Story Jason Browne | Photograph Luisa Porter
Percussionist Bob Damm adds a new twist to the cliché “marching to the beat of his own drum.”
That’s because Damm is his own drummer. And he wants to be the drummer for students across Mississippi, but only until they find their own rhythms.
Damm, a professor in Mississippi State University’s African-American Studies Department, is more of a facilitator than a musician. Don’t misunderstand — he’s been drumming since the fourth grade, studies in Africa to advance his technique, plays multiple percussive instruments (including melodious percussion like the vibraphone), has cut one album and is working on a second. He’s a staple in local schools and at community events, where he frequently performs along with students from the various enrichment programs to which he lends his talents. “Accomplished” is understating his musicianship.
But the fact remains Damm is less interested in showcasing his own proficiency on the skins than he is in helping you find yours. Since taking a job at MSU in 1995, he’s made himself available to schools around the state through the Bettersworth Lecture Series to share his two great loves: percussion and African culture.
Damm admits he must be an intriguing character when he arrives at schools as far away as the Gulf Coast for the first time. A white guy from Illinois wearing an African dashiki, toting a hand drum and extolling the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which he roughly translates to mean “I am me because of we.”
“Sometimes [students] ask me if I’m African and I immediately tell them I’m not. But I like wearing African clothes,” he explains. “It’s complex describing who you are culturally. Ancestrally, I’m German. But culturally, not so much.”
FINDING HIS RHYTHM
Damm has long been interested in African culture. After being drawn to the drum as a child by an “almost visceral” attraction to rhythm, Damm’s progression was a typical one. He studied and played jazz and the blues, but his passion was rock ‘n’ roll. He was drawn to bands with deep blues roots like Led Zepplin and Aerosmith. But before graduating high school in 1982, Damm met an African musician and teacher named Oscar Sully, a native of Ghana, who would change not only his focus on the drums, but his entire perception of how music is communicated. “It was a revelation. Even if I went back to other styles, I would never think of music the same way. This was the power of music in a way I hadn’t experienced it before,” he says.
BRINGING IT HOME
Sitting in the living room of his Starkville home in mid-December, Damm was unwinding after a three-month sabbatical and musical apprenticeship in Mali in West Africa. Just beginning to digest what he had experienced, he recalled some of what he learned during his second trip to the continent — how it reinforced what he learned from his first African mentor and how it reinvigorated his philosophy about the drum. Even the name of the traditional African hand drum, the djembe, translates roughly to “together,” he says. And if you want to take the philosophy of Ubuntu and the drum to the furthest expression, consider that the drum is made from living things: wood from trees to create the cylinder and animal skin to create the drum head. But on a simpler, more culturally relevant level, Damm says music in Africa is a shared experience, with the drum at the center.
“In Africa, music is not location bound. It’s communal. It concerns singing and dancing and music,” he says. “If you’re celebrating together, you participate not only by showing up and eating the food, but by showing joy through dancing or singing. Around the world, music is something people do in different ways in terms of how society sanctions how we express ourselves.”
And that’s what Damm wants to show students in Mississippi. It’s simply poetic justice that the drum is at the center of this expression of community because: a.) Even a beginner can slap out a rhythm and make a good sound, b.) The drums Damm passes out aren’t easily breakable and c.) Whole groups can participate simultaneously with one another. And even though Damm doesn’t like to lecture, a drumming lesson gives him the perfect opportunity to explain aspects of African culture to Mississippi students.
“It’s a broader concept than you would typically find in a school setting,” he says of his lessons. Perhaps best of all, the hands-on percussion experience Damm offers students isn’t a hard sell.
“When I ask ‘Who wants to play the drum?’ every hand in the room goes up,” he says.