Drums Along the Hudson is a multicultural gathering that celebrates and showcases the diversity of cultures, traditions, and people from different backgrounds. These events are typically aimed at fostering inclusivity, promoting cross-cultural understanding, and appreciating the richness of various cultural heritages.
It was started over two decades ago, the event first took place annually in the spring, thereafter added something new and different attractions each year to make the event more exciting and enjoyable which includes a shad tasting, a white Pine tree planting (the Iroquois symbol of peace), international foods, drummers and dancers and a Native American Arts in Education Initiative. The event has attracted attendees from 400 in the first year to over 8,000 in recent years.
In an exclusive interview with ADEWALE ADENRELE, of African Development Magazine. Carl Nelson, co-producer of “Drums Along the Hudson” shares the journey of the maiden edition as a traditional Pow Wow to celebrate Native American heritage and culture started, his landmark achievement after the 21st anniversary celebration, experiences, and challenges.
Below are Excerpts:
Q: You are the Co-Creator & Co-Producer of Drums Along The Hudson, tell us more about this great concept.
A: That is correct. On September 19, 1992, a special ceremony was held in Inwood Hill Park rededicating the area known as Shorakapkok. At the time the ceremony was held, Mayor David Dinkins officially restored the original Lenape name of Shorakapkok to Inwood Hill Park. Shorakapkok was home to the annual Native American Festival, which was co-sponsored by the Urban Park Rangers and the Native American Heritage Committee. When my Co-Creator and I came aboard In September of 2002 with a generous grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs a new festival format was created in Inwood Hill Park. It was just the two of us, Kamala Cesar the Artistic Director of Lotus Music and Dance, and I as a Producer.
We created a new event and named it “Drums Along the Hudson.” A Native American and Multicultural Celebration. With Drummers and Dancers from around the world, storytelling, music, Native American Pow Wow, International foods, and Native Arts & Crafts. When I think of Drums Along the Hudson, I think of all the different types of performers and participants that have come to this event over the years. I look at what we have in common, and no matter where we came from, we want many of the same things at our core; we want our children to be educated first of all. We want our children to have good lives, we want to get along with our neighbors, we want to be respected and appreciated by other people, we want our children to know our history, know their history, and we should want our children to know other people’s history and to respect it, regardless of what part of the world you’re from. We always encourage people to wear traditional apparel so they can be identified and embraced for who they are. This way, they are able to have conversations educating each other about where they come from, and why they’re wearing them. It’s very rewarding to me when I see this cultural exchange happening.
The next day after each event, I would say, “Well, you know what? We did something good today.” I want people to be able to look at their neighbors, the people that they see on the train in the park, and realize, “You know, this is my neighbor. This is somebody who is just like me, so I don’t have to be hateful and resentful of others, and just like I want to be appreciated, I can also appreciate other people. Thank you for being different and at the same time similar.”
Q: Tell us the challenges you faced while planning Drums Along The Hudson and how did you overcome them?
A: Many of the challenges we’ve faced have to do with integrity, exposure, and quality. We have vendors at our event, and we wanted to feature organic items, not manufactured things, like weaving, blankets, and items like Native American artifacts. We feel like we want to be the best humanitarians, so we wanted to invite environmentalists, to be more conscious of global warming and things affecting the planet. So it was difficult to find vendors who would adhere to the vision that we wanted and showcase products that fit within it. Even with our food vendors, we wanted it to be multicultural. We wanted to have Native American, Indian, African, and Caribbean foods with vegetarian and vegan options so that people can have a variety of food to eat at an event that’s very inclusive. There are many families that attend, so we wanted the food to be educational, entertaining, and authentically delicious. It was also very difficult finding certain types of performers. But New York is a melting pot of different types of people, so we just had to do the work of traveling around to all the different areas, asking for recommendations, etc. The team really does extend beyond just a group. Initially, it was Kamala and I doing all of this initial legwork, but now the team has really been extended. Fortunately, I have friends who believe the same things I do, which made it easier for me to find national and international people who I felt were deserving of honoring; environmentalists and humanitarians, icons in the arts, the community, and even the business world at every event. It has actually become easier as we now understand the challenges over the past 20 years and we have worked through them.
Q: You started the maiden edition as a traditional Pow Wow to celebrate Native American heritage and culture, and also to commemorate the Lenape people who first inhabited Inwood Hill Park, or Shorakapok (“edge of the water”) Tell us more about the Lenape people, their culture, and tradition?
A: For us New Yorkers, Inwood Hill Park is where the Lenape people first dwelled. They survived, mourned their dead, and loved. Just like you and me. There is always something to be learned from those who came before us, and you can always tell when the wisdom of the elders has been hidden, neglected, or ignored.
The Lenape name is derived from the terms “original people” or “true men.” were Native Americans who lived and traded in upper Manhattan long before the arrival and colonization of the European settlers. The Lenape were expert botanists possessing knowledge of plants that were used for food and medicines. The Native Americans respected nature and were early conservationists and environmentalists for their own needs and beliefs. Most traveling in Manhattan was done on well-used Indian trails. The longest of these eventually became Saint Nicholas Avenue and Broadway. These trails are connected with smaller footpaths that are now located in or near Inwood Hill Park and Isham Park.
The population of the local Lenape tribal groups was 20,000 in 1600 and had diminished to 4,000 a century. Presently there are at least 28,000 Native Americans living in New York City. Some are Lenape who wish to keep the stories of their ancestral homeland alive.
In the early part of the 20th Century, archaeological digs near Inwood Hill Park produced two double burial sites of the original inhabitants of the area. These skeletal remains were located near 203rd Street and Seaman Avenue. There was a village site in the same area, there was Indian habitation in Inwood Hill Park as late as the 1920s and 1930s. One of my favorite areas is the one surrounding the Little Red Lighthouse, which was used as a settlement for trading, hunting, and fishing by the local Algonquin, Mohegan, and Lenape tribal groups. The Lenape Nation has a website, www.lenape.org.
Q: It was reported that the event has attracted attendees from 400 in the first year to over 8,000 in recent years. What was the inspiration and motivation that drives your spiritualism on the increase of attendees?
A: There is magic that happens at “Drums Along the Hudson,” which is sometimes too emotionally overwhelming for me to truly take in. I think one of the reasons why I keep doing this event is because of the responses that we get from people and their families. They share how entertaining it is, how they’re experiencing things they’ve never encountered anywhere else. For example, my assistant this year is a student at NYU University but is from Nigeria. And after his first year at Drums, and seeing all the performances, he was fascinated because, first of all, he’d never seen Taiko drumming, and it was also impactful because it was the first time many others saw women playing them. Usually, Taiko drumming is mostly done by men. New York is the perfect place to do this, but any city could benefit from this event.
Q: Tell us about other side attractions that are included in the Drums Along the Hudson 2023 event?
A: The event is held in Inwood Park, which is very big. When you walk into the entrance, there’s a Welcome tent with information on everything that is going on in the park for the day, further on there is the main stage where performances for the day take place. It’s also where we show our appreciation to our honorees for the year. As you go further down into the park, we have all types of vendors there, but predominantly Native American. As you keep going, you will notice a tent where people can safely drop their kids off, called a “storytelling tent.
” We also have an environmental tent and an information tent from Lotus Music and Dance where you can find out about the various programs that they offer, which include books and the history of the people who’ve been instrumental to this event over the past two decades. Mrs. Loida Nicolas Lewis is an honoree for this year, and she has a new book, “Why Should Men Have All The Fun,”
that came out in March 2023, so we arranged a sold-out book signing for her. But the nucleus of the event is the main stage with performances and acknowledgments that last about half of the day. We then follow the crowd to a Pow Wow which is a gathering of Native American people with singing and dancing.
We also plant a white pine tree each year so we have a tree-planting ceremony, which is presided over by a Native American elder. As of this year, over 20 trees were planted, and some of the original ones have grown very tall and big. It gives me such a good feeling every time I go to the park and I see those trees that we’d planted. So it’s very rewarding in that way.
There is a second separate section in the back of the park and one of the highlights is the drumming Circle, which is for anybody who wants to play a drum. This drumming circle is led by Patrice C. Queen a.k.a Patrice Ejuwa, who is very passionate about it. You do not have to be a trained drummer to join. There are about 100 drummers who come every time, to just drum. It’s called the Healing Drumming Circle. It’s wonderful. Patrice was so inspired she created a book, which has pictures and information about the event. The drum circle itself, which is only one of the components, represents a form of healing and Meditation. There’s a built-in spiritual component. The drum has a very spiritual utility. It’s symbolic of the heartbeats that we all have, and I have also been inspired to do a book on my experiences which I’m currently working on.
Q: Who are the honorees for this year’s edition of Drums Along the Hudson?
A: This year, we recognized another group of amazing people who were honored for their contribution to the Arts & Humanities. We selected George Faison, an American dancer, choreographer, teacher, theater producer, and winner of the 1975 Tony and Drama Desk Awards, and an Emmy nomination for his choreography on “The Wiz,” and Loida Nicolas Lewis, A lawyer by Profession she was the first Filipino and Asian American woman to pass the New York bar without having studied law in the United states. She is the widow of the first black American billionaire, TLC Beatrice founder, and CEO, Reginald F.Lewis, She is also the author of, “Why Should Guys Have All The Fun?” an Asian American Story of Love Marriage, Motherhood, and Running a Billion Dollar Empire. In the past, we’ve honored people like Laura Turner Seydel, who is the daughter of Ted Turner, an environmentalist, and Chair of The Captain Planet Foundation, and Congressman John Lewis, who has changed the world in the way he thinks. We didn’t honor him because he was a politician. We honored him for the work that he did during the Civil Rights movement, his bringing people together and helping people to advance. Tichina Arnold, Actress, Singer, and philanthropist with the “We Win Foundation,” and Xernona Clayton, President and CEO of the Trumpet Awards.
Q: Do u have an ancestral link or lineage to Africa, If Yes, share it with us.
A: Do I ever have an ancestral link to Africa? According to a DNA assessment, I share 26% with people from the Ivory Coast and Ghana, 24% from Benin and Togo, 10% from Bengal, 9% from Senegal, 9% from Nigeria, 6% from Mali, 6% English and Northwestern Europe, 4% from Cameroon, Congo, and the West Bantu people, 2% from Sweden and Denmark, 1% southern Bantu, 1% southern Indian, 1% Welch, and 1% Scottish. Finally, it states that I’m connected to the Afro-CAribbean Peoples of the Lesser Antilles and Guyana’s Southern Coast community, which is where I was born. My genetic makeup perfectly explains why I work in South Africa and other parts of Africa, in North America, and I do work in South America. I am reluctant to use the term, but have often been called, “Renaissance,” because I’m interested in different things culture-wise. I believe that I can fit into any part of the world in many capacities. So I’ve worked in many different parts of the world.
Q: Researchers put forward a new narrative explaining the variations in African ancestry in the Americas and how these variations were shaped by the transatlantic slave trade, how have you and many others changed the narrative for development?
A: By profession, I’m a producer. I produce events, I produce plays, and I produce movies. But I wanted to be able to use my creative talent to educate and promote something that was not in my sphere. It’s something that I think could influence a lot of seemingly ordinary people who didn’t have to go outside of their neighborhoods or to a special place. We brought the conversation to them.
I wanted to use my knowledge and my skill to be able to do that. Make it entertaining, make it educational, and make it many things. So I think this is my little way of giving back and trying to pass on the knowledge of different cultures celebrating together. Someone reminded me that those trees we planted will outlive most of us, and I don’t think it’s about getting personal credit for planting a tree, I just think it’s my contribution to give back to society and to give back to planet Earth.
Q: African ethnic groups and tribes have customs and traditions that are unique to their culture. What do you like about African Culture?
A: In my experience, I’ve found African culture to be about community. And I wanted to say that by respecting the community, we give a healthy appreciation for our community by simply coming to Drums, by getting involved in all the things that we’re doing. And especially for me, planting a tree is giving back to Mother Earth or Planet Earth. By sharing some of the cultural experiences at this annual event; the displays of the drummers, dancers, and history from different parts of the world, people are educated about other cultures and reconnected with a culture that they might have only heard of or left a long time ago. Also, the children, most of them first and second-generation Americans, get to see their parents and grandparents’ culture exhibited on stage. So along with the physical trees we plant, we’re also sowing cultural seeds.
As children of the diaspora, we were all affected by the African Slave Trade. The largest difference really is who was dropped off where and when, some were just dropped off earlier than others. But a lot of our customs come from Africa. Guyana, where I was born, is made up of five different cultures, with the most predominant cultures being Africa and India. So we are mixed, and then we have indigenous people, and we have Portuguese and a variety of combinations. Our culture is blended, but our African culture is strong because we’re storytellers.
Drums Along the Hudson is a multicultural Event. Any culture that has a drum in it we will collaborate with them. So, we have drummers and dancers from different parts of the world who perform, and we do our best to make sure that different countries and cultures are represented. This year we featured Japanese Taiko drummers, African drummers from the Congo, Indian Drummers & Dancers from India, Sri Lankan Drummers & Dancers, and Kalpulli Huehuetlatolli Aztec Drummers & Dancers. The commonality is the drum and even though the drumming traditions are different, we use all of those different traditions to teach people about other cultures.
Q: African Development Magazine would like to promote and report activities on your events in one of our special editions. Would you consider this for Africans to read about it? Amazing memories are unforgettable; can you share with us the most amazing memory?
A: After maybe eight to ten years of doing “Drums Along The Hudson,” I thought perhaps I shouldn’t do it anymore. It was heavily on my mind that maybe I should move on to something else, that there are other things to do. But, then I was invited by Oprah Winfrey to go to South Africa to open her School for Girls as a guest. And I remember having a conversation with her that has stuck with me until now. While thanking Ms. Winfrey she said, “Carl, I invite people like you and everyone here so that they can see what I’m doing, and then they can go back into their own communities and do the same thing. And so I often think about these things, and I don’t know if this is affecting everyone. I don’t even know the approximate number of people we’re influencing by doing this, although it’s estimated that we now have over 10,000 people that come to this event. Yet, I always remember what Oprah said; we do these things because we could affect people to change, and to be positive. So, I thought to myself, I can’t stop doing this because people are enjoying it. It has a tremendous impact and maybe we encourage each attendee to go out into their own lives and do something inspired by the work that “Drums Along the Hudson” is doing now.
Q: What advice would you give the younger ones?
A: I would say to the younger ones, and anyone really, that simply because something doesn’t work the first time doesn’t mean you just discard it. What I found is that if you know it’s a good concept, but it didn’t come out right the first time, try it again again and again. Because if it is truly a good concept, you will get better, you can find satisfaction in it after you’ve tried it a few times, and through trial and error, we learn, and that’s how you end up with the magnificent. We have to go through the mundane in order to get better. You do it with education. You do it with time. You do it with everything you truly care about. This is how “Drums Along the Hudson” came to be where we are today. We tried it one year, then the next year, then again the following year, and people are still coming after 20 years because every year the attendees see something different every time. I think we’re better than we’ve ever been because we’ve used the previous year’s momentum to correct many of the mistakes we thought we made. And next year we’ll be even better because we get another chance to do it.
To the older ones, I would say encourage young people, support them, and be with them, because there was a time when it was your generation attempting to create change in the best way you could, so this generation desperately needs encouragement from you.