Finding their own beat, passion

Children Carrying the Sound offers free drum, dance classes
2013-07-11T00:00:00Z Finding their own beat, passionKathleen Allen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 11, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Harlow Marquez is banging on a drum with a force that belies her 18 months and toddler frame.

She bounces with the rhythm she makes, first banging with one hand, then the other, then both.

You'd think at that age, it would be all about making a booming noise. But Harlow is alert to other drummers around her. She's in sync. And she is having the time of her life.

Harlow is one of the youngest in the group Children Carrying the Sound, an exuberant drum-and-dance organization that offers free classes Saturdays at the John A. Valenzuela Youth Center. The class draws participants from the neighborhood, Marana, Vail and around Tucson. While it's geared toward those 18 and younger, parents and other adults join in.

Children Carrying the Sound occasionally performs at some events, but that's not the point.

Some of the students may be very skilled drummers, but that's not the point, either.

The point is to express themselves. And to use the art forms of drumming and dancing to build community, to bring children out of their shells, and to offer a banging good time.

The directors of Children Carrying the Sound are a trio of twentysomethings who are religiously devoted to the power of dancing and drumming to bring people together.

Alfredo Emiliano Villegas co-founded the group four years ago with Lupe Yessel De Leon; last year, Erika Marquez - Harlow's mother - joined. She handles much of the administrative work and assists Leon with dance - the two women have a dance background.

Villegas, who teaches music at Ochoa Community Magnet School, is the master behind the drumming.

He first picked up the drums 14 years ago, when he was 10, and his passion never waned. At Tucson Magnet High School he was in Jovert, the school's steel drum band.

"Snare drums are my specialty," he says as he sits still for a moment before last Saturday's class.

"I love it so much."

His passion is palpable as he talks about drumming. It becomes even more so when he talks about Children Carrying the Sound, which he and his co-directors all do on a volunteer basis and on a nonexistent budget - they've all dug into their pockets to cover expenses.

"These kinds of classes usually cost money, but not here," says Villegas.

"We want to make the world better for everyone. The value in this is the happiness we see in everyone who comes."

Villegas' philosophy is to teach others as he was taught, and to mentor others as he was mentored.

He credits one of those mentors, Tucson Magnet's steel drum teacher, Khris Dodge for flaming his passion for both drumming and community work.

Dodge and his high school drum students made a huge difference when they donated instruments to the Children Carrying the Sound, says Villegas.

Spreading the passion

Tuesdays and Thursdays during the school year, high school students interested in mentoring the younger children in the group come together to learn about Children, its approach and its goals.

And once the older students start mentoring they, like Villegas, Leon and Marquez, can't seem to quit.

One of those students is Sterling Thomas, a 19-year-old Pima Community College student. He is wearing a Jovert T-shirt - he was in the band while at Tucson Magnet - and wolfing down a burger before Saturday's class.

"I started (with Children) two years ago as a mentor," he says.

"Before drumming, I couldn't play an instrument. When I learned the drums, it became a passion, and this is a way to pass on that passion."

Ivan Rodriguez just graduated from Tucson Magnet. The 18-year-old discovered Children Carrying the Sound three years ago and has been volunteering with them ever since.

"Alfredo came to speak to us (steel drum class). He had so much energy, was so centered, that it was clear he could take the group places and help the community," says Rodriguez in a phone conversation.

"He gave us all these opportunities to teach youth through drums. I wanted to do volunteer work and this embodied the music and the kids. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made."

Dancing and drumming

Saturday's classes begin with Zumba. On this day, about 20 participants follow Leon. Her energy pops as she coaxes her class of varying degrees of coordination but not of commitment through stretches and bends and jumps. A little more than a half hour later, they all head over to a nearby room, where the drums are set up. The dance energized them; they are ready to make music. Several put in ear plugs or put on headsets to dull the sound.

Villegas has the class form a circle, each person standing or sitting behind a drum. He asks everyone to introduce themselves - many were here for the first or second time. Many were regulars. He explains the different types of percussion instruments, demonstrates the sounds they make, leads the class in hand and arm exercises, and then blows a whistle for the music to start.

He moves around the inside of the circle, directing with just a motion: finger to lips to play more softly, a raising up of arms for louder. He adds vocals, pointing to different sections and making the sound he wants the musicians to emulate. He switches out the drummers' sticks in midbeat, a foam-covered mallet might replace a wooden one, or the other way around. He hands out a few maracas and claps his hands to demonstrate the rhythm he wants. He quiets one section and directs another to take the lead. Then does that again and again. The music never stops as he makes adjustments.

The circle of drummers watch him intently as he directs. Toddlers, elementary school age children, teens, and the older mentors all join in to make an infectious sound. There is a look of pure joy on Villegas' face, and it's matched by the participants.

By this time, he is pacing inside the circle, carrying Harlow on his hip. As he leads and the drums beat, she begins to nod off.

After about a half-hour, he blows the whistle and the music stops. The class is almost giddy. Now it's Marquez's turn as she leads the class through a dance designed to cool them down. Leon and Thomas provide a quiet drum beat as they go through their steps.

Fabian Reiser, 11, and his friend Sadie Bryan, 10, opt out of the dance steps as they run around the room and suck on orange wedges.

"Every time I come, I love it," says Sadie. "Every time, I learn something."

Fabian concurs. Drumming, he says, allows him to "express myself. And it's fun. And exercise. It makes me feel happy."

As the dance winds down, everyone comes back into a circle. Villegas asks each how they feel. The words spill out: "Calm." "Tired." "Peaceful." "Energized." "Relaxed." "More awake."

Harlow, exhausted, is sound asleep.

If you go

• What: Children Carrying the Sound drum and dance classes.

• When: 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturdays.

• Where: The John A. Valenzuela Youth Center, 1550 S. Sixth Ave.

• Cost: Free.

• For: Youths up to 18, but older folks can't help but join in.

• Mentoring: During the school year, mentoring sessions are 4:30-6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at Tucson Magnet High School, 400 N. Second Ave. If you want to help out now, call or show up at a Saturday class.

• Information: 661-0818 or

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