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UP BEAT : Between his professional gigs, an Ojai man drums it home that rhythm is everywhere, in everyone, especially when it derives from a great dexterity of soul.

August 04, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Sartuse was sweating. His bare feet, hidden under floppy bell-bottoms, carried him like a whirling dervish across the carpeted floor. A Hindu medallion bounced on his chest, and the tail of his homemade stocking cap bobbed behind him.

He hammered feverishly on an African dono, or "talking drum" tucked under his arm. With each whack of the traditional tribal instrument, a hypnotic cadence soared and dropped like a human voice, merging at times with his own lyrical chant.

But this was no concert hall, and there was no large crowd gathered to hear the virtuoso percussionist, who has spent the last three decades performing with the likes of Jose Feliciano, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon and James Brown.

On this morning last Thursday, his audience consisted only of nine youngsters enrolled in an arts course at the Monica Ros school in Ojai, where he has taught a rhythm workshop the last three summers for children 3 to 10 years old.

"I'm teaching them that rhythm is in everything and everybody," Sartuse said. "I feel you got to share that. Sure, I'd like the money from a Top 40 record, but I get just as much joy doing this with these little guys of the future."

Sartuse is Robert Hoard, a 47-year-old drummer whose musical career has ranged from Methodist choirs to Sun Ra's avant-garde orchestra to Bill Cosby's nightclub band. Strongly influenced by the Yoruba rhythms of southwestern Nigeria, he describes the drum as his "om," a spiritual center that is his fount of concentration and vitality.

Even his name, Sartuse, an acronym he has used since his teen-age years, spells out that message: Strength and Rhythm--Truth Unchanged Since Eternity.

"It keeps the artist from thinking of himself as the maker or creator of what he's doing," he said of his adopting that name. "When people call me that, they're not talking to me. They're talking to what I represent."

Between gigs with some of the biggest names in jazz and blues, however, the Ojai resident has sought to initiate a younger audience to the rhythms that inspire him.

His program at Monica Ros and recently at the Ojai Valley School and the Illusions Theatre in Ojai gives children firsthand experience playing traditional African drums and teaches them to appreciate the music that can be found in everyday sounds, he says.

In addition, he often uses drumming to reach out to emotionally and mentally disabled persons. In a series of workshops at Camarillo State Hospital recently, he says he was able to communicate rhythmically with some patients who were unresponsive to any other form of treatment.

"It's a very powerful therapeutic experience," said Jack Cheney, art therapist at the hospital. "He's one of the most effective practitioners I've ever seen in terms of blowing the gloom out of people and awakening them to the hopeful and joyous rhythms that lie within themselves."

Sartuse even aims his healing vibrations at the unborn. He has taught workshops for pregnant women, to "get the mother in tune with the baby and the baby in tune with the world."

An Ojai woman has fond memories of the experience.

"My daughter seemed to be a dancer inside," said Carolyn VanCattenburch, adding that her 2-year-old now "just kind of goes with the flow in most situations."

Raised in Chicago during the era of boogie-woogie and bebop, the young Sartuse quickly developed a knack for banging on whatever household object produced the most noise, usually settling for an old garbage can or tin coffee pot.

Apartment House Managers

His parents, a middle-class couple who managed an apartment building, tried to harness that early inspiration by paying for classical piano lessons. But, by the time he was a young teen-ager, Sartuse was already marching to the beat of a different drummer.

"They wanted me to be a black Van Cliburn. They thought I'd have more of a chance to make money and be accepted by white audiences," he said. "But playing that role didn't appeal to me. I was feeling something else."

Guided by that impulse, Sartuse at 14 ran away from home and found his first steady job drumming at a Calypso club in New Orleans. To get hired, though, he had to pretend to be African, a stunt that he pulled off by making a robe out of a curtain and wrapping a towel around his head.

"There was such ignorance then," he laughed, recalling that the act even earned him a seat at the front of a Greyhound bus, despite Southern segregation laws of the time.

Sartuse's ties to pop star Jose Feliciano, who supplied him with one of his biggest commercial breaks, also originated through a disguise. Feliciano was performing in Illinois several years after his hit "Light My Fire," and Sartuse, hoping to join Feliciano's tour, sneaked into a theater before the concert, posing as the band's drummer.

When he met the singer and the actual percussionist, Sartuse sat down and showed his stuff before anyone could object. "I was right on him," he said. "We jelled."

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