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He's also a poet - he hopes to publish a collection of his work soon.
Ahmed Lewis heard the drums talking when he was very young. He would empty the oatmeal boxes from his grandmother's cupboard and use them as bongo drums. Though his grandmother would scold him, he knew even then that he was drawn to the drums.
Now, almost 40 years later, Lewis is one of the most accomplished African drummers in the city. He has performed at cultural festivals and at venues ranging from the Painted Bride Arts Center to Hill House.
For Lewis, the drums are spiritual as well as musical instruments. Their sound led him into the traditional religions of West Africa. In June, he was part of a group from a local African religious sanctuary that participated in an African religious and cultural festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Lewis talked about his art and his religion with the Current not long after his return from Brazil.
Q. For you, drumming began as a musical thing, and it's evolved into a spiritual thing. How did that come about?
A. Well, I got involved with the Akon religion, which is out of Ghana. And I was introduced to that, and I became a trainee, a priest in training in the Akon religion, and I've been going ever since.
I like the African religion because they do the healing with the herbs, and prayers, and different other things within the religion. I love it.
Q. How are drums incorporated into the worship ritual?
A. The drums are the beginning of everything. Before the slaves came to these Americas, the drummers were the ones who sent the messages to the next village to let them know what was going on. So the drums play a very, very important part in African culture.
The legend is, "When the drummers are drumming, they don't lie." So whatever message the drummer is telling you, that's what happened. And this is where the drummer is extremely important.
Q. Now in this country, we have many other means of communicating and storytelling, so I would imagine the role of the drum has changed somewhat?
A. It's changed as far as sending messages to different tribes - I mean, if a tribe was over in New York, we couldn't send a message there. What hasn't changed is spiritual. The drum is at the same place it was spiritually in [ancient] Africa and where it is now.
In slavery days, [the masters] took our drums from us, so we couldn't send a message. At that time, they knew the power of the drums. So, then, that's how all the drums got into churches - the tambourines and all that. The slaves sang the songs so that the masters wouldn't know what they were doing, what they were saying.
Q. You had gone to Brazil as part of a Haitian religious group. Are most of the people who attend events there themselves Haitian?
A. Very few of them are Haitian. Most of them are African-Americans.
Q. So what accounts for this interest in Haitian and African religious practices?
A. I think a lot of times people want to go back to their roots. And the African culture is a part of their roots. It's different from Catholicism, it's different from all the major religions like Islam, Christianity, Judaism. A lot of people think - some people think because it's an African culture, they get away from almighty God and Jesus Christ, and that's not true. They believe in almighty God and they believe in Jesus Christ.
Q. You also do drumming in a non-religious setting. Have you performed anywhere else besides Philadelphia and Brazil?
A. We've gone to New York, we've gone to Delaware, we played at Bethune-Cookman College...we've been a lot of places. The African-American drummers, I'd say they are very unique, because here in the United States, we have to learn how to play everything. There's not a specific tribe that we play for; we might have to play for the Batas, we might have to play sekere [a gourd instrument] from the Yorubas, or from Cuba, or Nigeria, or Senegal - we have to learn to play all those types of drums to fit into the different styles, different countries that we want to play for.
...A drummer from Ghana, they can only play Ghanaian stuff; if they're from Senegal, they can only play Senegalese stuff. But if you get a drummer from the United States, he can play with them all.
Q. Do you get a chance to interact much with African students on this campus?
A. I know a lot of African students. We talk a lot, we talk about the culture, we talk about religion. A lot of Africans are shocked when they hear me sing the African songs, because I sing them in the same dialect they sing them in.... They find it amazing that someone from the United States would sing like that, or know as much about the culture as I know. And in certain aspects, I'll look at that and smile, because that means I was taught right.
Originally published on October 15, 1998