Percussion is among the world’s oldest forms of music making. Drums have been used as long distance communication between communities, martial signals in war and direct inspiration for dance.
Anyone who’s attended a Native Pow Wow recognizes the spiritual power and entrancing beat made by a drum circle. Norman Cultural Connection is presenting a weekend devoted to this concept Sept. 30 through Oct. 3.
The African drumming and dance workshop “Meditation in Action” will be at Modern Dance Arts, 1423 24th Ave. SW.
Gordy and Zoe Ryan, of Washington state, will lead the workshop which is open to all. For more information, visit normanculturalconnection.org.
Gordy Ryan spoke with The Transcript from his home on Vashon Island near where he teaches world drumming at the Seattle Waldorf School.
“We love coming to Oklahoma and have so many good friends there,” Ryan said. “We’ve been coming to Norman and Tulsa for a long time. There’s a nice community of people we’ve met there over the years. Music and dance are really alive in that group. We like to give it a charge every year or so.”
Ryan is a distinguished protégé of Babatunde Olatunji (1927-2003) the Nigerian drummer, producer, Grammy award winning recording artist and educator who first came to the USA in 1950 to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
The Drums of Passion is an ensemble that Gordy and Zoe came to lead through their long association with Olatunji.
“This is what my heart really wanted to do in life,” Ryan said. “My father who’d had his own jazz orchestras told me to not make music a vocation, make it an avocation. I really went with the music, had a lot of good people I studied and played with over the years.
“I traveled the world with Olatunji, played huge concerts and met people everywhere we went. It was so fulfilling and we were working side by side with West African and North American musicians. It was a constant cross-fertilization process of developing as a musician and still going further by inspiring each other.”
Among those collaborators were Carlos Santana and the Grateful Dead.
“As a musician you have to play many different kinds of music to survive,” Ryan said. “My main love is the Afro, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian percussion and have managed to make a living doing that and made so many long lasting friendships. It has been very satisfying.”
Later in life Ryan’s father recognized his son’s success as a professional musician and told him how happy he was that he’d followed his heart.
“That’s the essence of it,” Ryan said. “I chose a path and it worked and continues to.”
Workshops like the one here in Norman are done where he resides near Puget Sound and on Cortes Island, British Columbia in conjunction with the nearby Hollyhock Learning Center.
Ryan and Zoe constructed and maintain Olantunji Hall near Hollyhock which is used for concerts and other gatherings.
Zoe Ryan is also an educator who presently teaches literacy and elementary music K-3 at the Harbor School on Vashon Island.
She has a graduate certificate in Dance Education from The Laban Center at the University of London. Zoe also studied African music and dance extensively with Olatunji.
“An important ethos of our music is passing on to the next generation,” Ryan said. “You train and offer what you can give to the next generation. and also to people in normal livelihoods who learn to play which is something that can really nurture them. There are so many stresses these days, surviving difficulties, doing your job and health issues.
“Playing this kind of music involves the hands with the energy moving through your body when you play the drum. It’s a great activity to bring vitality through your whole body.
“It helps get your focus out of your judgmental mind, letting it become more clear and the same with your emotions. Your fire and vitality is definitely awakened by this music.”
Ryan has observed that this getting in touch with the life within through drumming works for folks of all ages.
“Anyone of any age or gender can find something of value in this music,” he said. “I feel blessed to be able to pass this to others.”
Ryan explained further the workshop’s theme, “Meditation in Action.”
“Our main focus this time is the awareness of how we are working inside our own bodies in a meditative way to relax and settle all our stresses and anxieties,” he said. “Ease those out and let the vitality flow to get your mind very clear. We’re excited to take that approach.
“We can be playing really fierce music with a lot of activity but inside there’s a genuine calmness in your psyche which allows the energy to flow.”