The house at 1920 11th Ave. S. is quite different from other homes in the Phillips neighborhood, and it has nothing to do with the bright turquoise and yellow addition in the front yard. The residence is home to the Umoja Drum and Music Co-op, a place where people come to learn about African music and any co-op member is welcome to live.
The sound of exotic drum beats can be heard coming from the inside of the co-op every Monday night, where about 10 women gather in a circle for their weekly drum and music lesson. The drum patterns the women play are simple, yet they produce a rich, rhythmic melody.
One student is a Japanese Fulbright Scholar. The woman to her left is a Native American activist and breast cancer survivor. Another is a retired woman from the suburbs. Although very different, the women unite and bond every Monday night through the female-only music lessons.
Erin Thomasson, a co-founder of the musical co-op, begins the session with simple beats on the conga drums, slowly working toward more advanced moves. Toward the end, the class switches to a response chant where students add improvised singing to the drums. Thomasson calls on students who then have to sings words to the beat of the drums. One woman sings about how happy she is that it is spring. With wide smiles on their faces, the women joke and laugh while following Thomasson?s lead.
“I can feel the energy moving through me in a positive way,” said Clara Niiska, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota and former editor of the Native American Press.
Painted red and trimmed with yellow and green, the inside of the building is just as colorful as the outside. Members and students are invited to write on the walls; phrases like “drumming is life” line the room.
The co-op acknowledges African-American history with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other important leaders posted on the walls.
In the past, two families and several other co-op members used to live at the home, but now it houses only to Thomasson and her two sons Luke, 8, and Django, 4.
Thomasson is a Caucasian woman with a kind smile and welcoming demeanor. She hardly looks her 41 years of age.
Sitting on an old wooden chair, she recounts the history of the co-op and the uncertainty of its future after the founding member, Malik Del Mar, died in 2001.
After she graduated from Carleton College with a degree in international relations, Thomasson knew she wanted to work in Africa. Through the World Teach program, she was sent to Kenya to teach English and music courses.
“Music is just a big part of the [African] culture,” she said. “The drum itself is seen as the heart beat of people, and it forms the basis of all their music.”
Upon her return to the United States, she joined a drum class on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota campus in 1990 as a way to continue learning about the African tradition. Del Mar was the teacher.
Thomasson began talking with Del Mar, and they decided they wanted to do more with their musical and social beliefs. The Umoja Drum and Music Co-op was born.
“We wanted to learn how to live cooperatively, learn how to have healthy relationships and learn how to know yourself,” she said. “The philosophy was to use music to break down barriers like age, gender, sexual orientation -“
“Don?t forget race,” Luke interjects.
Del Mar began drumming as an African-American youth in San Francisco, where he played on the streets year-round thanks to the good weather. He later moved to Hawaii, a place where he could also perform 365 days a year. He began dating a woman from Minnesota, and the two moved to the Twin Cities.
Street performers, however, were not as well received in Minnesota.
Del Mar was arrested numerous times for playing drums on Nicolet Avenue and in Uptown. Police accused him of panhandling and said he needed a permit to perform in public, Thomasson said. When he went to city hall to purchase a permit, he was told such a permit does not exist.
“They really gave him the runaround,” Thomasson said. “I think racism was involved.”
Del Mar filed a lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis and won. The judge ruled that playing music and putting out a basket for money was not panhandling, an illegal activity.
“He was able to get that legal distinction, which opened the door for other street musicians,” Thomasson said.
Despite the hassle from police and city officials, many people were drawn to Del Mar?s energetic performances.
“He was very dynamic and charismatic,” Thomasson said. “He gave 110 percent all the time. There was no difference between practice and performance for him.”
Del Mar was not just a performer, however. He loved teaching others the art of drumming.
“He was just very generous with his time and spirit,” Thomasson said. “He gave a lot to people in terms of energy and time.”
Del Mar, Thomasson and the other founding members established that anyone was welcome to attend music lessons.
“There?s the idea that only some people are musical,” Thomasson said. “We believe that is false.”
Del Mar taught an average of five drum classes a week. The co-op had at the most four instructors teaching courses and 10 members.
Thomasson and Del Mar pooled their money together in 1993 to buy the house “when real estate was really low.”
“There was not a lot happening here [in the Phillips neighborhood],” Thomasson said. “People didn?t want to live here.”
Thomasson and Del Mar?s children own the home, although only Thomasson and her children currently live there. The co-op made payments on the house (it is now paid off) and still pays for businesses expenses, like the co-op phone line. Thomasson pays the rest of the expenses for the house.
Although it has been five years since Del Mar died of congestive heart disease, he is still sorely missed by co-op members and students.
“When people pass, their spirit remains with you,” Thomasson said. “We know his spirit is still with us.”
More than a decade ago, retiree Susan Jacox met Del Mar when he was drumming on Nicolet Avenue. She stopped to talk to him about the music, found out about the co-op and has been attending drum sessions ever since. Although he is gone, Thomasson has worked hard to continue his message, Jacox said.
“Erin is such a kind heart,” she said. “She carries on brother Malik?s energy.”
The co-op currently has four members: Thomasson, Kay Colgrove, Jit Kundan (who was also an original member) and Spirit. A membership costs $25 a year. A member can pay more, but he or she only gets one vote when it comes to important issues.
“You can buy more shares, but that doesn?t give you more power,” Thomasson said.
According to the Co-op Directory Service, a co-op is defined as “any voluntary organization composed of a group of individuals (or organizations) formed for their mutual (generally, financial) benefit.”
This system eliminates a hierarchal structure, meaning “there?s not one boss; everyone is a boss,” Thomasson said.
The council holds monthly meetings to talk about the current classes and workshops, upcoming events, finances, future goals and other issues. The council also discusses the broader Twin Cities co-op movement. Umoja is part of “Forward Minnesota,” an umbrella organization for co-ops in the state.
Three of the four co-op members teach classes whenever their schedules allow it. Currently, the co-op holds two classes, one geared toward beginning adults and the other for children between the ages of six and 10. Both are taught by Thomasson. In the past session, Spirit also taught a class.
The revenue from the courses is split in three ways. A percentage automatically goes into the general co-op fund, which pays for the music supplies, promotions and other costs. Then the instructor gets a share as does the coordinator, the person who organized the class or workshop. “We?ve always been self-sufficient,” Thomasson said. “The income is not big, but we have been able to consistently be here.”
All members have some sort of part-time or full-time job in addition to their work for the co-op. Thomasson also works as a gardener in the summer.
The co-op mainly relies on word of mouth to spread the news about the courses, but it also sends out fliers and occasionally places ads in community newspapers. It also hosts open houses and participates in the May Day Parade in the Powderhorn neighborhood.
Umoja means unity in the Swahili language, and that?s the exact goal of the music and drum courses.
“The mission of Umoja Drum Circle is to teach, through rhythm, the principles of community, creativity and cooperation,” according to the co-op?s brochures.
The number-one rule in the class is that everyone has to be involved. The co-op supplies the drums, bells, shakers and other percussion instruments. No more than 15 people are in a class.
“Any more is too many,” Thomasson said.
Many of the participants view drumming as much more than just a hobby.
For Jacox, drumming is a spiritual experience.
“This is my church,” she said.
When Niiska was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, she started drum lessons for spiritual therapy.
“I was literally dying of breast cancer,” she said.
Today she is cancer free and continues to attend drum circle sessions regularly. She invited her friend Kimko Akiba, a Japanese Fulbright Scholar at the University of Minnesota, to attend the drum sessions.
“I like the rhythm. It?s like a heart beat,” Akiba said. “Drumming is learning about life.”
The instructors also take the show on the road. Workshops are held at venues like schools and nonprofit organizations. For example, Thomasson recently taught at Project for Pride in Living, a program that helps lower-income people and families working toward self-sufficiency.
Members are not quite sure what the future holds for Umoja.
“There?s not differing views or disagreements,” Thomasson said. “We?re just waiting for the next step. We?re not pushing things, like we have to figure this out. We?ve been around too long to push it. We?re just in a waiting mode.
“We?re really trying to find the best way to grow,” she added. “But right now, we?re just trying to maintain the classes and workshops that we?ve been doing.”
She said the members are trying to decide how to develop the business and create new promotional tools, like a Web site. The co-op will define broader goals for the future of Umoja toward the end of the summer.
No matter what direction the co-op decides to head in, the mission will always be the same: uniting people of all walks of life through music.
“The drums are just so assessable to people of all ages and political backgrounds,” she said. “We believe that music is just inherent to our beings.”
Talk about drumming and community in our “Education forum”:https://www.tcdailyplanet.net/forum/62.