THE BLOG
10/28/2014 05:23 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Day of the Drum

Until last month, I hadn't been to the Watts Towers' Day of the Drum for many years... many, many years. The last time was when Baba was still alive -- Baba Olatunji, the master African drummer. I was introduced to "The Man," and he gave me a hug! And 'The Doors' didn't really register for him when I was introduced. Baba was just so magnanimous. He loved people and he loved rhythm. We drummers all know that our mother's heartbeat was the first instrument we heard. As a race, we've all been trying to get back to that womb. That's why rhythm makes us move... dance.

Approaching the site, the vibe was still the same; folks decked out in mostly African garb, interesting chatchkies, ethnic food. T-shirts and greeting cards depicting musical heroes you wouldn't find at a Hallmark greeting card shop. Miles, of course, Lee Morgan, Reggie McBride, and other folks only jazz buffs like me would know. There was a percussion stand with cool sounding djembes (African hand drums), rattles, and shakers. I plucked on a tiny African thumb piano, which caught my ear. Sound is everything to a musician. An indigenous Aztec dance and drum group started warming up as I mingling with black people that were quite diverse even amongst themselves. The culture seemed to run the gamut, from extra svelte Black Muslims dressed in suits and bow ties, to long, dreaded rastas smoking herb. Culture clash within a culture. The Muslims seemed out of place and a little uptight, surrounded by beautiful women swaying to the groove. (Speaking of out of place, Watts is an area which one can see a lot of tags, gang monikers, and graffiti. Surprisingly, around the Towers, no tags. Actually, not surprising -- because the Watts Towers have been a long standing art institution which deserves and gets "respect.")

The 12 member strong Cuauhtemoc Mexican Dance Group came thundering on stage with poly rhythms flying. There were men, women, women with children, infants, 8-year-olds, teenagers; the entire arc of the human family. Their leader was this highly energetic elder with grey hair down to his waist. He conducted with his hand drum, making large circles with the arm that was holding a drumstick, then he'd whack the drum hard, cuing in rhythmic changes. And dance... they danced their asses off, especially the leader. At 73, a few years older than I am, he made me tired just watching him jump and squat and supervise the troupe. Several times the music came down for one of the shaman's rants.

"Christopher Columbus didn't discover America! We were here! And when strangers came to our door, we offered them food, and drink, and a bed if they needed!" Then they would roar into more drumming, while twisting and turning and sweating into a frenzy. "We're called 'wetbacks' because we crossed a river... what about these folks who crossed an ocean!? The African Americans in the audience immediately voiced approval. "We may need a towel to dry off, but these people need a blanket!" The crowd roared approval.

The leader asked for fire from the audience -- at first we didn't know what he wanted. Then someone came up with a lighter, and the grey hair ignited a small fire in an urn that was placed in front of the stage. Then he proceeded to raise the bottom of one foot, then the other into the flame. Aztec firewalking, live! After another rant about genetically modified foods, the headmaster got on all fours and shoved his chest into the fire. The finale was more thunderous drumming and dancing off into the wings of the stage. The more cynical, "modern" reader might judge this as "primitive," but let's see you get up and do that at age 73. Corny as it sounds, these people do know how to live on Mother Earth.

As we were leaving the festival, my mind flashed back to the first time I was here, when I got to see a very old Jo Jones, the drummer who invented playing brushes on the snare drum -- the drummer who freed up the bass drum and relied on the hi-hat for time. Revolutionary rhythmic thinking. Papa Jo was definitely in his 80s, but was swirling his brushes around on his snare, the way he first taught all of us percussionists back in the '30s. I'm proud to be in the tradition of the drum, and will be back next year for some more rhythmic magic under Simon Rodia's towers.