Planting drums, Former Third World percussionist finds joy in teaching

Gordon Williams, Sunday Gleaner Writer

PEMBROKE PINES, Florida, USA:

It's hard for Willie Stewart to keep still. Not while he's talking about his greatest thrill.

So he twists and turns in his seat at a café near his home here, gesticulating arms and wide, gap-toothed smile driving home not just the point, but the passion embedded deeply in it.

It's not past tales of his world travels, 13 albums he helped make, multiple Grammy nominations nor the celebrities he met during 22 years as the drummer for Third World band, one of Jamaica's greatest artistic exports, that gets Stewart pumped up. But rather, the present and future encompass his dream to bring music to people - especially children - to teach them how to play, then watch them grasp the art and bloom.

"The difference between a musician, in Third World, is I'm entertaining people," he explains. "It's about me going with the group and that's exciting.

"Being a facilitator, I must bring the best out of you. It's not about me and what I can play. It's about using the programme to make the people feel like they achieved something - to be inspired, to be motivated."

Today, Stewart is on a mission to mould minds. His formal music training was done in England, where he learned the nuts and bolts and, most importantly, how to pass on the knowledge. That broadened Stewart's base beyond pure instinct gifted a young boy banging on anything that made a sound, and later helped him keep the beat for Third World's exploits.

"It's very structured," says Stewart of the lessons acquired after he - tired of the unsettled life of touring - left Third World in 1997. "I have a way."

That "way" doesn't obstruct creativity that brings the most joy. The transformation of his students is carefully planned. It can even be predicted. But it still surprises. And, before they even realise, the art is planted inside them.

"Bangs become beats. Beats become music," Stewart says. "So they are shocked."

Through his company, Solutions in Music, Stewart organises workshops for companies in the United States - American Express, Johnson and Johnson, and Western Union among them - where he fosters team building and stress relief by teaching drums/percussion.

Life-path

He also instructs children at his home, schools and local organisations - like the Young Men's Christian Association and parks and recreation departments in South Florida. His aim is to move them from total novices, who could care less for the subtleties of a Nigerian 'talking drum' or a Brazilian Tan Tan, to a place where their attachment to music may actually clear a life-path for them.

"I'm going to do 13 to 17 (year olds,)" says Stewart of a current project. "That's right on the cusp where you can influence them. But those who are going to go out and maybe commit, or do certain things, you can change them around."

Stewart has received a grant from the prestigious Knight Foundation to put on a show, called 'Rhythms of Africa', which traces the roots of the drums from the Mother Continent through South America, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

"It's the journey of our ancestors," Stewart explains.

It will culminate at the Parker Playhouse in Broward County, Florida in mid-October. Stewart is teaching children percussion. They will then be incorporated with professional musicians to form a grand orchestra of sorts.

After doing a similar show last February in Miramar, a Broward community with a significant Jamaican population, he is confident he can pull this one off too.

"This programme that I've done is so proven," Stewart says.

So too, Stewart argues, is his past work. He offers video testimony from his students and the companies he has worked for. The common thread is his enthusiasm for music that becomes infectious.

"He's passionate," says Joshua, a student. "I mean, he loves the drums and you can tell. And that's what differs him from almost any other teacher I've ever been with."

Born in England, Stewart and his family moved to Jamaica at the urging of his half-brother, Byron Lee. He attended Providence School, then briefly Meadowbrook High, before moving to Wolmer's Boys' School. There, Stewart formed his own band - Visions. It was the late 1960s. He was "13 or 14," he says.

Stewart left Visions and, by the early 1970s, was playing with Inner Circle. During a chance encounter with Third World's bassist, Richie Daley, Stewart learned Third World needed a drummer. His first gig with the 'Reggae Ambassadors' was New Year's Eve 1975 at the Playboy club in Boscobel.

Stewart has many fond memories being with Third World - Daley, Stephen 'Cat' Coore, Irvin 'Carrot' Jarrett, William 'Bunny Rugs' Clarke, and Michael 'Ibo' Cooper, who now teaches at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. He calls them "family". The band shared creativity, business and brotherhood, he says, but Stewart always wanted to "give something back." He just wasn't sure how.

"I just figured that it was time," Stewart says of his eventual departure. "The music is beautiful, whatever, but I had a calling that I figured that I needed to work with kids."

He was also getting the urge to settle down. Stewart, has six children with Carol, his wife of more than 30 years.

"My goals, at that time, was to really be home with children in that way," he says. "Because touring is great. Touring with music and going all over the world is fine. But after a while you realise that you have to kinda plant somewhere."

Stewart says playing with Third World never made him rich. Creating music and performing with the group carried greater reward.

"I lived reasonably, I think," he explains. "I think the whole thing was about music, more than about making money. If (money) came it would be good, but the real concept was in music."

The plan to move on, however, wasn't quite formed. Not yet.

"I didn't know what I was going to do at that time," Stewarts says of leaving Third World.

Formal lessons

But while with Third World, Stewart had started taking formal lessons, studying music. After leaving the group, he went to England and got accepted at Access to Music, which trains facilitators.

"It's like beginning again and teaching and learning," he says of the programme. "And I was very successful at it."

Long before that, even as Third World was rising into its prime, Stewart says the future confronted him. In the early 1980s, he sought technical advice from American drummer Billy Moore, who jammed with greats like Duke Ellington. He received some life lessons as well.

"He (Moore) said, 'It is great now, what happens if the band stops? What happens to you if you broke your hand? What happens if there is no more band, what are you gonna do?'" Stewart recalls. "For you to teach you have to have some kind of music ability."

"And that's where the ideas of me starting to say, well, I need to pass on what I know, how do you do it. So that vision started, and he (Moore) was perfectly right."

Suddenly, touring the world, making music with Stevie Wonder and Eddy Grant, and sharing a stage with Bob Marley, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, was no longer the major priority.

Stewart eventually moved to South Florida, set up his studio and Solutions in Music and launched his dream. He recently returned to Jamaica to do a workshop with Ibo Cooper, who he hopes will join him for 'Rhythms of Africa'.

It appears Stewart has cleared a path on his own musical journey. And, even after nearly half century playing music, he's itching to begin.

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