I was shivering and a little miserable. I shook out my umbrella, heaved the Chapel door open and was greeted by a grinning man. He held his hand out for a high five. The light in the foyer was goldish and inviting and Baba Kazi Oliver’s smile, equally as warm, did not waver for the next two hours.
Braving the rain this past Thursday, Baba Kazi Oliver hosted a drumming circle in the Chapel tower foyer. He introduced himself as African drummer extraordinaire. “I didn’t give myself that title,” he explained. “It was given to me over the years.”
Ever since he was a child, Kazi Oliver has been rhythmically inclined, tapping on any surface he could get his hands on—tables, his sisters. At seven years old, he enrolled in an African drumming class in Trenton, New Jersey. It was there that he took up his passion. In his adulthood, he lost 10 years to addiction, which “diverted from [his] purpose in life.” The musician has been sober for 26 years and counting and has gone on to teach across the Hudson Valley. He is also a passionate performer. Some of his more notable shows include SummerStage in Central Park, the Apollo, Clearwater Festival and ABC’s “The View.” Although these achievements earned him the most exposure, he particularly swelled with pride at the memory of teaching music in Guinea.
Ever smiling, Oliver said, “I just share love with everyone I can.” His work history also attests to an interactive and, above all, philanthropic approach to performance. When we spoke, he offered me a thick binder brimming with photos and newspaper clippings. In one picture a dog was sniffing his drum as he played. He laughed that he even teaches dogs. One article showed him conducting drum therapy sessions for HIV/AIDS patients in Peekskill. If the drumming circle at the Chapel was such a performance, Oliver’s sessions are certainly charged with loving feeling. At the beginning of the event, he conducted an “orientation,” cataloguing the percussion section: the dunun, sangban and kenkeni. He also described the proper geometry of hand-drumming posture and advised that drummer and instrument should form a pyramid and triangle. Traditionally, there would be dancers in the middle of a circle like ours. “It’s like they’re dancing on clouds because the drums are so powerful,” he mused.
During the briefing, he asked all of our names; when I told him mine was Taylor, he looked incredulous for a long moment and hugged me, delighted. That is his son’s name. There were only seven people, a mix of students and older community members (as well as a family of drums and bells) in the foyer, increasing the intimacy. Throughout the session, Oliver also asked us again and again to repeat certain mantras through call and response, mostly meditations on compassion, youth, technical foundation. As he assigned each participant a couple of instruments, his eyes were wide and flitted across the room, and he scuttled around, reconfiguring drums and people. It seemed he was already composing music in his head. “Keep the family tight,” he mumbled as he bid us to scoot closer together.
Only now was it time to make music. Our teacher separated the hand-drummers from those with sticks, assigned each group a rhythm and allowed each musician to rehearse their part before we jumped into song. Once we got into it and the mistakes melted into the music, disparate rhythms swelled and combined to sound like a single lively unit. Oliver improvised with voice and his own drum, varying our percussion piece. I forgot about the reservations I had when I arrived and focused only on getting my part right—suddenly, I was surrounded by vibration and sound. After, we stood in a line and played bells, and even sang.
Sharon Parkinson, who works at the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs & Development, also attended a Kazi Oliver drumming circle for the first time that day. She shared afterward, “I liked the art of storytelling and the positive messages [Oliver] incorporated because that’s what made it special.” He could have just taught us the species of drum and certain rhythmic patterns, but instead, he facilitated a group therapy of sorts by engaging each one of us, by providing his own life story and consequent lessons about pace of life, family and the like. He aspires to write a memoir and record a CD. The performer definitely has more than enough material, as he shared fun facts unabashedly—how he played with Pete Seeger in 2001, when a fire at the Paramount Theater destroyed some 30 drums (he still has one left, with just a little char on it).
And, if he were to write a memoir, he could impart much wisdom about rhythms of living. We live too fast nowadays, Oliver chided, and especially young people, who have a lot on their plate. The drumming circle did not cohere with the rest of my day, or the rest of my life here at Vassar; it formed a little world of its own. The pace and warmth were remarkably different. Oliver was patient with us and accommodated our mistakes—in fact, he built off them. In the Chapel, under Oliver’s instruction, I was away from any place I knew and, however clichéd this may sound, away from my worries. I was too devoted to the songs, too aware of the way the percussion made my chest feel, to harbor stress. Oliver has shown, through himself and his students, that healing can be achieved through music.