Bird Fleming: The joy and power of drumming

Bird Fleming, musician and artistic director, Traditional Music Society (photo by Mike Strong)

Through his Traditional Music Society, the Kansas City Musician shares his love and knowledge of the instrument to build pride and self-esteem

“Even before civilizations were created and established, our ancestors have been using percussion instruments, as archaeologists have discovered.”


Bird Fleming has a message, which he expounds as a musician and as founder and artistic director of the Traditional Music Society: Drumming represents civilization itself.

Says Fleming, “We might want to add one more R to the old three Rs of education. It should now be reading, riting, rithmetic and rhythm.”

From as far back as 5,500 BC, drums have been central in spiritual ceremonies, to communicate, to entertain, honor, mourn and bring together. They’ve been used in war and in celebrations.

“In northern Ghana, with the Dagomba people, their drum, called the lunna, keeps their history because it duplicates their speech,” Fleming notes, “so all the lineage of their chiefs, family members and major events from A.D. 1200 to the present, is recorded on the drum. They have no written language . . . so they go to the drummers for their history.”

Fleming is an ambassador; World Music is his platform. He holds degrees in political science, interdisciplinary and African American studies. He performs with Soundz of Africa. He has taught at Longview Community College, has been a guest lecturer at UMKC and has served as ethnic music advisor to the Kansas City School District. Under his direction, the Traditional Music Society won the 2011 Lighton Prize for Teaching Artist Excellence.

TMS Drum/Dance concerts over the years have highlighted the various cultures the organization champions: Senegal and Mali in “Soundz of Africa,” Brazil in “Soundz of Samba,” Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad in “Manos de Mañana” and Latin America in “Trio Tropical.” Previous shows often featured guest artists, including Bryan Alford on the steel drums. This September’s World Music and Dance Showcase, an annual event since 2009, will feature Soundz of Africa, Kansas City’s first West African drum group, and special guest Gerald Trimble on the viola da gamba along with his group Jambaroque.

TMS calculates that pre-pandemic, it reached an annual audience of 14,000 through teaching, performances, workshops and other presentations at community centers, schools, detention centers, youth rehab facilities, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, universities, concert venues, churches, museums, arts organizations, health facilities and charitable institutions.

Fleming is its heart and soul, but he is ably supported by a small but weighty and talented group. Music directors include local percussionist/composer Pat Conway, Cuban musician/writer/photographer Pablo Larosa and saxophonist/producer/percussionist Xavier Fleming, Bird’s son. Acclaimed dancer Ima Terri Brown, with extensive performance and education experience, operates as dance director.

Soundz of Africa in performance (photo by mike strong)

The Lure of the Drum

For Fleming, it all began in a Washington, D.C. band class in fifth grade.

Unable to afford a full set of conventional drums, he started with the bongos. He thrilled to hearing Stevie Wonder play them on a recording called “Fingertips.” The congas were next, and increasingly he made excursions into the city’s Hispanic district to ingest Cuban, Puerto Rican and Haitian styles and elements. Before long he had embraced a range of African, South American and Caribbean techniques and instruments. Then, he left for California, the mecca for world drumming artists at the time.

In San Francisco he studied West African, Afro Cuban and Afro Haitian drums and their respective techniques, becoming a master at various instruments such as the congas, bongos, guiro, maracas, shekeres, and then the jembe and dunun drums. Concurrently he learned the language of these drums, based on the multiplicity of intonations that can be produced and then subsequently arranged in countless polyrhythmic phrases and patterns. He trained with international drum virtuosos from Cuba, Haiti, Senegal, Ghana and Brazil. He performed with The Temptations, Gil Scott-Heron, Larry Harlow, Babatunde Olatunji and others and recorded with many more.

When he moved to Kansas City in 1981 to be near his daughter, Fleming had formed a mission — to illuminate the singular role the drum has played in human development in all cultures, to instill in others his deep love and appreciation for it and to teach the community to drum, especially the inner-city youth — to engender in them a sense of pride and empowerment.

Through the Traditional Music Society, he has steadily realized this mission. Learning to drum improves fine motor skills, fosters better listening and encourages teamwork and collaboration. The accompanying dance instruction promotes “posture, body awareness, balance and coordination” with the happy result of creative self-expression and de-stressing.

“Using these cultural art forms, we are able to improve self-esteem, interpersonal skills, critical thinking, cognitive skills, as well as addressing risky behavior in underserved children and young adults from the urban core of Kansas City,” Fleming says.

It was a source of great pride when one of his African Music and Dance youth groups from St. Victoria Operation Breakthrough Child Development Center performed at a Chiefs halftime.

Students in Fleming’s classes range from first grade to college age. There are classes for adults and teachers, as well. “Music is too precious to leave it just for the professionals . . . everybody should play music,” he says.

The Traditional Music Society presents the 2022 World Music and Dance Showcase, featuring Soundz of Africa and special guest Gerald Trimble with Jambaroque, from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 24 at St. Mark’s Hope and Peace Church, 3800 Troost Ave. Admission is free. For more information, www.traditionalmusicsociety.org.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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