It all began with the drum. In West Africa, the drum was sacred and ceremonial, its rhythms providing the foundation for songs about everything from history and current events to rites of passage and communication with ancestors. When slaves were taken to the Caribbean, South America and the U.S., they took their musical traditions with them, eventually giving birth to gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop. But the drum was the heartbeat at the foundation of it all.
Though people have long associated drum circles with patchouli-drenched hippies congregated outside of Grateful Dead or Phish concerts, the tradition actually dates back hundreds (if not thousands) of years. One man who recognized the importance of this community-based activity is Dr. Arvin Scott, a full-time professor in the University of Georgia Music Department who’s toured with Mose Allison, recorded with Widespread Panic and performed with Roy “Futureman” Wooten of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. He’s also the founder of Drumming For Success, a youth development program he started in 1997 for kids ages 3-16.
“I was performing with a jazz ensemble at a restaurant one night,” Scott recalls of the program’s genesis. “Two children expressed an interest in my drum kit during the intermission. I gave them a little tour and a couple of pairs of drumsticks. Just a few days later I received beautiful thank you letters that expressed how much that experience and the sticks meant to them. As a result of their heartfelt letters, I was inspired to start this community drumming program, which is now in its ninth year.”
In addition to providing free percussion classes for kids in the Athens area, Drumming For Success also encourages character building and creativity through personal goal accomplishment and group cooperation. The result, according to Scott, is improved self-esteem, increased respect for teamwork, sharpened thinking skills and even improved grades, and the program places emphasis on academic as well as personal achievement.
Drumming For Success has earned at least one famous fan, Widespread Panic drummer Sunny Ortiz, who’s donated his time to the organization’s various Beat The Drum fundraising events, including one at Athens’ Melting Point a few months back. The organizers gave away various door prizes as a way to thank those in attendance for their support, ranging from cymbals and books (from sponsors such as Sabian and Latin Percussion) to hand drums from Scott’s personal collection and autographed Widespread Panic posters. And according to Scott, the events continue to be a big success thanks to contributions from Ortiz and his students.
“We usually begin with audience/community drumming,” he says, “which is everyone’s opportunity to drum together along with Sunny and me during the first hour of the evening. How can a group of 50 or more people drum together without rehearsing? It all seems spontaneous, but I lead, direct and organize the rhythms using my background in African, Caribbean and Brazilian percussion. Sunny and I maintain the foundation of the rhythms so that others can be free to join the rhythmic excitement and add their own interpretations, drumming ’til our hands feel as though they’re going to fall off!”
In the future, Scott hopes to make the program more accessible to children by participating in local after school programs. Individuals, groups or organizations wishing to support the continued growth of Drumming For Success can mail donations to 150 Chadds Walk, Athens Ga., 30606. All proceeds go towards the purchase of drums and percussion instruments and equipment, as well as covering instruction and performance expenses.