royal hartigan: a drummer’s mission by seth rogovoy (williamstown, mass., feb. 28,1997) — for percussionist royal hartigan, tomorrow night’s concert at the berkshire museum in pittsfield is more than just another night’s work — it’s a full- blooded homecoming for the pittsfield native who grew up just about a mile up the road on north street. the city is full of precious memories for hartigan, who will be bringing his quartet to perform an evening of west african drumming and world music in the second concert of the museum’s winter jazz series featuring artists with local roots — the first was gladys “havana” carbo — tomorrow night at 8.
just north of the traffic circle at park square was the dance studio run by hartigan’s uncle, ray hart. there the young, aspiring musician was first introduced to the music and cultural traditions of african americans that would eventually exert such a strong influence on him that he would write at one point, ‘i no longer felt a part of white society.’
pittsfield is also full of memories of playing in school jazz bands, of teaching music at the christian center, of immersing himself in black culture at the harambee center and of studying drumming with clifford jarvis. it is also a place of natural inspiration, such as that provided by springside park, which hartigan commemorates in one of his compositions, ‘navajo blood/pontoosuc waters/springside lands,’ which he will perform tomorrow night. in fact, he is dedicating the concert to the friends of springside park, a group which helps maintain the park and to which he belongs. hartigan now lives in california, where he teaches at san jose state university. the alumnus of north junior high school – now reid middle school – and pittsfield high says he misses the change of seasons. ‘people say, wow, california, this warm paradise with palm trees where it’s always sunny. quite frankly, i miss the snow and the seasons, because they give you a kind of external-internal clock that you can set your life by,’ said hartigan in a recent phone interview.
the road from north street in pittsfield to jazz drumming and composing and back to the berkshire museum for tomorrow night’s show was a roundabout one that literally took hartigan all around the world. after graduating from pittsfield high, he went to st. michael’s college in vermont, with the intention of becoming a priest.
from there he wound up instead entering the peace corps and spending two years in the philippines. ‘at that point i became very struck and overwhelmed by the poverty of the third world. yet despite that material poverty there was the spiritual power of the culture,’ he said. this was to be a theme that would repeat itself in years to come, most notably in his time spent in west africa.
‘i began to realize that there were these other cultures and that they had a very powerful spiritual base and that the music of each culture expressed that way of life and spiritual foundation,’ said hartigan. ‘i found that despite their material poverty –literally eking out a living from dawn to dusk with their hands and earth – somehow in that process there’s something that happens that unites people to each other in a communal way, and they become connected not to just each other but to themselves and to their environment and to the creator.’
time and again, said hartigan, he found it was music that was the currency that provided this spiritual connection to each other and to a greater power. ‘the most powerful expression of that reality is through their art, their music and dance and singing. that was true in the philippines and in west africa, and from other research i’ve done that’s true throughout really all the world, and not just the third world.’
this, says hartigan, is where his life’s work begins. ‘i’ve devoted my life to some extent to trying first to understand and live with the people in the culture and to try to play the music of their culture with integrity and bring it back here and share it with people,’ he said. ‘i always perform with a west african master drummer, because i don’t feel like i can represent the culture. i want to share it with people through performance, teaching and whatever writing i do. and whatever income i receive from some of those endeavors i share it with the master artist or with the people. i bring it back to the villages i go to. i try to help with clothing and education or medicine. in other words, i try not to just go to a culture as the colonialists did and extract things, but i try to give back something. so when i go to africa every summer i teach as well, because i think the best thing you can give people are not the material things, even though they have these glaring material needs. it’s always a very lopsided transaction, however. they give me and teach me infinitely more than i can give them, and i feel very humbled every time i go and return.’
accompanying hartigan at his berkshire museum performance will be richard harper, david bindman and wes brown. pianist harper has performed with frank foster, sam rivers, lena horne and smokey robinson, and has toured extensively overseas. saxophonist bindman formerly taught at bennington (vt.) college, and has performed with such musicians as anthony braxton, fred ho, talking drums and bill dixon. wes brown has performed and recorded with bill barron, anthony braxton, marion brown, anthony davis and earl “fatha” hines. brown and bindman also appear on hartigan’s recording, blood drum spirit.