Drums 101: A Conversation with King Toto
“It’s an inborn thing. I was drumming since I was in my mother’s belly.”
Mr. Lebert Toya Alexander Gordon (now known as King Toto) chuckles when I ask him about how his love of drumming developed. He is sitting in the Rastafari Indigenous Village, surrounded by a number of drums – hollowed out, but not yet complete. A small grey kitten plays hide and seek among the cut logs from which he creates the drums.
Born in the eastern parish of St. Thomas, King Toto grew up in the Kumina tradition – an expression of West African religious beliefs in dance, singing and drumming. Kumina drumming, King Toto explains, is somewhat faster than that of Rastafarians, played with the hands and feet. Rastafarians place the drum directly in front of them to play, and the rhythm is slower. When King Toto arrived at the Village some years ago, the residents only played in this traditional Nyabinghi style. King Toto introduced a little extra something, and he now calls his group’s style as “nya-kum” (his word) – a mixture of styles. He loves to play in a group of up to ten, which will include others playing maraccas made from the calabash tree, a grater with its scraping sound, and rhythm sticks knocked together as percussion.
So how does he make his drums? King Toto reminds me that these are kete drums, which originated with the Akan people of southern Ghana. Firstly, he gathers wood from the macka tree – a tree covered in thorns that has no use. He hollows out the drum using a chisel, hitting it hard with a battered piece of mahogany wood. He tells me that he can work on a drum for hours without stopping. “Your brain has to be 100 percent focused,” he adds, “or you will damage your fingers.” King Toto holds up his fingers. “They’re not straight anymore!” he laughs.
He obtains goat skins from the local butcher. He is a vegetarian. “I don’t eat the goat,” he smiles, “but he lives on in the drum!” Every goat skin, he notes, “gives you a different sound.” He then dries the skin, scrapes off the hair and stretches it over the hollow drum. He wraps wire around the edge, then folds colored cloth in the red, gold and green colors of Rastafari over it for decoration. From there, he “strings” the drum, looping the string round to hold the skin tight. “You can’t make any mistake!” King Toto says.
If you visit Rastafari Indigenous Village (near Montego Bay), you can join in the making of King Toto’s drums, helping wrap the rims, stringing the drums and trying your hand at chiseling (which is indeed hard work!) “There are no shortcuts!” King Toto comments.
“People ask me where I get the energy,” says King Toto. “But I enjoy what I do. I do it for love and passion. It comes naturally to me.”
When I feel good, I just keep going.”
He adds thoughtfully: “And a little piece of me is inside each drum.”
(Photo: King Toto demonstrates drum making. By Emma Lewis)