|Cornell Coley performs tonight at Café Tatant in Roxbury. (Photo courtesy of David M. Tunick)
Cornell Coley and his Afro-Latin ensemble Sugarfoot are performing tonight at Café Tatant in Roxbury. The drummer, singer and arts educator has always felt the pull of the drums and has dedicated his life’s work to them.
He was born in Kingston, Jamaica to Cuban and Jamaican parents. His family immigrated to Boston when he was 4 years old and by the age of 9, Coley was mastering the drums. His love affair with dance however, didn’t happen until he traveled to Ghana as an undergraduate student at Tufts University.
“I was drawn to it,” he explained. “I loved the music. It was my first time visiting and I picked it up right away.”
After finishing his bachelor’s degree in English at Tufts, Coley headed to California to study cultural anthropology. He later earned a master’s in education from Cambridge College and has conducted rhythm workshops in different libraries throughout the state for the last 30 years.
In addition to teaching, he wrote the first draft of the arts curriculum framework for the Massachusetts Department of Education in 1994 and uses his talents for art therapy. Coley works as a music art therapist on a contractual basis with The Healing Arts Alternative: Pathways to Health organization. He’s also conducted successful residencies in the Vermont Veteran’s Home and Tewksbury and Butler Hospitals. He works with patients suffering from a number of ailments from Alzheimer’s to depression to cancer.
“I’ve always known what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to be involved in arts administration and the arts. I just loved being in the community and being with all kinds of people. Sick people, kids and professionals. Some people can’t handle all of those personalities.”
Coley — whose motto is “Have Drums, Will Travel” — plays the drum kit, timbales, congas, bongos, talking drum, berimbau, Brazilian carnival drums and other percussion. He has performed at festivals all over the world, including tours with the “Ulcantino” band in Mexico and with the “Boytiak” group in Indonesia.
He specializes in Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, Congolese, Ghanaian and rhythm tap and salsa dances.
He has studied with master drum circle facilitator Arthur Hull and with many masters in African Diaspora drum and dance, including CK Ladzekpo (Ghana), Malonga Casque Lourdes (Congo), Conjunto Folklorico (Cuba), Diane Walker (tap), Jose Lorenzo (Afro-Brazilian) and Deraldo Ferreira (Capoeira), traveling several times to their places of origin according to his biography.
“There are all levels of talent in a drum circle,” he said. “The music performed is somewhere between practiced and improvisation. The music isn’t culturally specific. There’s a small group or sometimes one person who brings the music out or starts it.”
He said he was excited about his upcoming performance at Café Tatant where he and six other musicians — one of them a female percussionist — will do a set of Latin jazz and some jazz standards.
“There will be some work by Tito Puentes, Charlie Parker and more,” said Coley.
Tickets are available at the door. Dinner starts at 6 p.m. The show starts at 8 p.m. Single ticket: $12; meal and show combo: $28; combo for two: $54.