From Africa to Louisiana

Zohar uses drums to teach life

A drum strapped to his chest, Baba Zohar leaned into the microphone to tell about the world’s first musical instrument.

“We have a story to tell that starts with a drum,” he said. “Does anybody know what the first drum was?”

The four-dozen schoolchildren seated in front of him at the Greenwell Springs Road branch of the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Library began shouting answers. Bongo! Conga!

“The first drum is your heart,” Zohar told them. “The heart have to beat consistent.”

Then he started to pound out a rhythm like a heartbeat and sing a Jamaican song about flying away home to Zion. Unprompted, the children began clapping loosely along with the beat.

Drums and music run deep within Zohar. His group, Zohar and the Free Spirit Stilt Walkers, performs at schools and libraries several times a month, teaching the role of African culture in music and American life.

“It’s not the lyrics. It’s the music itself. It is so spiritual,” Zohar, a New Orleans native, said following the performance. “Being an African descendant, the drums are in our genes and chromosomes. So when we hear the drums they just activate something in your spirit.”

Along with two of his sons, Judah Israel and Solomon Israel, and Nailah Smith, a drummer and dancer, Zohar played African-inspired drumbeats. Then Zohar took up a flute and played while a woman in a sparkling red mask — Smith in disguise — danced from the rear of the room, eliciting shrieks from a few children. She sprung in the air, moved her undulating arms with the speed of the drums, and danced faster and faster before she sped out of the room as mysteriously as she came.

African and Caribbean culture is unknown to many of these children, Zohar said, even though the music and dance lie in their background. A lack of pride in their culture causes many issues facing inner-city children, Zohar said, and “self-hate” is rampant in poor neighborhoods.

“Our solution is, not just for African-American children but for all children, is to give them pride, give them self-esteem, make them feel better about themselves,” Zohar said. “If I stood up and just talked to them, they may not listen, but we add music, entertainment, dancing and drumming. It’s easier to get their attention.”

For the past 25 years Zohar has been performing for children and teaching them in summer and after-school programs. Previously he studied music at Southern University in New Orleans and performed in bars and at festivals in various bands, but that life was not for him.

“Children are the future, you know? If we prepare them and get their mind right, then we won’t have to be locking ourselves up (in our homes),” he said. “Today kids are really scared out there. I figured it would be my contribution. People talk about it and complain about it. I want to do something about it.”

Every show, Zohar also throws in some songs that teach students about their everyday lives. In one, they sing with him in a call and response.

“I am a genius and you are a genius,” he sang and the students repeated. “I can be a doctor. I can be a lawyer.”

Performing in New Orleans schools, Zohar has met many children who don’t expect to live beyond 21, he said. Growing up in the 9th Ward, he said he can relate to that mindset, but he hopes to correct it.

“You kind of stimulate their minds, and as they get older they start believing it and they start working toward that,” he said.

Seeing Zohar and his performers should inspire children to follow their passions and earn a living, said Yvonne Byrd, the children’s librarian at the Greenwell Springs Road library.

“If they were walking down the street, if they walked into the grocery store, you would not have any idea that they were talented or professional people,” she said. “When you speak that says volumes, when you act, that speak volumes. You don’t have to look a certain way to be professional or to have a professional career and do something you love. It is obvious they thoroughly love what they are doing.”

Another of Zohar’s songs taught kids what to do when they encounter guns. Never touch a gun, he told them.

“Don’t pick it up, call a grown-up,” he sang along with the drum beat. “If you see a gun, you know you better run!”

Then a trio of drum beats announced the arrival of the country devil, the 10-foot tall stilt dancer that appeared from the back of the room dressed in blue and silver. He ran past the crowd of children, causing a few screams, then danced along the front, kicking his stilted legs out, then balancing on one in a fury of movement.

Zohar’s high-school-age son, Solomon, was behind the mask, but the musicians never reveal the stilt dancer’s identity. An art form that passed from Africa to the Caribbean to folk dancing circles in the United States, Zohar first saw stilt dancing more than 30 years ago, then taught himself and his children.

“Stilt dancing, it defies gravity and also it causes discipline,” he said. “Once you get up in the air, the air is thin, a spiritual thing takes place, you put on the mask. It’s all different. You’re not that person. Whatever spirit you have inside, that’s what comes out on a stilt dance. It represents that tall spirit.”

With the country devil gone, Zohar began to wrap up the show, singing about giving love, peace and respect to everyone and encouraging everyone to dance as they do in Jamaica, into their 80s.

The show and the after-school programs Zohar teaches feature the drum, he said, but “it is really teaching life. I use drums as a vehicle to get their attention.”