sing, dance, and play the drum, and it’s like a family.” Their choice of a mighty tree as metaphor is significant in several ways, relating on one hand to the central importance of the sacred grove to Yoruba identity, but also to his adoptive city’s popular nickname. Iroko became the first African group to join University Circle’s popular Parade the Circle event, giving memorable multimedia performances in 1990, 1991, and 1992. Coleman still has fond memories of his home on Hudson Road, which is now gone, having been demolished to make way for the new Stanton Middle School. Through the ‘90s, he became a familiar figure in Kent, often collaborating with KSU professors such as the now-96-year-old Halim El-Dabh (who he considers an important elder and mentor), Pan-African Studies professor Mwatabu Okantah, and African Ensemble director Kazadi wa Mukuna.
During his time in Kent, Coleman took numerous aspiring drummers under his wing, by principle accepting all who have sought his tutelage regardless of their gender or ethnic background. “Chief Bey shared with me the fruits of his tree,” he explains, “and in the same way it is now my duty to pass on those fruits.” Those to whom he has provided advanced instruction over the years have included Elec Simon (of STOMP fame), Joe Rynd, and John Spuzzillo. Among his most dedicated students was Brian Klempp, a Michigan native who had come to KSU to pursue a master’s degree in ethnomusicology at KSU; he spent years learning advanced djembe techniques, and even some of the secrets of djembe and shekere making. (In addition to his playing and teaching, Coleman is also well known as a craftsman of musical instruments, building beautiful, high quality djembes, ashikos, and shekeres. He says that “My drum making is what supported me my whole life, and put my wife through Kent and Yale.”)
In 1996, Coleman relocated with his family to New Haven, Connecticut, where his wife spent eight years studying at Yale University for her Ph.D. (receiving her degree in 2004). There, he continued performing, teaching, and giving workshops, and received an unprecedented two C. Newton Schenck III Awards for Lifetime Achievement in and Contribution to the Arts from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, in 2002 and 2011. He also recorded and performed all across the U.S. and in Europe with the New Haven-based Afro-Semitic Experience, a unique cross-cultural group that blends spiritual songs from the African and Jewish diasporas within the context of a jazz band augmented by African percussion. During his absence, the Omo Iroko (“Children of Iroko”) Drum and Dance Society, an offshoot of Iroko that formed in 1997, continued Coleman’s legacy, giving frequent performances and workshops throughout Northeast Ohio. In addition, Brian Klempp founded the Kent African Drum Community (now known as Ka De Dunaa) in the early 2000s, giving regular performances with them until his untimely death from cancer in 2009.
Coleman’s eventual return to Ohio in 2011, after 15 years away, came as welcome news to those who knew him, and he quickly reconnected with old friends and began to take on new students. The members of Ka De Dunaa were especially delighted when he agreed to serve as their advisor, his mentorship buoying their spirits at a time when the recent passing of Brian weighed heavily on their hearts. “We lost our teacher,” they told him, “but now we have our teacher’s teacher.” He also makes an occasional appearance at the drumming sessions at Kent’s One Center, and in 2014 took part in the historic Opus for 1001 Drums, a cross-cultural extravaganza organized by Grant Marquit for the One World Festival held in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens.
Coleman’s son Olugbala (Olu) Manns, also a KSU graduate, is himself a fine drummer and educator, having directed the Hiram African Drum Ensemble since 2005. Olu, who still lives in Kent, has also made a strong connection with Africa, traveling each year to Ghana and also spending time studying in Guinea, “the heart of it all” for djembe drumming. Members of Omo Iroko also continue to live in Kent, and the group’s members continue to meet regularly at Coleman’s home for weekend drum practice.
Now firmly rooted in Northeast Ohio, Coleman continues to use drumming for what he believes to be its highest purpose: “a means of bringing people together, knocking down walls of fear and oppression.” He feels energized by the continuing interest in the knowledge he has to pass on, and looks forward to the weekly visits of each of his students, two of whom he will bring to perform with him at his October 14 performance. When asked how he feels about his return to the city that has been such an inspiration to him over the years, he doesn’t hesitate before saying, “I live in Akron, but Kent will always be my home.”
Around the World
M U S I C S E R I E S
Connecting with the Source
Baba David Coleman and the Legacy of African Drumming in Kent