behind the scenesThe happy, smiling man with all the kid’s percussion instruments has probably put percussion education into more classrooms around the world than anyone alive today. His name is Dr. Craig Woodson, and he long ago he combined his Ph.D in music (UCLA) with an emphasis on ethnomusicology with music education and musical instrument technology to develop new educational approaches that have impacted hundreds of thousands of students.

Dr. Woodson puts his musical knowledge to work around the world. Through the nonprofit Drums Of Humanity he has led workshops and performances in Iraq, Sudan, and other countries recovering from war and natural disasters. In another project, he also works with American veterans and refugees in the US suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 1976, Woodson founded Ethnomusic, Inc., a world music education consultancy that presents multicultural instrument making, educational concerts, school programs, and professional development. Later, he authored “Roots of Rhythm” a free, online world drumming curriculum for middle schoolers that teaches concepts in history, geography, and other subjects through the instruments and rhythms of countries around the world. Roots of Rhythm was promoted through the Percussion Marketing Council, with whom he also developed a program called “Drum Set In The Classroom” to reach elementary and middle school teachers who may be involved in music education but have little or no drum set knowledge.

He is an adviser to several art museums and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and has performed or collaborated with major artists from Kronos Quartet to Mick Fleetwood to Linda Ronstadt. And, just to make sure he gives 110 percent in this lifetime, Woodson also owns 12 patents on musical instrument technology and percussion instrument design.

His latest project is STEAM, workshops that bring together music with concepts of Science, Engineering, Technology, Art, and Math for school assemblies and workshops. Vibrant and effusive in person, Woodson is an inspiring person who is driven by one overriding goal: to increase the number of music makers and their appreciation of this world and its music.

Time to get back to practicing those tubs, Dr. Craig.

DRUM!: Your master’s thesis was on the drumming of jazz great Tony Williams. Your Ph.D thesis was on African drumming. Are those the poles of your evolution?

Dr. Craig Woodson: As a kit player beginning at 13, teaching and gigging at 17, my passion has always been the drum set, especially studying the work of bop drummers in the 1960s like Philly Joe, Max Roach, and back to Baby Dodds. Tony encapsulated so many styles, had phenomenal chops, and he was about my age. It the same time in the mid-1960s, I began to learn Ghanaian hand and stick drumming from masters Robert Ayitee and Kwasi Badu at UCLA. In fact my beginning with Tony was inviting him to private performance of Ghanaian drumming at UCLA in 1969. He came!

After forming my company, Ethnomusic, Inc., making African drums in the mid-1970s I was invited to head a project in Ghana by my UCLA Ghanaian professor, Kwabena Nketia, he encouraged me to complete my Ph.D as a part of my work. With my interest in drum making, that topic became the subject of my dissertation in 1983.

Are those two sides of Craig Woodson?

Yes, but there are other sides. I wanted to go into music therapy but no program existed at UCLA. Instead I chose to become an ethnomusicologist with a focus drumming in Africa, India, and the Caribbean, and instrument technology. There are a few other sides.

For more than 40 years you have worked on teaching and educating through the study of global music and our global cultural connections. How has our knowledge as students and people changed in that time?

Great question. When I started studying world music in the 1960s, people would say, “Why are you studying the music of Africa, etc.? Who will want to know about that in the next 50 years?” I was simply following my passion, and the answer is obvious today. The world has been shrinking through the collective technologies and communication systems and world music became a category first in record stores and now all over the internet. People in the US have become fascinated with the music of other cultures. Courses in world music are commonplace on college campuses today, many of which involve performance and visiting master musicians.

Describe your humanitarian work in war-torn areas through Drums of Humanity.

This work began in 2009 with two trips to northern Iraq with music therapist Christine Stevens, working with [nonprofit] Kurdistan Save the Children. We presented drum circles and instrument making to youth centers for young people devastated by the country’s ruthless leadership.

That same year I went to Yogyakarta, Java, to work with tsunami victims with a group of world musicians and dancers from the US.  Soon after, Christine and I began working with the Lost Boys of Sudan, who had a center in Phoenix, Arizona. We worked with several of the tribes—Nuba, Dinka, and Nuer—who had come together through our drumming presentations. Both men and women had escaped the genocide in and around their country.

More recently I traveled to Honduras and Ecuador through UNICEF and Playing for Change to work with young people struggling with drug infestation, crime, and earthquakes. My approach involved drumming, drum circles and drum making along with storytelling about their experiences of loss and recovery.

What did you learn about the healing power of music in those circumstances?

Music—in my case, drumming—provided a way for young people and adults to express emotions that had often been buried or difficult to access. In Iraq we asked participants what they would like to tell America, and one young man, yelled “Halabja is alive!” (over 5,000 people were massacred in this city in one day in 1988 under Saddam Hussein). The words became a chant taken up by the entire group of more than 40 young people, the [Middle Eastern] daf drums immediately started and men and women began dancing shoulder to shoulder, not normally done there.

As musicians we often focus on notes, chords, harmony, techniques. What are the things that musicians overlook?

My presentation opens with, “I think that there are two kinds of music: mine, and everybody else’s.” This phrase simply means that we are usually taught or study the music of many others and put our own expressions low on the list of performance priorities. I encourage students to find their own music as soon as possible, along with studying others.

Tony [Williams] said that you need to be able to precisely replicate the playing of three or so of your greatest influences, but then move on and find your own style.

You developed Roots of Rhythm curriculum and later a set of world percussion instruments, working with Remo. Was Remo Belli directly involved in that project?

Yes he was. It has been my great honor to work with the Remo company for several decades, first as a friend and then as a consultant helping to develop products. He was, in a way, my drum father, bringing so many pearls of wisdom to my life. At his Remo Center I was with him when he opened a box of donated teaching materials from his recently diseased drum teacher, Murray Spivack—and my teacher. He was visibly shaken when he saw how Murray had kept an extensive record of Remo’s accomplishments. Remo continuously supported my work and approach.   

How many teachers and students have been exposed to the Roots of Rhythm training?

Since writing the curriculum in 2004 I have presented Roots of Rhythm (RoR) teacher and student workshops to thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of students. The curriculum is now free online at Volume II is temporarily off the site for some updates. I continue to get feedback from teachers and students that my world drumming approach with instrument making has been helpful.

Of late you have STEAM assemblies and workshops to use rhythm to teach science and problem solving with age-appropriate workshops. What was the genesis of that?

My father was an engineer and mother a musician, so I have always had that mix in my life. At the core of my STEAM approach is making simple instruments by up-cycling with available materials, which I began in high school. My first fascination with drum technology came when my junior high band teacher, Larry Bellis, showed me how to tuck a calfskin drumhead on a flesh hoop. From that I repaired marching drums in school and later world instruments at UCLA, and then finally with Ethnomusic, Inc. making African drums.

I began school programs teaching instrument making in the 1970s, and then developed A World Orchestra You Can Build in the 1980s, demonstrating how to make and play 12 simple global instruments. In 1999, NASA heard about my work and asked if I would be in an educational video with other artists—my part being about making instruments—on a trip to Mars in 2030. The video, “Windows On Mars,” was an amazing chance to work with internationally known scientists and artists, and further develop my interest in STEAM.

You’re also a great musician who has performed with Kronos Quartet and others. Tell us about a Craig Woodson musical experience that you look back on fondly.

I began with Kronos in the early 1990s, when David Harrington heard about my work making simple instruments, including a simple violin. He tried it out with a violin bow I made of dental floss and a coat hanger, and that was our beginning. We have presented play-along concerts around the US and overseas where audience members make a simple instrument and then play along with Kronos. David said, “This gives young people a chance to gig with us.” In one residency through the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I had over 900 fifth grade students compose parts of a long composition that Kronos then performed at BAM.

The self-titled album of the United States Of America continues to be cited by cognoscenti today.

I will also mention that I was in an electronic rock band in 1967-68 called the United States of America. On our Columbia album, I incorporated electronic drums that I had to invent since none had been developed at the time. [The self-titled album continues to be played and recognized today for its many innovations.]

Tell me something about Craig Woodson that nobody knows.

Yes, there is another side of my story that I did not fully recognize until I saw a stamp in 1984, honoring Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), the father of Black History month (1926). I asked my father, ‘Who are the Black Woodsons?’ He said that it was documented in our family’s genealogy, a book published in 1915. In that book, I read that in 1619 my white Woodson ancestors enslaved six of the first Africans that came to Jamestown—this meant that all or most Woodsons, black and white, were from this original family. I knew that enslaved Africans usually took the name of the enslaver, but never applied it to my family’s name.

This information was shocking and embarrassing to me on two major levels. First, I had completed my Ph.D in African music at UCLA and the subject never came up. Second, I was a board member of the BEEM Foundation (Black Experiences Expressed through Music), founded by my friend, Bette Cox, a famous African American music teacher in Los Angeles. I was embarrassed but finally told the Woodson story to Bette. She simply said, “Interesting… my best friend’s husband is Dr. Edgar Woodson, who is related to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Do you want to meet him? He lives five minutes away.” So within the hour, I met Edgar, his wife Aileen, and daughter Adele. This meeting began a long relationship between Edgar’s extended family and mine.

In 1998 I asked Edgar and family to be at an apology ceremony for my white Woodson family’s participation in enslavement. Since that meeting I have become involved with ASALH, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which was started by Dr. Carter Woodson (1915), and have presented papers on my story at ASALH National Conferences.

In 2017, ASALH, the parent organization of Black History Month, invited me and my good friend and djembe drummer Baba David Coleman to perform African drumming at the opening of the Carter G. Woodson home as it became a National Historic Monument in Washington, D.C.—of course, a great honor for us both. I recently helped start a local chapter of ASALH in Cleveland, Ohio, and drumming continues to be part of my racial reconciliation work through my nonprofit Drums of Humanity.


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