Natural Rhythm

Drumming to the beat of a different culture

By Deena C. Bouknight

Photography by Jeff Amberg

Lee Ann Kornegay never imagined that an ancient musical expression would lead her to become a teacher. Yet, for the past 10 years, she has taught West African drumming to public and private students, at-risk children, eager moms and daughters and even nursing home residents. Lee Ann did not grow up in Columbia as a particularly musical person. Like many young girls, she took a few dance classes, plucked at the guitar and listened to popular music. “I loved to sing, but I never did much with it.”

The transformation took place in 1997 when Lee Ann watched a student group playing West African music at the University of South Carolina. “There was this jolt! It blew me away. I knew right then that I wanted to learn how to do that.”

Immediately, she sought out a percussion teacher specializing in West African music and found that she connected with the rhythm and technique. Desiring to one-day visit West Africa for an authentic drumming experience, she practiced, practiced and practiced. After two years, Lee Ann had an opportunity to accompany her teacher to West Africa.

As she flew into Guinea, she began to weep. “Why am I weeping?” wondered Lee Ann. “There was no explanation at all. It could have been anything that touched me … that I would become passionate about. Being there made me so deeply connected to West Africa, and it really helped me play the drums. To really experience the culture made a difference. I came back determined to learn drumming until I could do it very well.”

Lee Ann was a dedicated mother and entrenched in a career in advertising and public relations when she became addicted to West African drumming. She explains that the main instrument indigenous to West Africa is the djembe –– a rope-tuned, skin-covered goblet drum played with both hands while sitting and securing the drum with your knees or by hanging the drum around the neck and shoulders with a strap. The drum’s sounds, which can be very loud or very soft, are versatile. 

Drums are constructed by hand in a variety of sizes. She says that playing can be physically taxing, and the form of music is challenging. “It’s not just about hitting a surface and making sound, or just random rhythm like in a drum circle,” she says. “There is form to it. I like to work toward something –– the discipline in the music. That’s why I like the way the West African drumming intertwines and interweaves. It has a beginning and an end.”

She became so adept at playing the djembe that she auditioned to join Djoliba Don, a local group named for a river in West Africa and managed by her instructor. She made the cut and officially became a professional performer of West African music. Besides the djembe, she also learned to play a dunun, a membranophone percussion instrument, the balafon, a version wooden xylophone, and shakers. 

For seven years, the group primarily performed all over North and South Carolina. They created various costumes and choreographed dances and moves. Lee Ann maintains an elaborate scrapbook of professional performances: at Spoleto, USC,  Jubilee Festival, Children’s Theater of Charlotte, Columbia College and even for former Governor Jim Hodges –– just to name a few. Various schools and cultural events requested performances, especially since Djoliba Don educated while they played. 

Djoliba Junior became an informal side group formed with some of the band members’ children, including her own daughter, Kellane, now 24. “She was really good and had natural rhythm, but it became ‘not so cool’ to be performing with your mother,” she quips.

Sometimes, drummers and dancers from West Africa accompanied Djoliba Don. Once, the Columbia City Ballet enlisted the group to be part of its Lion King production. “That was a highlight,” says Lee Ann. 

She also ended up going to West Africa three more times. Each time, she used her skills as a documentarian and producer to capture the culture by filming two documentaries: Boloba, showcasing Guinea percussionists, and Ivory Coast in Crisis, depicting struggles to reduce poverty and achieve democracy. Boloba was named Best Documentary in the Colossal Film Crawl in 2003 and was selected for the Indie Grits Film Festival in 2006. Both films aired on ETV. 

However, it turned out to be the educational aspects of performing that truly appealed to Lee Ann. Whenever the group would stop between sets and explain to the audience various aspects of the drums and the idiosyncrasies of the West African music culture, she watched as adults and children alike soaked up the information. As Djoliba Don wound down due to the group’s manager moving out of state, she stepped in to oversee Positive Percussions, a drumming instruction opportunity for at-risk kids that her instructor had founded and managed. With an SUV full of djembes and a nine-week curriculum she developed, she started first in schools in the Camden area. Every day she was in a different school. 

“It was so much work but so very rewarding,” she says. With each session, she experienced participants’ self-confidence elevating and recognized at least a few that might “take off” with their new-found drumming skills. At the end of the nine weeks, participating students performed for the schools’ staff and others. 

Lee Ann provided drumming instructions for schools around Columbia for a few years, until the rigors of playing wore down the muscles in her hands and wrists. “It’s really very physically taxing.” 

She backed off on drumming somewhat, focused on her career and eventually pursued occasional programs at Camp Long, a Department of Juvenile Justice facility in the Aiken area. “These are week-long sessions for adolescents who are one step away from jail. They are in trouble for truancy, drugs, alcohol, fighting or shoplifting. I do an hour for girls and an hour for boys, and then they perform for each other at the end of the camp.”

Currently, due to funding cuts at Camp Long, she is working to develop another program. This past year, she provided once-a-week drumming instruction to underprivileged children involved in the Prosperity Project at Gonzales Gardens. She is also “in residence” with Harmony School each spring for a week. 

“I’ve just really seen kids grow and learn through drumming … they work really hard to figure out complicated things,” says Lee Ann. “I love the teaching aspects of drumming. The rewards that come with it are just an off shoot of the playing. I still love to perform, but teaching brings such joy.”

Another unexpected teaching opportunity is at nursing homes. “I thought it might be too physical and too loud, but they love it! They are so appreciative, and inevitably someone gets up and starts dancing.” 

Dancing, in fact, is an outgrowth to drumming. In West Africa, dancers accompany drummers, and when Lee Ann teaches and performs, some participants cannot help themselves. They feel the beat, and they rise to dance. Such was the case this past year when she and a group of women performed at a women’s luncheon. Women rose from their lunch tables and began dancing in the aisles. 

Lee Ann still jumps at every opportunity to perform just because she loves it. She performs with a group called Next Door Drummers, which plays a few times a year for various events. 

Like many South Carolina-raised girls, Lee Ann grew up singing traditional hymns in a traditional church; she expresses how unlikely it is that she would be “called” to play West African drums. “I never dreamed in a million years I would latch onto something like this, but I’m so glad I did,” she says with a smile. 


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