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Building Character By Banging On Drums.

June 19, 2012

Text by Chesney Davis. Image and video by G.W. Miller III.

Kehinde Ardrey sits in a circle with a drum between his legs and eight children, ranging from elementary to middle school, watching him. Each of them has traditional West African instruments in front of them.

Ardrey leads off, bouncing a few measures on the head of a djembe drum, and soon the room is filled with layers of thumping sounds that force you to move. One boy with a bylaphone leans forward and bobs his head with every bar stroke. A younger boy taps lightly on a junjun, shifting his eyes between his fellow musicians, Ardrey and the drum between his knees.

The dynamic of creative freedom and precision technique is infectious as the sound flows out of the room and into the hallway, causing a woman walking by to start dancing with the rhythm.

This group of young musicians is the Ananse Boys and Girls Club Drum Ensemble, a West African/hip-hop fusion percussion group.

Ardrey, who is also a mentorship coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club, instructs the group twice per week at the Fairmount Boys and Girls Club, located in the John F. Street Community Center on Poplar Street near 11th.

Having practiced traditional African drumming and dance since childhood, Ardrey began the class as an effort to return music programs to the Fairmount location in 2010. Then, they had just sticks and trash cans, so he and his students played hip-hop beats.

“Our kids are already musically inclined,” says Ardrey, 31, who is called Mr. K. by his students. “We see them banging on tables. We see that drive is in them.”

As interest in the class grew, Ardrey decided to introduce West African-style drumming. As a solid collection of students formed, he began to encourage the children to blend the African rhythms with hip-hop sensibilities.

The year-round program is the first of its kind in any of the Boys and Girls Clubs and excitement for it happened quickly.

“I’m pleased to see our Fairmount club is building an impressive arts and culture program around the drumming success that they’ve had,” says Al Mollica, the interim CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia.

Mollica adds that although arts and culture is one of the Boys and Girls Club’s core initiatives, because of limited resources, musically based programs like this sometimes do not receive much funding.

But with the help of a $3,000 grant from the Renaissance Grant Program, 10 West African instruments were purchased, as well as 15 denim dashikis – traditional West African shirts, which the students wear during performances.

Upon receiving the new instruments, Ardrey says he was committed to teaching his students not only how to play the instruments but how to maintain them. He also taught them the origination and history of each instrument, encouraging his students to do research on their own as well.

Sy’mear Williams, 11, says that for him, learning the different words associated with African drumming is like learning a new language.

“One of my dreams was to know another language other than English and now I do,” the young junjun player says. “When I search a word, it tells me a meaning of the word. Then Mr. K. starts telling us about the language and what they call the drums.”

Naming the group Ananse was central to Ardrey’s cultural lessons revolving around the instruments. The word is steeped in Ghanaian folklore. Ananse is among the most important characters in the culture, a great storyteller whose motives were not always pure, though he was very clever and always seeking wisdom.

Ardrey says traditional drums are inherently full of wisdom.

“They are very folkloric,” he says. “So they have a lot of stories. There is a lot of history behind the drums.”

The goblet-shaped djembe, for instance, is know as the peace drum, and it was used to mark peaceful occasions. The bylaphone –sometimes spelled balafon, dates back to the 12th century in Mali. It was often considered a sacred instrument and used only during ritual events.

“Every single member in the program is African-American but they had virtually no knowledge about West African music,” Mollica says. “So they’re learning about their own heritage.”

Ardrey says that although he is the instructor and he began playing when he was 8-years old,  he is always practicing and learning.

“The stuff I’m teaching is endless knowledge for me because I’m still learning,” he says.

Ardrey adds that in addition to teaching skills, the class’ goal is to nurture creativity, while instilling the character-building traits like discipline, commitment and dedication.

“The overall mission is to add to the inner talents that the kids already have,” Ardrey says.

Stephan Riley, who plays the junjun and congos, likes the balance of creative freedom and discipline in the class.

“I think the class teaches you how to be yourself and not to put a front up when you’re around other people,” says the 14-year old Riley, who also plays guitar and sings gospel in his spare time. “It teaches you how to be an individual and not somebody else that you’re not.”

Ardrey hopes his students are able to explore ideas of success that are alternative to conventional paths.

“For me, it’s so important for kids to gravitate toward what they want to do,” Ardrey says. “So many times we get pulled from our hobbies, which are really what we want to do. I think I’m in a unique position to show them that your hobby can be all you do if you put in enough time and develop enough talent. It’s there.”

  1. michellesaya permalink
    June 21, 2012 5:22 pm

    This is awesome!!! So great to learn about great mentors like Kehinde Ardrey and children who have the fortune to learn and grow with these mentors plus the help from grants! This inspired me to do a blog of a quote I learned about by Propertius, “Let each man pass his days in that endeavor wherein his gift is greatest.” Check it out. Thank you for the inspiration.


  1. “Let each man pass his days in that endeavor wherein his gift is greatest.” – Propertius | My Ponder Tree

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