Muhtadi Thomas: African Drumming Legend of TO

Since discovering drumming around age 16, Muhtadi Thomas has become, over the course of 50 years, a master of African drumming and many percussion instruments. He is a well-known teacher and nowadays has as many as 50 students attend his weekly class at the Regent Park Community Centre. We chatted recently with Muhtadi, who has been a member of the Artscape community since 2008.

Muhtadi has devoted his career to music “regardless of the standard of living it affords me,” he says laughing. His journey in music and drumming happened “organically,” he says. “You know—you’re living your life; some things just pass your way and catch on.” He is largely self-taught. “I never had a teacher, but I have travelled to countries like Senegal, Mali and Guinea to learn from drummers in those cultures.” 

“The drum is a form a communication,” he says. “Rhythm moves the world.” Muhtadi has seen rhythm and drumming unite and transform people. He has also seen learning to drum help others overcome obstacles, like the youth at risk he taught for years in community programs with Art Starts and 14 Division, among other organizations. “There is something spiritual about the drum, and it brings people together” says Muhtadi.

The Muhtadi International Drumming Festival is an annual free event he started in 2000 to celebrate drumming. “You go to a show, and you always see the drummer in the back. I wanted to put the drum and the drummer at the front!” While this year’s festival has the theme “Hello to Africa,” it is a multicultural festival with participants representing styles from China, India and Brazil, as well as multiple groups focusing on African drum traditions.

Muhtadi was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012 and has since adapted his life and practice, finding innovative ways to teach and stay active in drumming. This past December, the drumming community came out in support of Muhtadi to raise funds for Parkinson Canada in an all-day non-stop drum-a-thon, a testament to the energy and enthusiasm that surrounds him.

The slogan of the Muhtadi International Drumming Festival is “our drumbeats connect heartbeats.” Come out this July 21 and 22 in Regent Park, 600 Dundas Street East for the festival’s 2018 edition.