Kids and teenagers line up in the doorway of a sunlit room in downtown Kalamazoo. As soon as they’re allowed, they run in and pick up a variety of drums. They establish a tempo, playing faster and faster as the minutes go by.
The students are at the studios of Rootead, a Kalamazoo arts organization that’s known for performances pairing dancing with traditional West African rhythms. It recently launched the Rootead Youth Drum Ensemble (RYDE), and these children have gathered to try out for it.
RYDE is part of the group’s mission to use art to facilitate healing, says Rootead founder Kama Tai Mitchell.
“We hope to create spaces for internal transformation and we do that through drum and dance, birth work, supporting people through mental health journeys and just supporting the most oppressed in any way we can. We try to make it happen, without mission creeping, staying true to our arts and culture,” Mitchell said.
It’s no accident the group is focused on drums.
“The first sound we hear in womb is the heartbeat of our person carrying us,” Mitchell said, adding that drumming evokes this primordial sound.
“That is so important, for everybody to remember where they came from,” she said.
When youth drum instructor Nate Waller arrives at the audition, he tells the kids his expectations. The first one is the same as the last one: have fun.
“We’re drummers!” he says. “We get to hit things and not get in trouble. That is the best thing ever!”
The kids cheer.
Waller shows a young drummer named Brooklyn how to hold the instrument.
“You’re going to slide that drum into you so that the drum tilts,” he explains, “and then you’re going to bring your feet to the front. Just like that. Perfect.”
Waller shows the students how to hit the drum with a slap.
“What you're going to do, Brooklyn, you’re going to hit with your one hand just like this, keep those fingers open, you’re going to go up and down.”
After everyone’s caught up, Waller and the students play together, faster and faster until the sticks fly out of Waller’s hands.
“You lose!” a student tells him. “I lost!” Waller laughs. “I was moving too fast.”
At the end of practice, Waller urges the kids to Google performer Alvin Law, who drums with his feet.
“How you better than me with your feet!?” he says. “It’s crazy.”
The kids put their drums away. Waller says he came to practice in an awful mood, but it didn’t last.
“You see me now. I’m smiling, joking,” he said. “I just got done drumming. You can’t be mad when you’re hitting stuff.”
Waller says the kids’ faces light up when they figure out the technique.
“That lightbulb popup when it clicks, seeing that is like the greatest thing in the world,” he said.
Kids interested in joining RYDE can reach out to Rootead. The group says it’s planning to launch adult classes for drumming and dance soon.