Kazi Oliver Speaks with His Drums and His Heart


By Jeannette Sanderson

Nearly everyone in Peekskill has heard the name Kazi Oliver, seen Kazi’s smiling face, or heard the musician’s magical drumbeats. Kazi has been spreading joy with his drums, bells, and chimes in our city for nearly thirty years and has no plans to stop.

The musician has been tapping out rhythms on everything from tables to counters since he was a young child in Trenton, New Jersey. When Kazi took to tapping out rhythms on his sisters, his mother signed him up for an after school African drumming program. Kazi remembers the first day he walked into the studio.

“The spirit of the African drum jumped into my body,” Kazi says. He was eight or nine years old and has been drumming ever since.

The first drum Kazi owned was a Haitian drum his parents bought for him. It was taller than he was at the time, but Kazi figured out a way to play it. Kazi still has that drum–it’s more than 50 years old–along with many others that he has collected through the years.

Young Kazi quickly advanced in his drumming skills. When he was a teenager, Kazi traveled to Brooklyn to learn from African drummer Abiodun McCray. Kazi’s father died when Kazi was 14, so his uncle tried to be a father figure. He wanted Kazi to go to Julliard, but Kazi’s mother couldn’t afford the tuition to that prestigious music school.

Kazi joined the Marines and hoped to play in the U.S. Marine Band. Instead, he was a combat engineer in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He still played his drums every time he was on leave.

“It’s a spiritual thing,” Kazi says. “The rhythm is how my mind channels my thoughts.”

After leaving the Marines Kazi became a correctional officer and then a cosmetologist. All the while he kept drumming.

Kazi moved to Peekskill in 1993. He worked as a cosmetologist, but his drumming gigs were often on Saturdays, the busiest day for the shop.

“I made good money as a cosmetologist,” Kazi says, but his work schedules didn’t allow him to be both a cosmetologist and a drummer. So he left the hair salon. “I needed to do what spoke to my heart,” Kazi says. He has been drumming and teaching drumming, listening to his heart and speaking his heart, ever since.

Kazi has played everywhere from the Peekskill Riverfront and local schools to the Village Vanguard, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

“The most intense performance I’ve done was at the Clearwater Festival,” Kazi says. “I was the first person to play the African drum there.” He adds that it was an experience “filled with joy, happiness, and connectivity.”

Kazi enjoys teaching others to play so that they can experience the same joy, happiness, and connectivity. He estimates that he has taught African drumming to thousands of people. He has been to just about every elementary, middle, and high school in Westchester as well as in neighboring counties. He has taught children as young as 4 and adults as old as 86.

Even when he is not formally teaching, Kazi reaches out to share his gift with others. He did this at a recent Black History Month celebration at Peekskill Middle School when he encouraged children who passed by and admired his drums to play with him.

Kazi Oliver sharing his joy of drumming with Peekskill’s Nadia Dominguez, 5.        Photo by Jeannette Sanderson

“It’s God’s favor for a person like me to generate a moment like this,” Kazi said after sharing a few minutes on the drum with a young girl.

While Kazi’s smile and exuberance are readily recognizable, he wants people to know that his life, like that of others, is filled with peaks and valleys.

“My head aches every day because of the lack of love and compassion … exhibited, exercised, and reciprocated among us all,” Kazi says. “We need love to conquer this real life.”

Although life sometimes gets him down, Kazi, who lives in Peekskill’s artist lofts, stays hopeful. He would like to teach an African drumming class at the Peekskill Riverfront this summer. He often played there to cheer others during the pandemic. (He is still looking for a small blue suitcase containing beloved bells collected from all over that he inadvertently left there. Please contact the Herald if you know the whereabouts of these bells.)

Kazi plans to create a musical ensemble of people with disabilities. He also wants to go to school for music theory and music therapy so that he can find more ways to reach others.

Kazi playing with Jordan Hale Joyner, 6, Derek Alvarez, 5, and Jovanni Fernandez, 6.    Photo by Jeannette Sanderson

The musician plans to continue to share his heart and his gift for a long time. In the immediate future, he will be giving an African drumming workshop on Tuesday, February 21, at 6:30 p.m., at the Mohonk Preserve Visitors Center. The event is free, but pre-registration is required. Click here https://www.mohonkpreserve.org/events/african-drumming-workshop/ to learn more and to register.

“Drumming is inspiring, encouraging, healing, and nurturing,” Kazi says. “It’s everything.”