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Ugandan man spreads the drum beat of hope

Sam played a drum with the assistance of (l-r) Andrew Malecek, Khailene Halverson and Rachel Larson. The students are in Cheryl Dougherty's class. Photo by Laura Kruse

A circle of 13 handmade cowhide drums greeted fourth-graders as they filed into music class on Thursday morning.

After a brief introduction, visitor Okello Sam told the students to play the drums however they wanted.

Arms waved, hands flashed and wild smiles quickly followed. The musicality was questionable.

By the end of the 45-minute class, the students had gained technique, a steady rhythm and an overlapping melody.

Sam, a citizen of Uganda, travels the world teaching children to play music. Proceeds from his lessons help fund Hope North, a safe haven for refugees, orphans and former child soldiers in Uganda.

Following the drum free-for-all at the start of class, Sam taught the students how to make different sounds on the drums by using varying hand positions. A open palm hitting the middle of the drum makes a deep sound, while using just the fingertips on the edge makes a high sound.

The drums were made by Sam in Uganda before being shipped to Roberts for the presentation at SCC Elementary. Each drum takes six months to make, he said. First, he cuts a log and buries it to ferment the wood.

When the wood is fermented, he carves out the middle of the log by hand. That creates the drum's shape.

Tanning the cow hides to stretch over the drum takes a significant amount of time as well, especially since no chemicals are used.

"You use nature to do that," Sam said.

Once the class had a few basic sounds mastered, Sam demonstrated a rhythm for them to follow. The students kept the steady drone while Sam sang songs from his home country.

Sam kept the class interested by playing other Ugandan instruments. At one point, he shook maraca-like rattles while singing. Later, he played a string instrument.

Sam agreed that the class was playing the rhythm for the performance, but he cautioned against the students saying he made the melody.

Sam told the class that the melody came from his community. Rather than saying "made" the melody, he played the melody.

Throughout Sam's presentation to the class, the students' eyes and ears were glued to him. When he broke out in a multi-drum rhythm, smiles spread on their faces.

Funding for Sam's St. Croix Central appearance came from the gifted and talented fund.

All classes got a chance to sit in on the drum lesson.

Sam's story

Sam didn't use any of his precious time with the students to tell them about his life. His life, though, is a story in itself.

Northern Uganda has been embroiled in a civil war for the past 22 years. During that time, Sam and his brother were abducted by rebels. While Sam managed to escape after being trained as a child soldier, his brother was killed.

After he escaped, he couldn't stand to see children in danger. He began traveling to schools outside of the conflict and exchanging his services of teaching music, dance and theater for scholarships for kids in the danger zones.

In 1998, Sam started Hope North after seeing the results of a rebel attack on a village. He bought 40 acres of land to serve as a safe place for refugees, orphans and former child soldiers. He hired vans to pick people up and bought tents for them to sleep in.

Since the inception of Hope North, the campus has expanded to include a school, vocational training, nurturing and recreation. A staff of 15 teaches students life skills, vocational training and arts. There are approximately 160 students at Hope North, but officials hope to increase that to 250 students.

All students at Hope North are of the Acholi ethnic group. The Acholi group, of which Sam belongs, is the seventh most prominent of Uganda's approximate 11 ethnic groups.

To find out more about Hope North, visit