At first glance, a healing session with 64-year-old drum aficionado José Ortiz is a curious sight.
Participants lie on mats, their heads inside a small tent, their torso and legs stretched out into colorful tunnels. Ortiz sits on top of his bomba at the opposite end of the tunnel, and plays a gentle rhythm reminiscent of a human heartbeat.
Such was the scene in Yolanda García Park at Melrose’s first annual Spring Equinox Healing Celebration hosted by Nos Quedamos, a South Bronx-based community development organization. Ortiz and a handful of his drumming students, part of the BombaYo drumming collective founded by Ortiz, were invited to play at the event.
Ortiz has been drumming for more than 20 years and believes in the healing power of drumming, so much so that he calls himself Dr. Drum, donning a white lab coat during drumming sessions. He describes the presence of drums in his life as the “blade of grass that grows in the cracks in the sidewalk,” a source of joy and resilience even in the most difficult seasons of his life.
Ortiz, a Belmont native, agreed to sit for a Q&A session with the Mott Haven Herald to share how he developed this healing remedy and why he thinks it works. The following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Ortiz about his passion for drums.
When were you first introduced to the drums?
My first experience was back in 1964. A group of guys were drumming across the street from where I was living. I ran right across to go to the drums, and I was struck by a car. I woke up in the hospital. I always believe the reason I survived had a lot to with already being impacted by the tones of the drums. And ever since then, whenever I hear drums, I gravitate to [them]. I wasn’t raised playing the drums, but yet it was something that’s always been a part of me. And I never really understood it.
Even though you didn’t play, drums were a big part of your childhood. When did you decide to start playing yourself?
Growing up, I always loved the drums. But I never saw it as something that was valuable until I realized that, wow, the power of the drum is incredible. That happened in 1999. It hit me. It was at a time when I was very depressed in my life. I thought I tried everything. I retired from the automotive industry, and 1999 came, and I just needed to find something for me. I thought, what have I always wanted to do that I never got the chance to do? I knew that I wanted to connect with the drums. So I think that right there was what inspired me.
A park-goer receives a sonic drumming treatment inside one of Dr. Drum’s “healing domes” at the Melrose Spring Equinox Healing Celebration at Yolanda García Park in the Bronx on March 18.
When did you start using drums as an educational tool?
In 1999, I was working at PS 279 as a supervising school aide. That was also the first year that an organization called TASC, The After-School Corporation, came to the school to start an after-school program. I signed onto it [as a group leader] and that’s when they had asked if any group leader had a talent, please share with the kids. And at that time, the only thing I could think of was drumming. I had my own set of congas, and I brought them to the school.
That was my first experience in learning how to teach kids how to really play the drums. I didn’t have a system back then. I had like 15 kids, and I’m trying to show one child how to play the congas, and the other kids are running around, and it was a crazy moment for me. I said, “I gotta figure out how I’m gonna teach this group of kids without them running around.” Now, I have this technique. I use symbols and colors to teach drumming, so it requires different practices for brain development—looking, seeing, saying, and playing.
You use drums not only as a way to connect to your Puerto Rican roots but also as a healing mechanism. What is the purpose of the “healing domes”?
Let’s say, you know, you’re hearing bad news all day. Where’s the time for anything positive? Who controls that? So, for me, the healing dome gives you that opportunity to take a break, to stop and breathe. [The healing dome] is helping [people] be relaxed in another way, to fight anxiety, to beat depression. There are all these different tools that are out there. And I think that the healing dome is one of those tools.
How do you feel when you play?
When I’m drumming, I feel free. I feel like this is who I am, you know? I’m connecting with everyone around me. I’m not just drumming for me, I’m drumming for my people. So there’s always a purpose when I’m drumming. It’s not like, “Oh, let me drum because next week I have a show and I gotta look good.” Nothing like that. I’m satisfied with just going, ba dum dum dum ba dum dum dum, and that alone gives me what I need. And I think that that’s a beautiful thing that I can do in a world that’s so demanding.