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DRUMS CAN HEAL

For special kids, his music is the message

by Liane Wakabayashi

Ramsey King Montana’s funky fashion sense might be a bit overwhelming for some parents who sign their children up for his family music classes. He wears checkered pantaloons, a fierce studded leather belt, a pierced earring that belonged to his mother (a Blackfoot Indian) and braids in his beard.

This class is equally unique. His students, ranging from preschool age to junior high school level, all have learning disabilities. But that does nothing to dampen the eagerness with which they and their parents alike dash toward the closet to pull out the bongos. One father has even brought along his own drum set.

Montana beats out a rhythm on his waist-high kunga drums — tall, thin drums made of tropical wood, popular on his father’s island country of Barbados in the Caribbean — and pauses for a reaction. There is a stir in the room: A child dances, a mother claps, a father picks up an electric guitar and strums along. And when Montana starts chanting his students’ names to a Creole beat, their faces light up. This is when you get your first inkling that Montana is not just a mesmerizing musician, but also a great teacher who knows his audience.

“I believe that so-called handicapped people have infinite potential,” says Montana, who has been using his “healing drum” music to reach out to children facing physical and mental challenges. “I like to show people that they’re capable of being more capable. Through drums, I’m sending out that message.”

Montana treats children with disabilities just like any others. So when the decibels in the studio rise to ear-pounding level, some parents, especially those new to Montana’s methods, become — quite understandably — nervous.

“I was a bit concerned about putting Sam in a drumming situation,” said Esther Sanders, whose highly sensitive 4-year-old son Sam might have Asperger’s Syndrome, the mildest of a group of conditions know as Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

Sam’s mother took him out of the studio when the volume of the drums, and two electric guitars played by one teen and a parent became too high. But much to his mother’s surprise, he said: “Let’s go back.”

“I thought to myself, he’s always going to get overloaded on one thing or another,” says Sanders. “Let it be something worthwhile, something he enjoys.”

Yuko Ogawa has also seen the pleasure principle at work with her late-blooming son, now 13, whose confidence grew after he started attending Montana’s classes.

“Montana is reaching children by communicating less in words, than from the heart,” says Ogawa, who has been organizing these monthly music classes with Montana for the last seven years. “Montana encourages these kids to be themselves. Through dancing and free rhythm, children gradually open up and let the music express itself freely from inside them.”

Montana’s work with children has run a parallel course with his performing career for nearly 20 years. He first began by volunteering at his son’s elementary school in Philadelphia to train the children for a song-and-dance performance.

“I’d meet kids in the street waiting for my drums. I felt their gratitude from the heart. Afterward, I visited a reform school for teens, and started therapy there using percussion. I recognized the energy percussion sends is a positive energy and can change people’s direction for the better,” he says. “I watched as the kids’ violent fighting grew into respect for each other.”

In the 1980s, he jammed in West Berlin with American musicians such as Chaka Khan and Jo Johnson, while bringing theater and music to elementary-school children in East Berlin.

It was in Berlin that he met his Japanese wife, Hiroco, who today plays alongside him at concerts in Japan. Montana moved to Tokyo with her to continue his musical career, sensing that his abilities would be valued. And his hunch was correct.

Montana’s classes for children with Down’s syndrome and other motor handicaps have been featured in an NHK documentary.

“You have to show kids you were a kid once,” he says. “It’s easy for me to be 17, 18 or 19. Then I can come back to being 51. That’s not an age that constricts me.”

Montana reaches his Japanese audiences in cavernous art spaces like the newly opened Museum in Ogikubo, and in school gymnasiums near his home turf of Setagaya, where the beat of those earthy kunga drums can put an entire audience into a trancelike state.

When he’s standing in a room full of children, Montana magically erases the line between teaching and performing. His dream is to depart from the classroom structure by designing an outdoor musical play park. He’s working on a playground that would put sound on play equipment, and of course, be accessible to everyone.

“Any child can play percussion,” says Montana. “Even children who can’t use their arms can drop their heads to make rhythm. They, too, can find a way to play percussion.”