It is a heavy heart that I write about the passing of Prince Julius Adeniyi. A descendant of Yoruba chiefs and kings in Nigeria, Prince Julius Adeniyi began learning to play drums by placing his hands on top of his grandfather’s hands during performances when he was just three years old.
An Indianapolis resident since 1971, Prince founded and regularly played with the popular ensemble Drums of West Africa. Named Young Audiences’ 2002 National Artist of the Year, Prince taught thousands of school children about West African culture through music, food, and the language of drumming, drawing on the lessons of his grandfather.
Prince entertained thousands over his decades of performing. I came to know prince, when I first became director of Traditional Arts Indiana. He worked with TAI as a master artist in our Apprenticeship program, performed concerts and residencies, and proved an amazing performer. He was truly a special man and artist, who touched so many lives.
Here is a video short video of Prince talking about his grandfather and playing the thumb piano. I met with Prince in the winter of 2007 to talk with him about traditional drumming and his craft of making drums. I was struck by his musicianship and storytelling in this piece.
Also, here is an excerpt of an interview I did with Prince several years ago:
Jon Kay ( JK): Prince, why don’t you just tell me a little bit about how you got started playing music? What was your beginning?
Prince Julius Adeniyi (PJA): Well, my beginning goes a long way. When I was a child, say about three years old, and I see my grandfather play drums, and I want to play drums too! So, as a matter of fact, my family, my mother’s family, they are [a] group of master drummers. And my
grandfather, which is my momma’s daddy, was a very, very revered drummer, and traditional
herbalist. You know, herbal, what herbalists do, they are native doctors. And so, my grandfather, whenever he’s played the drums, I would go jump on his lap, at the age of three, and hold on to his hands. And his hands are going up and down; mine is going up and down with his, too! So, at the end of the day, when my grandfather is tired playing drums, he would clear out, and he would leave me in the small room, and then I would jump on the seat, and start trying to play the drums. So, and when my grandfather hears
me play the drums, he would peep, and look, oh! And say “that sound good!”
So anyway, my grandfather made me a small drum, so whenever he is playing the drum with the group of other people in the family, he would
tell me, “Sit down, and play your drum, too.” So, consequently, I become a drummer, like everybody else in the family. Yeah. That’s a long time ago! [laughs].
JK: Was there ever a formal apprenticeship where you, [or] when you became a drummer?
PJA: Oh yes! Well, at the age of three, as I said, I started, and there would come, there would come a time when you can actually participate in the adults’ drumming. So, they would test you. They would have you play with the adults. And then, when you play very well, they would have a celebration for you…, you know, coming to adulthood. And then, participating in what the adults are doing. So it’s a big celebration. So, that’s, that’s why I am taking [my apprentices] through the art of drumming, and the culture, and the tradition.
JK: I think that’s what I appreciate about what you do. You don’t just teach the art, you teach the whole culture . . .
PJA: The whole culture!
JK: . . . because the art is embedded in [the culture]
PJA: Yes, yes. So, I started them with the language, because when you play the drum, you are not just hitting the drum. You are not beating the drum. Some people say “Oh, let’s beat the
drums.” No, you don’t beat the drums! You play the drum. And when you play the drum, you are talking. So, I let them know that when you play
the drum, you have to say something. What you can say, you can play it on the drum. If you can talk, you can play! [laughs]. So the, the idea of playing the drum goes a long way. So, it’s not just beating the drum, get the drum and start hitting on it. That’s not playing drum. Yeah.