Making a Difference: Drumming Up Life Skills
For 27 years, Edward “Nardie” White ran the River City Drum Corps, a West Louisville organization he founded with his late wife, Zambi Nkrumah, that teaches children how to play African rhythms and showcase their percussion skills on a drumline.
The idea for the Drum Corps, White said, stemmed from his childhood experiences growing up in a hardscrabble West Louisville neighborhood, where the path out of poverty was said to be found on a football field or basketball court. White didn’t care for sports; he liked art — sculpture and photography. But there weren’t any outlets for his interests.
In the early 1990s, while working as director of the Parkland Boys and Girls Club, White saw how the kids lit up while watching a visiting drum corps perform — and an idea was born.
Shortly afterward, White left his job to pursue the idea of starting his own drum corps, which at the outset consisted of his son and a few of his friends. But the River City Drum Corps soon caught on, its numbers ultimately growing to 30-40 children.
Today, the Drum Corps is a common and beloved sight around Louisville, playing at local schools and churches, city events and regional festivals. Hundreds of children have progressed through its ranks, with many using the experience as a springboard to attend college or embark on a career.
But the secret to the Drum Corps’ lasting success, White acknowledges, is that the organization is not really about the drums.
“If you want to get a child’s attention, it helps if it makes a lot of noise,” White said, explaining why drums became the group’s focus. “But the reality is I’m not trying to turn anybody into drummers. Instead, we’re trying to give these kids life skills by teaching them discipline and responsibility. Through the spirit of the drums, we let them grow into who they are and help them find their purpose.”
The Drum Corps has been featured on KET several times over the years. In 2000, the group performed on the KET program In Performance at the Governor’s Mansion. It was featured again in a 2013 segment on the program Louisville Life.
Then in 2016, filmmaker Owsley Brown III, a Louisville native, convinced White to permit camera crews to follow the organization’s members for a feature-length documentary film, River City Drumbeat, which airs on KET this month (see page 4).
White said he’s thrilled the film found a home on KET, which he said is a champion of education and the arts, particularly in underserved communities across the Commonwealth. “So much of television is about fantasy,” White said. “But KET is different. It’s about real life and real stories and about connecting people to the arts and culture of Kentucky. That’s likewise what the Drum Corps is all about.”