Robert Kenyatta

Written By: Stomp

Robert Kenyatta started out by playing on his mother’s oatmeal boxes and then graduated to pots and pans. Even then he noticed that each pot had its own sound, its own voice. Mr. Kenyatta bought his first “real” drum at age 12 with money he earned taking used bottles to the store. He continued to learn by listening to Latino and jazz stations on the radio and sitting in with different bands. For about six years, he worked with dancer Arthur Hall. At one point, Mr. Kenyatta put down the drum and played the pennywhistle, eventually receiving a grant from Model Cities to study the flute, harmony, and theory at the Philadelphia Music Academy. He also became a studio musician, working with musicians Wilson Pickett, the Intruders, the Stylistics, and the O’Jays. Later, Ti Ro Ro, a Haitian drummer, sparked Mr. Kenyatta’s interest in Haitian drum.

Mr. Kenyatta has been drumming and studying the percussion traditions of the African Diaspora for close to 57 years. He performed at the Festival of American Folklife and in the Montrose Pop Festival in Switzerland, traveled with Wilson Pickett to Rio de Janeiro, London, and Germany, toured with the Beach Boys, performed with Sonny Rollins in Japan, and played on the Black Star ship out of Ghana, West Africa, and numerous venues across the United States.

For the last 12 years, Mr. Kenyatta has been a drummer for Le Peristyle Haitian Sanctuary in Philadelphia. There, he is the “kale papa,” or house papa, who takes care of any problems that come up. Drumming is central to all ceremonies in Haitian traditions and Mr. Kenyatta is responsible for the drums and all of the music that is part of ceremonial and spiritual practice at Le Peristyle. He drums for service every Sunday and for special services that can last all weekend. The music is an intersection of Hispanic, African, and African American cultures. The church, located in the Olney section of Philadelphia, draws its congregation from Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Haiti. Mr. Kenyatta has participated in PFP’s arts in education programs and in “Philly Dance Africa.”