Djembe drummer drives a diverse beat on Court Street

Goodbye fall semester 2014. Along with your crisp air and changing leaves, you brought the feeling of freshness, of excitement, of keenness. The town seemed to burst with crisp, bright freshmen faces like the colors of autumn. These “Bobkittens” were also changing, starting a journey that will change them forever.

The journey for these “newbies” may have started at the back of a long line at one of the dining halls. And it probably continued during the search for an open table through the seven floors of Alden library, a nearly impossible feat. The presence of construction workers was the norm around town. They were hastily building new residence halls to house the largest incoming class in the history of Ohio University. The city of Athens was swarming with youth. But now, as most students head home for the holidays, who will occupy the streets? Actually, just one street in particular. The street that might be described as the heart and soul of Athens. A street full of red bricks and rich history. A street that supports the feet of diverse demographics and cultures. The one and only Court Street.

Those born and raised in this Appalachian town surely will take advantage of the emptiness winter break brings. Many “townies” appreciate the chance to get a seat at the bar. But others who call Athens home don’t necessary look forward to the empty streets. One man in particular is 72-year-old Don Canterbury. Decades older than those Bobkittens, Canterbury’s journey through life has lead him to unexpected relationships, unbelievable experiences, and great admiration through an unorthodox talent!

Canterbury often is found in the same seat at the end of the bar at The Pub, sipping a Sprite or black coffee (specially brewed for him) and watching whatever football game is on TV. The Pub is his spot. For Canterbury, early days turn into late nights at the place where everyone knows his name. A plump, white-haired senior citizen with blue eyes and a gentle smile isn’t the typical customer one would expect to see at a bar on Court.

Many elderly folk wouldn’t feel comfortable surrounded by youth. Not Canterbury. “You all keep me feeling young,” he laughed. But hanging out with the other regulars ends around 10 p.m. when Canterbury gets the itch to play.

“It’s called a djembe (pronounced jem-bay),” Canterbury explained. “These drums are handmade, made of mahogany and goatskin.” Djembe’s are rope-tuned, skin-covered goblet drums played with bare hands. “Some people ask if they can play my congo or bongo,” Canterbury said. “Many people have never heard of djembes.”

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When  it’s time to venture out for the night, Canterbury gathers his djembe from a cozy spot atop a dish cabinet at The Pub and searches for a venue along Court to perform for passersby. One normally can find Canterbury on the bench next to Subway or the ledge outside of Pawpurr’s bar. But simply following the sounds of Canterbury’s djembe will lead you to his whereabouts.

“I was a little surprised when I first saw this older guy playing an African drum so confidently outside my door. But then again, it’s Athens. You never know what your going to see. It’s funny though. I can hear him from the fourth floor when I open my window at night,” Lindsey Jerina said. Jerina lives on Court Street and said she expects to see or hear him every weekend.

The sound escaping the drum is loud, rich, and an unexpected musical treat as this music is native to Ghana, a country about 6,000 miles away.

“My old neighbor, Dr. Paschal Younge, teaches African drumming here at Ohio University. He gave me a free ticket to see the OU African Ensemble perform for Mom’s Weekend at the Memorial Auditorium a couple years ago,” Canterbury said. He explained that Dr. Younge invited him to attend practices regularly, and that’s how he learned to play. They are now great friends.

“I used to play in a band in high school. I played the snare drum and guitar. But I can’t read music,” Canterbury says. “You don’t need to know how to read music to play the djembe. I learned from Dr. Younge that it’s all about the rhythm and the sound and listening to the other drummers.” Dr. Younge and his wife, Dr. Zelma Badu-Younge, travel to Ghana every summer. They visit different tribes and learn the traditional style of drumming, and eventually spread their knowledge to their students. “Dr. Younge gave me my djembe for a birthday present,” Canterbury said. “It’s one of my most prized possessions.”

“My wife and I would give Don tickets to all of the performances, and in exchange he would help us cook for the students. He was very interested so I started teaching him how to play. I gave him one of my djembes to practice with,” Dr. Younge said. “We had a lot of fun playing and performing together during those times. Then we found out we were going to have to move. Don was upset. I remember him coming to the house, carrying the djembe with tears in his eyes. I told him to keep it,” said Dr. Young. “Don is a good man. He’s down to earth and enjoys life.” Dr. Younge plans to surprise Canterbury one night while he’s performing on Court Street.

Canterbury chooses to play the djembe for primarily college-age American students. The instrument dates to around 1230 AD and is considered sacred to many West African tribes. Considering his audience, it’s not always an easy crowd. Many students running around Court Street on a Friday or Saturday night are looking to get drunk rather than listen to an African drum. But Canterbury does find fans on Court Street.  “A lot of the international students are drawn to my music, especially Africans and Saudi Arabians,” he said. “It’s funny. People pay thousands of dollars to go to Africa, and here in Athens, Ohio, Africans come to me!”

One international student in particular has shown an interest in Canterbury’s hobby. Maurice Ndour, well known for being on OU’s basketball team, often shares the spotlight with Canterbury. Ndour is from Senegal and grew up playing an African drum similar to Canterbury’s. If he’s not resting up for game day, there’s a chance you can find him next to Canterbury on Court.

“I handed Maurice my djembe one night and he started to play,” Canterbury said. “The next night he came back with his drum! We normally play his style. He’ll say, “try this,” and I’ll keep the beat going and he’ll play a more difficult part. His style of beating is interesting, like sometimes he just uses his fingers instead of his entire hand.”

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Canterbury’s interaction with Ndour is a perfect example of the diversity this college town fosters. Two men from different sides of the world are united on Court Street in Athens, Ohio, through their passion for music. Suddenly age, race, and background are forgotten, and the pure sound of an instrument allows that to happen.

“Don just has a big heart. He embraces African culture through the teachings of a professor here,” Ndour said. “His curiosity made him fall in love with the djembe, and since the day he was introduced, he couldn’t put it down. I think he just wants to play and let people hear good music. Sometimes you have to let music speak to people, and the djembe is a very special instrument that catches the attention of people with a mix of different sounds. Don loves to be out there, meeting people, having fun, and playing from his soul.”

Canterbury doesn’t take his life in Athens for granted. He feels grateful for the opportunity to learn, experience and potentially inspire others. “People in life, they’re always in a hurry,” Canterbury said. “If someone stops for just a minute to hear the music, it’s worth it to me.”

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Katie Derr is a senior broadcast journalism student at Ohio University. She currently produces a student-run entertainment talk show, called Straight Up and works as a bartender at Buffalo Wild Wings and The Pub in Athens, Ohio. Her interests include golf, documentary films, and cooking.