Drumming from Africa

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Bonnie Stiernberg

On an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon at the Channing Murray Foundation, a heavy bass tone pulses through the chapel as eleven pairs of hands meet hide.

The beat swells as Gordon Kay walks around the semicircle in which his class is seated, gazing intently at the furiously moving hands, nodding in approval.

“I started playing drums when I was about ten years old as a third grader,” he said. “We had this assembly and a drummer came in and just played along to a record, and I was just hooked right there.”


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photo DI multimedia


Drumming on the off beat

Click to view a video about Gordon Kay who teaches a South African drumming class.

Kay, an Urbana native, teaches the weekly South African drum class and performs with several local bands in Champaign-Urbana, including Mhondoro, Beat Kitchen, Big Grove Zydeco and Fotamana.

Bandmate Ben Juday, who plays with Kay in Mhondoro and Fotamana, admires the longevity of Kay’s career.

“He had his first drum gig at a restaurant that has been torn down,” Juday said. “He’s got a long history of music in this town.”

Kay began taking lessons at age ten and had his first gig soon afterwards. He played through high school and off and on at Tulane University before discovering the music of South Africa.

“It was one of those times when I thought I was giving up drumming,” he said. “I sold everything I owned and moved to Hawaii and lived on a hippie homestead … and there were about two or three incredible drummers, and I saw them playing and just immediately latched onto them and became sort of an apprentice.”

Kay traveled to Zimbabwe, where he spent the majority of his time learning the unique South African style.

“Rock and roll drumming is very simple, whereas South African drumming can really confuse the ear for a lot of Western musicians because it’s very triplet-based,” he said.

Jane Marshall, a graduate student in social work who has been attending Kay’s class for a month and learning the djembe, is satisfied with the approach Kay brings to the class.

“I think Gordon is a great teacher,” she said. “He goes slow enough, but also quick enough that it’s a challenge.”

The class focuses on the music of the Mand‚ people from South Africa, a traditional sound that goes back 500 years.

While Kay is happy to share his knowledge of the genre, he doesn’t claim to be an expert on the subject.

“I teach this class in order to lay a groundwork for a master drummer to come to Champaign-Urbana and take over,” he said. “I don’t teach this class because I claim to be some authority on African music.”

However, according to Marshall, Kay does his best to make the class as educational as possible.

“It’s not just music,” she said. “Gordon also gives us a little bit of history of the tradition and what the different sounds mean and which ceremonies they’re used for, so it’s an educational experience as well.”

Juday is impressed with Kay’s dedication to his craft.

“A lot of musicians will get to a certain point and say, ‘Oh, okay. I’m good enough,’ but Gordon is a constant student of the drums – always looking to see how he can do better,” he said. “I wish I could be quite that committed but I can’t. Even if I had the time, I’m not sure I have the heart that Gordon does for music. It’s just in every fiber of him.”

Back in the Channing Murray Foundation, the students appear transfixed as Kay demonstrates a pattern.

They range in skill level from beginner to intermediate, and for some, this is the first time they’ve played any sort of instrument. Kay takes pleasure in helping the students learn the music he loves.

“I just enjoy helping people,” he said. “I was really inspired by [the music], so when I come across other people that are really inspired by it, I want to do my best to help them progress.”

Erica Magda contributed to this report.