2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts: Ed White

Meeting River City Drum Corps Founder Ed White, of Louisville, was one of the best experiences I had while interviewing the 2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts recipients. I was energized for weeks after my conversation with Ed and kept referring back to my interview with him to reread some of the wisdom he shared with me.

Ed grew up in Louisville’s west end. As a child he was drawn to the arts but did not have ample opportunity for participation. Due to his involvement with a local Boys Club, he was naturally exposed to sports and played for years, even though his heart wasn’t in it. Ed eventually ended up being a director at a Boys Club and found it was still a sports-focused atmosphere. He decided it was time to incorporate the arts into the system, making art available at the same level as sports. During the next few years, with opportunities to learn through programs like Arts Reach Kentucky, Ed developed the tools he needed to start the River City Drum Corps.

I talked to Ed for more than two hours the day we met. I think if he hadn’t had other things to do, I’d still be there talking with him. What you will read in this interview about the drum corp barely makes a dent in Ed’s personal story and experiences. It is without pretense I say: Ed White, the 2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts Folk Heritage Award recipient, makes me proud to be a Kentuckian.

What is the process like when kids sign up for the River City Drum Corps? What do they learn?

The first thing they learn is discipline. The first thing I have to do is get them to be able to stand still before I can teach them anything. After they get over that learning curve, we deal in drum making. Usually you have to be in drum corps a year before you get to make your drum. Then we start talking about African history and culture. We have a culture class every other Saturday, which is mandatory for them to come and to learn history, to learn culture, to learn games to let them understand the value of the team concept. It’s not a team concept where we have super stars, where everybody doesn’t get to play. It’s a concept where everybody is a part of the process and you rise through grasping the process. Our method is, we use the students as teachers. So we’re constantly teaching, I call it teaching down. As you teach down, the children grow up. And as they grow up, they’re continually teaching down. So the process keeps continually revolving around the idea, so that each child has ownership. It’s leadership development. It’s a leadership development program using arts and culture. They become the show managers, they become the booking agents – it’s the process of teaching them how the drum corps works. Basically, all I do now is just drive them – some shows I don’t even go in the building – so that they understand and they grasp the concept of the energy and power they have within themselves.

Why is it important to make your own drums instead of purchase drums?

It connects you to the culture. The drum in Africa is the foundation of culture. Celebrations, births, deaths, weddings, war, planting, harvest season. The drum is the foundation of life, ceremonies and culture. When I was in Ghana, I went to Tamale to meet with this group called the Tamale Youth Group. They do the same thing I do with the drums. They use it to teach children as a foundation, so their culture doesn’t get lost because of the influences of Western society. So they teach children to make drums, but also they teach them the purpose of the drum – they teach them to make fabric, to tie-dye – the whole thing about their culture, with the drum as the foundation of it. When you make things you tap into the creative spirit. So when a child takes raw materials and fashions this drum, then their spirit is connected to it. Again, that’s the power of art. The power of art is the connection of your spirit to whatever image you create. That’s what that’s about; that’s the reasoning, why. Once they do it, ownership is created.

Tell me a little about the kids who are in the drum corps.

I have children from all over the city, from all socioeconomic backgrounds. You know you hear people say ‘at-risk.’ But everybody’s at-risk, because all of us are one or two paychecks away from being out on the street. The gamut runs large and very diverse on the backgrounds of children that I get. Everybody’s looking for something and this is something that they find.

Because they are able to participate in the River City Drum Corps, what opportunities are available to them that weren’t available to you? You talked earlier about how the emphasis was on sports, but your heart was in the arts. Was it important to you to create those opportunities you didn’t have?

Yes. See, I couldn’t afford drumming. That was something I knew I couldn’t do, but it was easy for sports. Buying instruments was something that would not happen. But my mother could take her children to the Boys Club and everybody would get something.

There are so many things we do that get our children out of our community, so they see different things, they see different people. They understand it’s a different world out here.

Can you reflect on how the River City Drum Corps has been important to you personally? What personal achievements have you experienced?

When children that the world said “they can’t make it,” make it.

I look at my children who are first-generation college graduates. I look at them who have gone to school for free. I look at a young man who was from a family of superstar athletes. I see families who understand the power of education and drive their children to succeed, to grab it.

I’m glad that I met Bob Gates (former state folklorist). Bob Gates was one of the few people that I know who understands the power of culture. And he understands it. If we could get more people to understand the power of culture we could solve a whole lot of problems.

This work for me is my purpose. I’ve done a whole lot of things. I was a welder. I rebuilt cars. I worked in the atomic energy plant reprocessing uranium to build bombs. I’ve done several other little loose jobs. All of the rest of them, with the exception of maybe photography, was without purpose. This is my purpose.

Emily B. Moses, communications director

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