From the first moment you get on the phone with Willie Stewart, you can tell he's vibrating on a higher plane. The 55-year-old musical savant speaks with the slow joviality of a sage — or at least a man who's learned a thing or two during a lifelong journey through music. With his affable personality and a contemplative approach to questions, Stewart comes off as an individual with loads of wisdom to share. You could say he puts service and community before his own needs.
Although he's technically retired now, after spending 30-plus years as a reggae drummer, first for Inner Circle and then for Third World, the British-born and Jamaican-bred Stewart is dedicating the second phase of his life to working with youth here in South Florida. While a lot of famous musicians move to this region to open nightclubs or buy mansions, Stewart has spent the past eight years working full-time as a drum instructor and drum therapist. From his home in Pembroke Pines, he teaches a pool of roughly 60 kids per week how to play drum sets. Despite the grueling amount of work and patience it requires, Stewart says he couldn't be happier. It's the main reason he left Third World in 1997, although at the time, he didn't know things would play out like this. What Stewart did realize before temporarily putting down his drumsticks was that the joy of playing for crowds was starting to fade and he was hungry to discover what his next challenge would be.
"I was just called to do other things," Stewart says during a recent interview. "I wanted to work with children, and I knew I wouldn't be able to achieve that the way I wanted to if I continued on in the band, so I left. I knew people would be upset initially — we were like a family, but after 23 years, I had to move on. It was just that simple."
For those unfamiliar with the name, and even the band, Third World was to contemporary reggae what Weather Report was to jazz. They took a traditional style of one-drop reggae and tweaked it just enough to formulate their own style. What emerged was one of the most sought-after sounds in Jamaican roots music during the late '70s and early '80s. Their biggest hit was undoubtedly "96 Degrees in the Shade," a song from the album of the same name that helped catapult the band to international stardom.
Over the years, they shared the stage with a who's who of both the rock and reggae worlds — from Bob Marley and Peter Tosh to Carlos Santana and notably Stevie Wonder, who developed an affinity for the group after hearing it perform. Stewart remembers the time he spent with Wonder fondly and the tune Wonder cowrote with Third World called "Try Jah Love."
"Man, I remember when Stevie Wonder performed with us at Sunsplash in 1981," Stewart says, perking up. "It was the year Bob Marley died, and nobody knew that [Stevie] was on the island. It was a big secret, and when he came out on stage, the place went mad! It was a wicked night. Just madness!"
Despite having a life that's included a ton of musical highs and achievements, it wasn't a hard decision for Stewart to walk away in the end and pursue his passion for teaching. "There were times when I was traveling 250 days out of the year," he says. "I love my fans. I really do. But when you play that much, you can't connect with people. You fly in and fly out. I couldn't sit down and connect the way I wanted to."
So in 1997, Stewart left Jamaica and moved to his native England, where he sought classes on how to become a drum facilitator. He says he knew he was blessed with the ability to communicate through the drum and simply wanted to share that with others. Three years later, he emerged with his own curriculum and moved to South Florida to put it into practice.
Aside from working with kids, he also teaches workshops for adults and even corporations with what he calls "Solutions in Music." It's not uncommon for Stewart to hold drumming workshops for 100 people at a time, with an emphasis on stress relief and team building. "I've had so many corporations call me up — Johnson and Johnson, FP&L, Jackson Hospital, even Miami-Dade schools," he says. "I'll go to their retreats with drums and teach them a whole different way of working together and relieving stress. He recently taught a workshop like this for officials with the City of Miramar. Stella Tokar from the city's Chamber of Commerce says everybody went home happy after their session.
It probably sounds like an odd concept: Stewart, the Grammy-nominated drummer, spending his spare time teaching corporate officials how to play West African drums. But Stewart stands behind his belief that music, and drumming specifically, is an integral part of community and health.
"Everybody has a rhythm inside of them — the heart itself is on a beat," Stewart says. "For me, I want to help people tap into that rhythm — because it's something that everyone can do." As folks play on the drums, I can tell everything about them. If they're relaxed or not, if they're over-worked, if they trust one another. It's hard to explain, but the music don't lie!"
This week, Stewart comes to the African American Research Library to teach and perform as part of the library's program for Black History Month. He'll bring along drums from Ghana, Morocco, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, and New Orleans. The event is called "Rhythms of Africa" — an exhibition to demonstrate the history of drums as they migrated from Africa to the United States.
Stewart's life doesn't have all the wild thrills it once did. Does he ever miss drumming and life on the road?
"Sometimes, you do miss it," he admits. "You do miss playing out. There's a oneness when you're all together, and the message we had was so powerful and uplifting, yeah, I do miss that. But when I'm teaching students and can help people learn to play an instrument, that's a great feeling too. I think my calling is to inspire people and to show them that there's another way. You just love what you do and play music with your heart and soul. People always understand that. Music is the ultimate connection between all human beings."