as baby dodds said, ‘drumming is spirit.’ i work to give my blood through the drum to share that spirit.
On a journey that has taken him from tap dancing, piano recitals, and drum corps parades growing up in western Massachusetts to jazz performances in New York, across the U.S., and eventually to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Caribbean, royal hartigan has made a life’s embrace of the sounds and meaning of the music of the world’s peoples.
Hearing his uncle Ray Hart and mother Hazel Gay-Hartigan tap dancing with jazz accompaniment, royal began tapping at 3 years of age and sensed the world through the sound of taps on wood floors and mats. At age 8 he started playing piano and drums, joining a drum corps at age 11, followed by playing drumset. Since those early years drumming, dance, and piano have been a way to understand and express life and things beyond music.
After graduating cum laude from St. Michael’s College (VT) in Philosophy, royal served two years in the U.S. Peace Corps in the Philippines, where he experienced firsthand the strength and connectedness – to the earth, to the community, to values that are antithetical to western materialism – of indigenous culture and the global cost of ‘first-world’ neocolonial domination and exploitation of people and the earth.
Returning to the U.S., he studied at UMass Amherst, learning from and playing in ensembles with Frederick Tillis, Max Roach, Horace Clarence Boyer, Reggie Workman, and Archie Shepp, opening him to the heritage of African American history and music, from African origins through plantation music, hollers, the blues, gospel, ragtime, jazz, and many other styles. His immersion in world music performance and learning at Wesleyan University (CT) led to MA and PhD degrees, studying with Edward Blackwell, William Barron, Bill Lowe, and master artists from West Africa, Indonesia, India, China, and Native America.
Since 1991, royal’s playing and research have expanded on numerous trips to Ghana, the Philippines, China, Japan, Korea, and other countries, and across the United States, assisted by many awards for global performance, research, and teaching. These include a Korean Foundation Fellowship (2001), a New School University (NY) Dean’s Resident Master Artist Award (2005-06), a J. William Fulbright Lecture/Research Award for the Philippines (2006) and Ghana, West Africa (2014-15), an Asian Cultural Council Research Grant for the Philippines (2009), Healey and Whiting Awards to the Philippines (2010), and his current status as a J. William Fulbright Senior Scholar.
Over this same time period royal formed blood drum spirit, a revolutionary ensemble whose repertoire includes original compositions by its members and unique arrangements of works by Ellington, Parker, Monk, Coltrane, Debussy, and other contributors to the vast spectrum from jazz and contemporary music. Their music incorporates indigenous elements from West Africa, South India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Turkey, and Native America, as well as African American clapping plays, camp meeting shouts, and New Orleans rhythms.
He has produced an award-winning film, We Are One, directed by Sara Pettinella, from his blood drum spirit 2015 and 2017 tours of Ghana, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Its theme is the historical, musical, and personal connections between African music and jazz, and by extension, the world’s peoples.
royal has brought new personal concepts to drumset and jazz ensemble, including time cycles, West African rhythms and structures, coordinated independence, layers of time, timbral shading, and tonal motion, among others. His playing style and approach to improvisation, compositions and arrangements, and collaborations with global artists have broken new ground in African American jazz, world music extensions, and experimental music.
In addition to his blood drum spirit ensemble, royal has performed in the U.S. or internationally with Kwadzo Donkor, Kobena Adzenyah, Kwabena Boateng, Sulley Imoro, Tijan Dorwana, Isaac Birituro, Kwaku Agbeli, Eric Owusu, Kofi Boame, Ernest Domfeh, Atta Poku, C. K. Ladzekpo, Kofi Ladzekpo, Chung-Ho Chang, I. M. Harjito, Danongan Kalanduyan, Sasa Cabalquinto, Grace Nono, Fred Ho, Bill Barron, Kenny Barron, Bill Lowe, Mixashawn Rozie, Honi Coles, Hafez Modirzadeh, Sheila Jordan, Bobby Zankel, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jon Jang, Avery Sharpe, Hitomi Tono’ka, Frank Wilkins, Red Holloway, Nana Simopoulos, Feya Faku, Stella Ignacio, and many others. His recordings as a leader include the double CDs blood drum spirit (2003, Innova) with a Quick Time video, eve; ancestors, with numerous world master artists, (2008, Innova); blood drum spirit: the royal hartigan ensemble live in china, (2008, Innova); and time changes (2019).
His recordings with other ensembles, also listed in his vita and the music/recordings page, include collaborations with electronic music composer Michael William Gilbert, the African Jazz ensemble Talking Drums, Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian Music Ensemble, Journey to the West Orchestra, Monkey Orchestra, and Green Monster Big Band, the Happy Feet Orchestra, the Tyrone Henderson-David Bindman Project, Hafez Modirzadeh’s Paradox ensemble, the Hitomi Tono’ka ensemble, Poet Nathaniel Mackey, Danongan Kalanduyan’s Kul-X ensemble, Jon Jang, Michael Heffley, the soundSFound Orchestra, Global Phatness, Paul Austerlitz’ Afro-Universal Jazz Merengue ensemble, the David Bindman Sextet, and the Nana Simopoulos’ ensemble.
In workshops and residencies royal fosters personal and musical growth for students, faculty, and people from different communities interested in sound, culture, and connections across artistic genres through classes, discussions, workshops, lecture/demonstrations, audio/video analysis, lessons, and concerts. He has taught, presented workshops, or conducted residencies at numerous institutions across the globe, including Wesleyan University (CT), Berklee College (MA), the New School University (NY), UMass, San Jose State and San Francisco State (CA), University of California Berkeley, California Jazz Conservatory, Marshall University (TN), Saint Michael’s College (VT); in the Philippines at the University of Santo Tomas, Far Eastern University, Ateneo University, Cultural Centre of the Philippines, and University of the Philippines; Midischool (Beijing, China), Jazz at Toulon (France), SALT Youth Camp (Trinidad), Japan Percussion Association/Yamaha Music Conference Center (Nagoya, Japan); the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and Cape Coast University (Ghana), and the University of Ghana, among many others.
His publications include Blood Drum Spirit: Drum Languages of West Africa, African America, Native America, Central Java, and South India, a 1700-page analysis of world drumming traditions (Percussive Arts Society online archives); articles in Percussive Notes, World of Music, Annual Review of Jazz Studies, Music in China, and The African American Review; a book with CD, West African Rhythms for Drumset (Manhattan Music/Warner Brothers/Alfred 1995, 2004), named one of the top 25 percussion books in percussion publication history by Modern Drummer Magazine (December 2011), and two other books with DVD, Dancing on the Time and West African Eʋe Rhythms for Drumset (TapSpace 2006 and 2009). He is completing a new book with DVD on African philosophy and music and Jazz (2020) and has given lectures and clinics on world music and Jazz in Ghana, China, the Philippines, Japan, Europe, the Caribbean, and across North America.
The meaning of royal’s work is to experience the essence of each culture through its drumming tradition, to play each with integrity, and to connect those realities with the African American jazz drumset and ensemble tradition. He works for universal consciousness and change through sounds that reach beyond the veil of time, space, and thought to express life in another dimension, one that connects us all to ourselves, each other, the natural environment, ancestors, a spirit world, and the creator.