From traditional rhythms to knowledge of self

by The People’s Minister of Information JR

One of the things I learned from Michael Jackson and Tupac is that good music is a universal language. And before these two giants even touched a mic, before there were even microphones, there were traditional rhythms.

Miguel Gonzalez with one of his New Urban Drum Culture classes
Miguel Gonzalez with one of his New Urban Drum Culture classes

Miguel Gonalez is a Colombian man who teaches youth how to play the traditional African-Indiginous rhythms of our ancestors from all over Africa and the Americas, opening the door for children intellectually trapped in the system’s schools to develop a knowledge of self, with the first steps being through playing the heartbeat, the drums.

His organization, New Urban Drum Culture, is unique in its approach in helping to build self-esteem in at-risk inner-city youth, which is a predator-prevention tool in the urban communities of America’s capitalist society. I wanted to bring this brotha’s history and work to our readers so that we can help him in his plight, listen to his perspective, and take advantage of what he is offering to teach our babies.

Check out Miguel Gonzalez in his own words.

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell the people when you got into cultural rhythms from Africa and Latin America?

Miguel Gonzalez: I was raised listening to Salsa, Cumbia, Merengue and other Afro-Latin styles of music. Throughout my adolescence I listened only to Hip-Hop, but after high school I went through a cultural renaissance because I started traveling to Colombia a lot more.

This re-introduced me to Afro-Latin music, but this time I could appreciate it more, and the Congas stood out to me. I think it was just natural because I wasn’t interested in any of the other instruments I was hearing. The Congas reflected my personal character: big, loud, aggressive, rhythmic, sharp, energetic, social.

I decided that I wanted to learn how to play, so I saved up $800. I didn’t even have to search for them. One day I got a call from a mentor of mine – a former Puerto Rican BLA member and political prisoner named Raul “Curly” Estremera.

He told me he had a new set of Toca brand Congas, with some other small percussion: maracas, cow-bell, clave. I had the $800. I went to see the Congas, and they were real nice – brand new, professional quality. I didn’t think twice. I gave him the cash, and we hung out playing the drums for a while.

The Congas reflected my personal character: big, loud, aggressive, rhythmic, sharp, energetic, social.

That summer I went to Colombia and took a few lessons from a dude about my age. I was 22. He lived in a “dangerous” neighborhood, according to my relatives. None of that mattered to me. He charged me 10,000 pesos per hour, which was only $5 American. I went just about every day for a month. I learned real fast. The rest is history.

M.O.I. JR: What is the historical connection between the peoples of Africa and Latin America? What have you been able to learn through the rhythm?

Miguel Gonzalez: Well, the history of Africans in Latin-America is very similar to the history of the African presence in the U.S., with some obvious differences. If we want to look at the full history, there is a lot of evidence that there was a pre-Spanish African presence in Central America. Ivan Van Sertima wrote a good book about the topic. I believe his book is titled, “They Came Before Columbus.”

If we want to discuss the modern day presence of millions of Afro-descendants in Latin America, then that history starts with the Spanish and Portuguese kidnapping and trafficking of enslaved West Africans. The biggest difference between these Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) slave drivers and the English slavers was that the former never outlawed racial mixing, social or otherwise. In fact, they encouraged it.

One could say that after the Spanish satisfied their lust for genocide and destruction in the Caribbean – they destroyed 99 percent of the Native Americans through violence and disease – they seemed to calm down a little bit. They weren’t as controlling and dominating as the English in North America.

They were still very racist and violent, but the modern day presence of Black maroon communities, and entire regions with 90-100 percent of Spanish speaking Blacks, are clear indicators that the Spanish and Portuguese just didn’t care to dominate, control and separate Africans as much as the English and, later, White Americans.

Not only that, but there is so-much genetic mixing that many Latin-Americans from those countries cannot be classified as only White or Native American or Black. Cities like Cartagena, Colombia, and the entire Atlantic coast of that country are a huge pot of Gumbo, and you see very little or none of the group self-segregating as you see here in the states.

This is why so many Latin-American countries in the Caribbean, Central America and South America have cities and regions are very culturally Africanized. Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador etc. are all countries where the folks speak Spanish but practice a lot of African and Native American traditions and hold similar beliefs, values and superstitions. Different regions bear this dynamic to varying degrees. Colder, higher regions in Colombia, for example, have a lot less Afro-Colombians, thus less Africanisms.

I’ve learned a lot about life through the culture of Afro-Latin drumming and singing. I’ve learned to be a better listener. I’ve learned to respect, honor and study culture creators and their keepers. I’ve learned how to express my anger and aggression through a positive and creative channel.

I’ve learned that people across cultural and ethnic backgrounds love African and Afro-Latin musical cultures. I’ve learned that African drumming can be relaxing, or energizing, depending on the spirit of the environment. I’ve learned that people of all ages, especially children, are naturally attracted to the drums and, if given the opportunity, most want to try to play.

I’ve learned a lot about life through the culture of Afro-Latin drumming and singing. I’ve learned to be a better listener. I’ve learned to respect, honor and study culture creators and their keepers.

I’ve learned that our ancestors love when we drum, sing and dance and that we open ourselves spiritually to their voices and guidance when we participate in these ciphers. I’ve learned that a lot of our White relatives are still very closed minded, don’t like the drums and singing, and still want to silence these powerful, African based expressions.

M.O.I. JR: What made you want to become a drum teacher? What is the name of your organization?

Miguel Gonzalez: About five years ago I started altering drum-set drums (tom-toms, bass drums, floor-toms). At first, it was all an experiment. I was trying to recreate the Afro-Colombian drum called a Tambora. In Colombia, Black, Indigenous and Mestizo (mixed Indian-Spanish) Colombians use the Tambora in communities along the Caribbean coast. It’s believed that the Tambora is a descendant of the West African Dun-Dun.

At some point in the history of the African presence in Colombia, shape and use of the drum changed, and the shell became part of the instrumentation as a high-pitched slap. When I first heard this drum, I thought to myself: “That sounds like Hip-Hop. Kids will want to learn that.”

See, I had tried teaching Congas before, because I had been working with kids for years. They liked the Congas, but their little hands couldn’t take the beating for very long, and they would give up.

Well, after listening to Salsa and playing the Congas for a couple years, I started listening to traditional Afro-Indigenous Colombian music, noticed the sound of the Tambora and researched what it looked like. Once I saw that it was a cylinder, I began looking for ways to make drum-set drums sound like the Tambora.

This photo shows not only a lot of music-making, fun-loving kids but also their duct-taped Urban Tambora or Slap Drums.
This photo shows not only a lot of music-making, fun-loving kids but also their duct-taped Urban Tambora or Slap Drums.

The bass sound was deep and bouncy because it’s made with animal skin – cow or goat. One day I saw a strip of duct tape on a floor-tom. The owner said the tape gave the drum a deeper sound. I took that tip and ran with it. I experimented by completely covering the drum-head of a kick-bass drum I had, with duct tape. I only had one drum at that time – not including my Congas.

The idea worked. Booooommm! Slap! I started teaching myself how to play my new Urban Tamora by listening to traditional Afro-Colombian music. I added Hip-Hop rhythms. I bought a used drum-set off of Craigslist for $200 and taped up all 4 drums.

In time I bought more used drums and started taking them to schools in East Palo Alto, where I was working as a substitute teacher. I would pull them out during lunch time to see how the youth would respond. This decision was just logical to me because I cared about the youth and wanted to share with them what I knew.

The drums were a kid magnet. That’s when I discovered that I had something. Other staff noticed the action and began offering me work as a drum teacher after school.

In the beginning, although I knew how to play the drum, I didn’t know how to teach drumming to at-risk youth. It was challenging, but I constantly adapted and improved my teaching methods to make the classes more entertaining, engaging and fun for the kids. Their attention span was very low, and they would get bored if I didn’t make it interesting for them.

The drums were a kid magnet. That’s when I discovered that I had something. Other staff noticed the action and began offering me work as a drum teacher after school.

Over the years I’ve learned that a combination of movement – basic dance steps – drumming, stick activities, running and chanting or singing are the perfect recipe for keeping “bad” kids engaged and happy. Before, they would last 15 minutes, then start asking to go to the bathroom, take a break, or just holler, “I’m bored!” Now they love it.

My drumming program is called New Urban Drum Culture. My arts and intervention program is called Talk of the Town: Urban Arts and Life-skills.

M.O.I. JR: How have inner-city youth responded to your classes?

Miguel Gonzalez: Inner-city youth have responded with a lot of enthusiasm and interest. The drums are just part of a larger curriculum that also includes spray paint and stencils, murals, chess, spoken word and public speaking, entrepreneurship, photography and journalism, meditation and martial arts, life-skills, industrial crafts and youth employment.

The drums create the call to gather. Inner-city youth like the Urban Tambora or Slap Drum because, to their ears and mind, they sound just like Bay Area Hip-Hop and Rap. Once they try the drums, they find that they are a lot easier to play than full drum-sets because only two limbs are needed instead of four.

The Slap Drum is more accessible, easier to play, thus funner for most inner-city youth. After the drums, I lead them towards other components of the program. Most of them keep coming back.

The drums create the call to gather. Inner-city youth like the Urban Tambora or Slap Drum because, to their ears and mind, they sound just like Bay Area Hip-Hop and Rap.

M.O.I. JR: What schools are you at now? Which ones were you at?

Miguel Gonzalez: At the moment I’m at KIPP Heartwood Academy in San Jose; Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo-Atherton; Bellehaven Middle School in East Palo Alto; and Brookfield Elementary in Oakland. I’ve taught at Allendale Elementary, Zapata Street Academy, Dewey Academy, New Highland Elementary, and St. Elizabeth in Oakland.

In East Palo Alto I’ve taught at McNair Middle School, East Palo Alto Charter, Phoenix Academy, Sequoia Day Community School and Costano Middle. In San Jose I’ve taught at Silver Creek High School, San Jose Job Corps, San Jose City College, Mayfair Middle, Montgomery Middle, Sheppard Middle and Glider Elementary.

Right now I’m collaborating with several community leaders in the production of several fundraising videos. The goal is to expand New Urban Drum Culture and Talk of the Town. More and more people are taking notice of the program’s effective combination of various arts, skills and vocations

M.O.I. JR: Where do you see the program in five years?

Miguel Gonzalez: In five years, I see the program in several school districts throughout the nation.

M.O.I. JR: How could people stay updated and help you?

Miguel Gonzalez: Folks can check out my website, www.Talk-of-the-Town.us. They can email me, at Miguel@Talk-of-the-town.us, and a Facebook page will be up in a few days: Facebook/Talk-of-the-Town. Right now I’m recruiting interested youth mentors and teaching artists. I am also in need of experienced grant writers.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.