James Gann, born in 1973, was a "free-range" child, unfettered by convention. His mother raised him in a small California biker-hippie community. He was to navigate his way through a number of obstacles before finding the right beat for the rhythm in his life.
Looking back, James remembers his younger years as a fun era, surrounded by musicians, art, some degree of discipline and a large degree of freedom. At age 14, he moved to Lawton, Okla. to be with his father and stepmother. Living in the city in an over-sheltered, highly restrictive culture was a radical change. He tried his best to behave but found nothing he did was considered acceptable. Earlier, at the age of 5, his mother had introduced him to drumming. He loved and practiced it for many years but after his move to Oklahoma, found it a skill which was neither approved of nor encouraged. Hard as those years were, he stuck it out through the 12th grade. He tried to please his father, who was a drill sergeant in the military, but never seemed to do the right thing.
James had little interest in school but was an excellent athlete and much admired for his skills in ROTC classes. Partly for his father's sake, he had planned on joining the military after graduating. To James's surprise, his father, a Vietnam veteran who had known his share of suffering and indeed loved his son very much, talked him out of it. Instead, James was sent off to the National Education Center in Phoenix, Ariz. to study graphic arts. Sprung loose from the restraints of his Oklahoma home, he soon fell into the drug scene, his grades plummeted, and he dropped out of school a year-and-a-half later.
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)
Returning to California, he adopted the gypsy life, rather enjoying the varied experience of living in different places. When he met a girl named Tara, life turned around. They went out together for two-and-a-half years before marrying in 1995 and settling down in Salinas. He stopped all drug use, took a job at UPS and another as a part-time roofer, made good money and had a nice home. The two of them were quite religious, joining first the Church of Christ and later the Pentecostals. Not quite satisfied with what he found, he slowly dropped away from formal religion. Today he says that he has found a stronger relation to God and one that is more joyous than he experienced in earlier years.
In 2000, still in California, James felt a certain lack of purpose in his life. Accomplished in several areas such as snowboarding, art and drumming, he excelled in none. Walking to the mailbox one day, he put it out to God: "I want to be really good at something." A few days later, it came to him what that something was - he wanted to become a master drummer. He found a mentor by the name of Abdulaye Diallo, a West African master drummer from Senegal who "took him under his wing." James bought a drum and upon going to Abdulaye for lessons, discovered the drum he bought had once belonged to his teacher. It seemed a good omen. Abdulaye, seeing talent in James, pushed him hard. At first it was real agony, his hands hurt, his shoulders and arms burned. But he persevered, advanced quickly, became passionate about West African drumming and grateful to his mentor for sticking with him and pushing him toward greater achievement. Unfortunately his wife, Tara, was not so enthused about his drumming. It gave her a headache every time he played.
The marriage, already sagging, ended two years later; the drumming did not. James pursued it with intensity for six years, doing some teaching and playing in his mentor's band, Casamance, named for the place he came from in Senegal.
Then, in 2005, walking to the mailbox again (was it something about communicating?), he spoke to God. "I need a partner, a woman with whom I can share mutual interests, one who is spiritual and one who does not get a headache when I play my drums!"
Once more, his wish was granted. Karen Guenette, a Lake Placid resident, was in California for a workshop on intuition. She met James when he was teaching an outdoor drumming class. Having learned to listen to his own inner rhythm, James now sensed that he had finally found the right person. On that beautiful day in July, Karen, following her own intuition, sat down to drum along. From that moment, the relationship grew, continuing by phone after Karen returned home. Six months later, in January 2006, James packed his belongings and moved east to join her.
Now living in Lake Placid, both their lives have expanded. Karen is a dedicated and accomplished figure skater who shares James's love of drumming, playing with him in performances. James, exceptional athlete that he is, learned to figure skate. Amazingly, in 2008, they skated together to take a Gold medal in the silver pairs level at the Nationals Skating Championships. They truly share one another's passions.
Today, James has been awarded two grants, gives lessons in West African drumming and collaborates with a colleague, Johnna McDougall, a West African dance teacher. He teaches in schools and at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. Community is important to him. He reaches out to children and adults alike, encouraging them to join him in the joys of drumming and dance. He has performed at JEMS in Jay, NCCC in Saranac Lake, Pendragon, the Saranac Lake Art Walks, the Winter Carnival Rotary Show and was honored to play this year at the opening ceremonies for the Empire State Games.
When he runs his drumming workshop at St. Joseph's Rehabilitation Center, he happily shares the rocky road that finally brought him to fulfillment. In 2006, he traveled to Senegal to improve his West African drumming technique; he looks forward to returning again in September. He also plays with Jamie Whidden's Capoeria group, an African-Brazilian dance and acrobatic art. Enthused and bubbling with energy, James has indeed finally found the right beat in his own life.
Based on an interview with James Gann. Caperton Tissot can be reached at Tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com.