As far as Yorel Lashley is concerned, there are no kids who can’t find a measure of success in his Drum Power Drum and Dance Camp. Race, gender, background, interest level, skill level and personality of the kids in his program have always varied wildly. But his level of success has not.
That’s because for Lashley, success is not measured by the end product. Success is in the doing of it.
When Lashley was a child, his parents took him on a trip to West Africa. While there he came face to face with a master in the art of Djembe drumming. Lashley swam in the stream of power, rhythm and fury of the sounds and knew instantly that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
So his journey began. From West Africa to Chicago to Madison to New York City and back again. At every stop, he met someone new who trained him in a different aspect of his craft. He started bands, performed drumming, learned dance, experienced all of the sounds of the world.
Yet, as many worldly and talented folks have found out, it all can feel empty if there’s no one to share it with. That’s where the 53 children he had in his Drum and Dance Camp during this Summer come in.
“I want to share the Arts and I want to share its riches and the power of it for kids,” Lashley says. “They have an experience they can take with them forever but what I’m really in the business of doing is helping young people discover the power of discipline, community and leadership.”
Leadership, Discipline and Community are the three pillars upon which Lashley basis his program. Lashley believes that kids need a foundation of concepts on which everything is built before they can learn not just music or art but life.
A plaque depicting the Pillars hangs on a wall in the basement of the University of Wisconsin Humanities building where Lashley holds court with his students. Using their energy for good things, supporting their own learning as well as the learning of others and doing the right thing even if it means being the only one doing it right. Those concepts provide the foundation of learning Lashley wants his students engaged in.
He also wants kids from black and brown backgrounds to see one another in an artistic setting and see themselves in a new light.
“I’ve tried to craft this in a way that will help in the development and growth of any child,” Lashley says. “I realized very quickly that there weren’t many opportunities to learn non-western arts or really arts in general around Madison. You had some ballet classes, you had some tap classes. So I built this to be an opportunity to learn some non-western culture forms and also be a place where the Black and Brown children of Madison could come and see themselves.”
2017 marks the sixth year of the camp and Lashley said it has grown nearly every year.
“It’s the biggest it’s ever been,” Lashley said. “But it’s also the most diverse both economically and ethnically. Because the reality of Madison is you’ll see some camps and if you see predominantly African-American children they will be low income. So the cool thing about this camp is that you have some folks in here that are higher income, some middle income and lower income and you’ve got folks who are people of color from that full range. I think it’s important for the kids to grow up sort of experiencing different realities and learning from those things. I think that is one of the riches of this opportunity.”
For many kids, especially the children of color, Lashley’s approach marks a major departure from scholastic experiences they have previously had. In many Madison schools, kids of color face low expectations and minimal motivation.
Learning art forms from an entirely different culture can be daunting for those kids, especially since Lashley holds them to a much higher standard than many of them have been asked to live up to in their regular schools.
“Some of the kids haven’t been in situations where the teachers believed in them and so that’s created situations where they’re afraid to take the risk of learning,” Lashley said. “Learning requires effort and when you commit effort to something you risk feeling like you’re a failure. Some of the school situations are hostile for kids, especially for kids of color. They’re used to being in situations where they’re not expected to do well, they don’t expect themselves to do well. We try to work with them by having them look at their own experience in a positive way and see how they already have experience with discipline, community and leadership.”
Samba, Djemb and Mandinka forms and styles of drumming are some of the art forms students learn in Lashley’s program. Afro-Peruvian dance, Afro-Brazilian dance, West African dance forms and Hip Hop Breakdancing are some of the dance forms that encompass the program as well.
Lashley says kids choose their Major, so to speak, in terms of which form they most want to study. But unlike how many sports and music classes are run today, Lashley doesn’t allow them to just do that one form they’re interested in. Everyone does dance and everyone does drums.
“A student who signs up for the dance focus is going to do more dance than drum,” Lashley said. “But the reason that everybody is both dancing and drumming is because I think it’s important to understand the concept of the connection between the two things. Traditionally drummers play while dancers dance and dancers give energy to the drummers. So it’s important to be on both sides of that axis.”
For Lashley success is not measured by whether or not the kids become good drummers or dancers. It’s about unlocking the ability to discover passion for something and learning how to do it. One of the reasons he wants the kids to participate in both drumming and dancing is to provide them with a chance to experience variety.
Lashley grew up playing a variety of music and sports. Most people over a certain age did as well. Lashley believes that in this era, however, if a kid is good at the trumpet, all they do is play the trumpet. If a kid plays soccer for a sport, that’s the only sport they play. Lashley sees learning how to do drum and dance as a platform to help kids learn skills they can use across a variety of mediums.
“We’re not bringing them in here to try to specialize in something,” Lashley said. “And that’s part of the culture I’m trying to work against. We have a very sports oriented and specialization culture. If the kid at 7 years old shows some talent in something, we say we’re just gonna do that. You know? We’re just gonna do soccer hard core for the next years. Meanwhile, they’re not dancing or singing or drumming or doing any other sports. They miss all this other stuff because at 7 we decided they’re gonna be a pro at this one thing.”
The kids in the Drum and Dance Program work two 90-minute sessions per day experiencing all of the different forms of drumming and dancing. Classes are Monday through Thursday every week for three weeks.
“What I’m trying to do here is give them a broad range of experience,” Lashley said. “This is about exploration and exposure. We want the kids to come here and try new things that they haven’t before. Discover new talents.”
Over the course of six years many students have returned summer after summer. Others have not but have continued to explore arts and music. Some of the kids who are really interested play with Lashley at summer festivals like Fete De Marquette. But mostly, Lashley just concentrates on teaching the kids the right way to do the right things.
“In 90 minutes, a child can learn a substantial amount,” Lashley said. “We don’t teach the class thinking ‘okay, we got a show on Thursday.’ No! My whole thing with the Drum Power has always been process, not product. It’s about developing the best processes for learning. Because if you focus on the product you make decisions that aren’t about development.”
For the kids in the Drum and Dance Power program, Lashley has opened up a new world of exploration for them.
For the rest of us, he’s the music teacher we always wish we’d had.