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Keith Johnson
Percussionist, Master Drummer, Craftsman of Tradition, and Artist in Education
Keith Johnson - Percussionist, Master Drummer, Craftsman of Tradition and Artist in Education

Sankofa - “A Journey to West Africa”

I was born in the Washington D. C. Metropolitan area. As a child, I was exposed to many cultural events and developed my interest in music particularly the drums. After hearing the Latin beat of bongos and congas, this rhythm inspired me to hit the streets to learn more about Afro-Cuban music which was played in the Adams Morgan the Latino community of D.C. Watching their drumming and dancing was one of the greatest experiences of my life which started my journey of playing many styles of music that utilize a variety of drums.

My journey led me to Africa to learn about the drums of Africa. I met and studied with YacubAddy of Ghana, a master drummer for a number of years. I learned that the tonal language was the way of communication in Africa. On my first trip to West Africa; Accra Ghana, I was amazed at the people and the food. I learned that traditional drums come in families for example: Ewe drums (Sogo, Kidi, Kagan, Astimevu, Boba, and Kroboto). Some of the drums are only played for the King. After studying for many years and my travels to Africa, my teachers entitled me as a master drummer. 

After extensive travels to West Africa to include Bamako, Mali, Dakar, Senegal, and Accra Ghana and  my research on drums, I have become a craftsman of tradition with musical instruments. These instruments cover a wide range including Membranophones: talking drums, water drums, panlogo, djembe; Chordophones: Kora 21- stringed harp (grandfather to the banjo and guitar), gonji, violin, riki harp, lute; Aerophones: whistle, panpipes, signal flutes, transverse flutes; Idiophones: gourd rattles, seed pods, thumb piano, balaphon, and cocoon.

During my research in the Caribbean Island of Trinidad and Tobago, I learned of the Steel Drums, a musical instrument indigenous to the Island. This instrument was an extension of the African drum but with stretched metal to create pitch… like skin being stretch on a drum. The steel drum was like hearing the piano on 55- gallon oil drums. The tenor pan plays the melody while the double second plays harmony. The other drums are the guitar, cello, and bass pans. It creates a full sound of a steel pan orchestra with various styles of musical genre; classical, jazz, calypso, and popular songs.

In the early eighties, I move to Arizona and fell in love with the desert, its open space and the cactus! I began to play music with the local musicians as a percussionist.  I have worked as an artist with the Arizona Arts Council for the past twenty years and worked with schools all over the state. My love for music and meeting people has enriched and fulfilled my life beyond my wildest dreams.

As a Commissioned Artist in the schools, I exposed the students and teachers to the traditional folklore of West Africa. I bring knowledge and artistry to public and private schools to share interpretation and experience by combining music, art, storytelling and social studies. My interdisciplinary program not only meets the state standards for education in the arts, but it also requires the students to draw on their own intrinsic talents and skills. Through the use of authentic African drums, the students and teachers play complex rhythms that blend traditional African culture with the contemporary world.

When working in the schools and the community,the students and teachers have an opportunity to play and perform with the steel drums utilizing the full use of the drums. These activities give participants team building lessons and self-esteem. Everyone can be creative in choosing the type of songs they would like to perform as a group. Learning their favorite songs gives us a variety of music to show case.
My music is upbeat and up-lifting. I play Jazz, JuJu, Salsa, Calypso and Reggae. My music creates a wonderful atmosphere and has the clients dancing down the aisle.

Performances for Communities: Paiute Community Center, Country Garden Charter School, Free Arts
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