In today’s hyper-connected world, with infinite and ever-developing ways for us to communicate with each other, it was an old-fashioned business card that shocked New London’s Felicia Hurley into a new and exciting level of awareness.
For five years, Hurley has taught the arts of African drumming and dance in schools, for organizations, in private lessons formats and at Writer’s Block Ink, the nonprofit New London performing arts program for youth, where she’s a part-time instructor. Over that time, Hurley has considered her workshops and lessons as a sort of passionate hobby that paid some of the bills. But it was only some weeks ago, on a drumming retreat in Guinea, her second visit to Africa to learn more about the music and implied culture of djembe — the West African hand-drum whose sounds and cultural traditions are at the center of her work — that she met a local man whom she recognized from drum circles during her brief time in the village.
“He walked up and handed me a business card he’d made, unasked — a business card for ME,” Hurley says in a recent coffee shop interview. Her voice and smile still contain the happy amazement over the gentleman’s prescient gesture. Hurley hands over one of the cards. It shows a map of Africa overlaid with an illustration of Hurley and djembe drums.
The text says: “Felicia Hurley / African drum and dance / Teaching Artist.” There’s also contact info and, across the bottom of the card, pinstripes in red, yellow and green, which are the national colors of Guinea.
“I couldn’t believe it,’ Hurley says. “I didn’t know what to think. He just smiled and said, ‘You’ll need this.’ And he was right. Symbolically and otherwise, it was a big moment of realization for me because it confirmed something for me. This is what I do. This is what I was meant to do.”
Hurley was born in New London, lived in Jersey City from ages 3 to 9, then, when her parents split up, moved to Groton with her father. She played clarinet from fourth through eighth grade at Fitch Middle School band before quitting at Fitch High School. “I probably thought I was too cool for clarinet in high school,” she laughs.
But there was another musical element in her life. Her dad, Steve Hurley, saw Santana at Woodstock and, inspired by the band’s intricate Latin percussion, dove into what has been a lifelong study of drumming, particularly the djembe drum and West African sounds and polyrhythms.
“When I was young,” Hurley remembers, “my dad was already really into it and always finding drum circles all over the state — Manchester, Willimantic, anywhere there was something like that happening — and I had to go along. There was no way he was going to leave me at home. So it wasn’t like I chose it, and, at first, it was a drag. But the thing is, slowly I started participating.
“Plus, he very much encouraged me because it was something he was passionate about but also because I’m biracial. My dad’s white and my mom’s Jamaican, and he knew how important it was for me to be in touch with my ancestry and have that exposure.”
Gradually, through her dad and local friends similarly active in drum circles — Dwight Baldwin, for example, who for years was a signficant musical and teaching force in New London — Hurley started playing and participating. “We were all always going to concerts, Kwanzaa celebrations, drum circles and multicultural events,” she says.
She and her father also started attending yearly, five-day retreats each September in the Poconos, put on by WULA Drum, a New York City/Guinea outfit that manufactures West African drums and percussion and conducts drumming, movement and dance lessons. The disciplines are interactive and reactive, evolving during the performance. WULA Drum believes in the power of music and dance to, as their core mission states, “break down barriers of race and class through the education of music and dance, environmental awareness, and supporting sustainable incomes in Guinea as well as the USA.”
By email last week, Steve Hurley says, “Those retreats are the biggest reason Felicia and I are so lit up over hand drumming. (WULA artistic director) M’bemba Bangoura himself considers Felicia a significant talent. She’s been playing over 25 years. She learns, she retains newly-presented arrangements, patterns and riffs with amazing ease … and she can DANCE.”
About the time she quit formally playing clarinet in middle school, Hurley realized that, thanks to school and the retreats and her father’s wide social circle, she had a lot of friends from different nationalities. She remembers, “And so I put together this little African drum and dance event at Fitch Middle School, and it went over really well. Somehow, it had gone from just being around my dad to actually embracing it. I don’t think dad expected it and then suddenly it was like, ‘It’s paid off! She’s actually doing it!'”
Not there yet
But while Hurley thought the drumming was fun and that she maybe had musical potential — and that it was clearly a wonderful way to connect with other people — it wasn’t something she was particularly interested in pursuing. In fact, she went to college at Fordham and, in 2005, Hurley graduated cum laude with a degree in communications studies and a minor in business administration. She enjoyed New York City for the energy and possibilities, became active in independent politics, and entered grad school with an eye on public relations and corporate communications.
“I had an internship and was working on my thesis and I ended up with a job offer. I was really happy,” she says. Then, unexpectedly, her grandmother died and, reeling with loss, she returned to Connecticut and moved to New London. “I came back home and tried to navigate my grief. It was a journey of healing and pain, and I was really lost for a while. It definitely took me off course.”
After a while, feeling comfortable in New London and buoyed by the friends she was making in the city’s bustling arts scene, Hurley also began working with preschool children and was delighted and inspired by how much she enjoyed it. Trying to come up with a new twist on the standard recess and/or sleep-on-the-cot breaks, Hurley started getting the children involved with percussion circles. She would play her djembe and hand out perscussion instruments from her own collection. Gradually, dance and movement came into play.
“I realized that was my favorite part of the day,” Hurley says. “It was amazing to see what instruments and rhythms would appeal to 2- to 4-year-olds, and the whole act of facilitating movement and music — and bringing those African elements into it — made me realize that focusing on music education itself rather than just classroom education was more my thing. If I could do that full time with kids — or even their parents — that became a passion.”
Sweet home New London
Leaving the school system, Hurley starting talking with friends she’d met in the New London arts community. She was introduced to Adriane Jefferson, who at the time was director of Writer’s Block Ink. Hurley sat down and told Jefferson her story and her idea of using djembe as a musical, spiritual, educational and cultural tool.
“Adriane invited me to volunteer and that was the start,” Hurley says. “Writer’s Block Ink was doing a six-week collaboration with Safe Futures (an anti-domestic violence organization) called RVADD (Raise Your Voices Against Dometic Violence) and Adriane asked me to do a workshop for some of the survivors and the people who were living in the shelters at that time. I was so nervous — ‘Am I good enough to do this?’ and then, ‘Yes! We can do this!’ — and that was the first time someone believed in what I was doing. It was an amazing experience and I think we helped some people.”
“When I first met Felicia and decided to bring her on at Writer’s Block, I knew there was something special about her beyond just her amazing capabilities as an African drummer, teacher, spoken word poet and dancer,” says Jefferson, recently named New Haven’s director of arts and cultural affairs. “She was a person with deep passion and exuded authenticity and commitment to the cause of activating youth and social change.”
As the word-of-mouth about Hurley’s work spread and she found herself getting booked with increasing frequency, Hurley suspected on some level that what she was doing was potentially a full time job.
Back to the Motherland
This increasing confidence and creeping self-awareness was only strengthened over Hurley’s two drumming/dance retreats to Africa. Her first visit was to Ghana; her father was remarried to a Ghanaian woman who arranged for Hurley and her father to attend a two-week intensive study retreat in drum and dance. They lived in a village, spent several hours a day with lessons and in classes, and otherwise immersed themselves in traditions and cultural celebrations.
“It was awesome,” Hurley says. “I grew up on djembe, which is very prevalent all over West Africa, but in Ghana I worked on the kpanlogo, a slightly different drum with a different technique. But in Ghana I also experienced a spiritual connection. My father and I bonded but also I felt a connection with Africa. I knew I had to go back.”
Earlier this year, Hurley, with her father and mother, went to Guinea for another intensive retreat. “And it was incredible,” Hurley says. “I realized that I was moving to a level where the drumming was a force, a sort of meditation. I realized, I NEED this drumming on so many levels. In Guinea, something REALLY powerful was going on, and I was so excited to experience it in the Motherland as a black woman. That’s kind of the dream, right? To go to the Motherland.”
It was there that a kind stranger handed her a freshly minted business card with her name on it. Now, Hurley, back in New London, has a business model and various packages for prospective clients. “It never occurred to me that I’d take this step, but it’s been natural and I’m happy and comfortable.”
As her business expands — her next public workshop is March 15 at the Velvet Mill in Stonington — she says she hopes she’ll always continue to be part of Writer’s Block Ink. “I love that place and what they do for the community; I love the children,” she says.
“Felicia is a very important part of what we do here,” says Writer’s Block Ink executive director Kolton Harris. “She has a particular magic and the ability to provide healing and growth and people are drawn to her. It radiates out from her.”
Hurley looks at her business card before handing it to the journalist. “It’s all about the drumming. I’m not a master; I’m learning, too, and that’s part of the journey. That’s part of bringing people together and sharing an enlightening and fulfilling experience together.”