The familiar rumble of a group of amateur drummers spills through an open doorway of a small classroom in Kearny Mesa.
Inside, Sundiata Kata surveys his students as they strike rhythms together on African drums. Dressed in a white shirt and black pants, his silver bracelets jingling, Kata peppers their beats with songs and yelps. He syncopates their unison sound with off-beats and counter-rhythms, presiding over the room perhaps a bit like the Malian king whose name he bears.
Some of the students in the circle carry dark stories of abuse and trauma; some have struggled to fit in typical behavioral molds; some have trouble with paying attention or learning styles. In this drum circle, a Monday morning class for teenagers, some hit the drums hard, shaking out red, tingly hands after playing for five minutes. Others are sullen, barely brushing their palms on the drumheads.
But when Kata suggests the class introduce themselves to a visitor, they all must participate, hitting the drum with each syllable: “My-name-is-Tat-i-an-a,” one girl speaks tentatively. The crowd joins in: “Tat-i-an-a.” Each member of the circle says his or her name like this. Then another teacher, Dave Hall, launches the group into a groove called “Walk the Fat Dog.” A few pairs of arms that had been folded before the name game appear to wake up and join in.
This is a trick Kata started using as a social worker here at the San Diego Center for Children in October 1969, before music was credited with being able to draw kids out of the deserts they hide in within themselves, before this kind of therapy was anything but an aside to a meat-and-potatoes world of social work. Kata was a trained musician and had toured with a professional music company, and brought a couple of drums to work to stave off boredom for himself more than anything else. When Kata let the kids play, he soon noticed they would tell him things they would have never volunteered without the beat.
“First comes the beat, then come the words,” he says.
Such could be said of Kata’s career. It wasn’t until about the last decade that he started hearing more education experts and doctors diagnose with research and study what he’d already seen to be true: that if you connect people to rhythm and music, if you teach them outlets like drama and dance, they will start to heal. He’s been here long enough to see kids come back as adults. For some of them, seeing him jogs their memories and they tap out a quick rhythm he taught them decades earlier. They’ve learned a vital skill: calm down, center yourself, approach what you’re doing more clearly.
He’s also been here long enough to know that he can’t heal everybody, that it has to be enough just to drop a seed or two in the dirt and hope that it sprouts sometime later. Several times he contemplated leaving to hit the road for music. Once he thought he’d leave, bizarrely, to sell rodent-deterrent devices in Nigeria.
But he stayed, for 40 years. Who knows how many trajectories for young San Diego lives have been nudged — at the least — by Kata’s work? He doesn’t seem to think of the total.
“I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he says. “Some people struggle their whole lives to sort that out.”
Students come here through the county, the school district or their own private insurance. They’ve been sent to adopt new ways of dealing with their anger, emotions and suffering. Some live here at the center; some attend just day school. Kata sees them all, more than 100 students a week. He teaches drum circles and pulls kids into a choir. He gives lessons about jazz and rock, and teaches students to lament what they’ve seen in their lives through an apt musical form: the blues.
On a Thursday lunch hour, one such blues jam erupts in the music room. It evolves into a sing-along, as a tall girl in her early teens belts “Come Together” from the stage, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Once, a girl sang a song about her mama and her daddy gone away. She was singing the truth.
In his office after class, Kata leans back in a chair surrounded by paintings and pictures of kids and instruments. There’s an almost regal tone in his voice, the pride of a papa, as he trots out memories like snapshots in an album. When he struggles to think of a detail or a name, he beats his hands on his lap like a drum.
Kata is 63 and stout with strong hands and expressive eyes. He is at once the picture of a seasoned jazz cat and the paternal cheerleader, raving about his teenage son’s sports and music ability.
He drops in story after story of kids he’s known over the years — reduced now to the one time the redhead with freckles volunteered the use of a piano, or the day when a young girl with a balloon painted on her cheek sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for the center’s directors in the parking lot.
Now, Kata has been vindicated. He’s worked his way up at the San Diego Center for Children — one tear-jerking kids’ choir concert in the parking lot at a time — to music director of a robust program. The center has plans to build the Sundiata Kata Performing Music Center. The mayor of San Diego proclaimed June 18 “Sundiata Kata Day.” He takes his program to kids being treated in the hospital, to hospices, to places where young kids are being screened for autism.
When Kata was 3 years old, his mom became paralyzed from the waist down when a gun his stepdad was playing with accidentally fired. “Mom never once said, ‘I can’t,’” Kata says.
He turned down a chance to head up to “some music festival” — Woodstock, he’d later learn — to come to San Diego to finish school. His buddies from back home in Ohio played with the Temptations and the Supremes, with Curtis Mayfield. His cousin is Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Kata, though, is one of the few still playing. “I decided to use what I know,” he says.
For all of its steadiness and longevity, the story of Kata’s career is far from one of complacence. He kept playing music on the side, kept pulling prints as a lithographer, opened his own gallery in La Jolla. He reconnected with an older half-brother who’s an illustrator and the two are working on children’s books about magical, healing drums. He struck up a friendship with his old, tough neighbor from the Scottish highlands who once called him during a party he was throwing and cursed at him. When he went over to apologize, the two became fast friends; she ordained him into her Scottish clan. He played “Amazing Grace” on the bamboo flute for her memorial service.
Near the end of the lunchtime jam, a 12-year-old girl hops on stage, pulling her long brown hair behind her ears and tugging at her denim skirt nervously. Kata plays the introduction and she begins to sing for a classroom full of people: “Lean on me, when you’re not strong.” Her audience, full though it is of kids whose eyes have surely seen more pain than their years’ worth, begin to bob their heads and sing along.
She closes her eyes. “For it won’t be long until I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”
Kata plays the last chords from the piano and the audience cheers.
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