Baba Mandido Morris 1935-2009

A man, a drum, a legend

by Mahara Brenna and Tony Bosley

photo: Cher Bloom

BABA MANDIDO MORRIS – Dido aka Dr. Drum – was born Cleopus Mopedido Morris in Louisiana on December 24, 1935. When he was six, his family packed up the old Ford, headed West and settled in Watts, South Central LA, in 1941. Dido taught himself to drum playing along with old records and graduated from sticks and pots and pans to his first hand drum at 16. His jamming on the beaches and at Griffin Park in East L.A. in the ‘60s developed into a ritual that continues today.

Dido celebration 
drum circle

Sunday, July 26 
3 pm 
Meet at the old anchor at Spanish Banks (Vancouver) for drumming until dark and the spreading of Dido’s ashes. Bring drums and food to share. All welcome.

Tribute concert/dance for Dido and the Hand People
Friday, Sept. 11
Wise Hall, 1882 Adanac St. Dedicated to the memory of Dido Morris, and the late Kathy Kidd (original keyboardist). Featuring Jack Duncan on percussion (one of Dido’s students) and Diane Lines on keyboards. Plans are also in the works for Dido’s very talented son Kemal Evans to open the event with his band, and to have Kemal sit in with the Hand People.

In 1969, on his way to Africa, Dido stopped off in Montreal and established the infamous Montreal Drum Circle. He ended up staying for 10 years, playing with the late greats that came through the Montreal Jazz scene: Mongo Santamaria, Freddy Hubbard and Grover Washington Jr., to name a few. Jazz, Bebop, Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms greatly influenced Dido’s style during this era. While recording with Bruce Cockburn in Toronto in 1974, Dido was introduced to Gino Vannelli’s unique sound, which ultimately led to their touring together for three years through North America and Europe.

During the summer of ‘75 in Montreal, 16-year-old Ted Zombolas performed as a martial artist to Dido’s powerful drumming in the Shango Dance Theatre. Now a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Philadelphia, Ted remembers the huge impact Dido had on his life: "The music Dido played during one of our shows was nothing less than spectacular. It truly brought the performance and the performers to the height of excellence. On stage I could feel the energy from the drums surge through my body and at times it felt as if the music was guiding my moves on stage. The audience was put into a mystical trance. As all this energy gained momentum and the story reached its feverish pitch, we on stage and the audience in attendance were left trying to catch our breath when all was done. If you could measure the amount of energy that was being emitted, I think it would have been off the scale!

"I now have a son who is a drummer. I have often spoken to him of Dido and only wished that they could have met. I tried many times to contact him and it was only through Gino Vanelli’s website that I learned Dido had passed over. I still have tears knowing I’ll never see him again in this lifetime. It is amazing how one person can affect so many, and how so many paths have crossed and will continue to cross because of Dido."

In 1978, Dido brought his beautiful wife Joanne and their son Kemal to Salt Spring Island where their second son Jiva was born. It was on a cold, rainy winter night in Vancouver, now 30 years ago, that I walked into the old Jericho Community Hall for a "High-Life" dance that featured "Dido and the Hand People." There was Dido, centre-stage, surrounded by an arsenal of his favourite love-drums, the colourful sweaty crowd wild and beyond caring about things like rain and traffic and work the next day. Once again, the audience was in a trance, ecstatic to be alive and dancing to Dido’s drums.

As I looked up at him, I saw before me my two childhood loves, Sidney Poitier and Yul Brynner, rolled into one exotic, soulful being. Several years later, Dido’s and my life rolled into "One," and our souls have journeyed together ever since.

In the late ‘80s, Dido finally completed the voyage to Africa he had first embarked on from L.A. in the late ‘60s. He trained at the Academy of African Music in Ghana, studying traditional drumming, singing and dance with master drummer/musician Mustapha Tetty Addy. Dido also traced back his own heritage and roots. This body of work became the foundation for his next 20 years of teaching.

Over the years, Dido formed numerous bands as well as performing with "African Heritage" in the Australian Expo and the "Royal Drummers" in more resent years. A lifetime as a master drummer/musician, band leader, teacher and facilitator had now come full circle. Dido now offered his very unique blending of drum mastery, knowledge of human nature and fa-cilitation skills in his "Have Drums Will Travel" to schools throughout BC and "Drumming in the Workplace Playshops" for up to 200 participants.

Our beloved Mandido passed in his sleep on January 9, 2009. His service and wake took place on January 24 and over 700 people attended. The extraordinary gathering of friends and musicians erupted into a massive celebration for this legend of a man, in what The Georgia Straight called "the Mother of all drum circles." Among those who spoke at the service were Sal Ferreras, Albert St. Albert, Blu Mankuma and Carlos Casta.

On April 2, Dido was awarded the BC Arts Starts Championship Award for "his excellent contribution to the arts and education throughout British Columbia." In honour of his father, Kemal received the award to a huge wave of appreciation and gratitude. Kemal said, "If there’s one word to sum up my father it would be ‘acceptance.’ Dido gave kindness and acceptance to everyone he met."

In a poem sent to us following the awards, Les Wheatly said, "Dido has touched hundreds of thousands of lives and we are all the richer for it." Baba Mandido Morris, the Grandfather of African drumming in Vancouver, was a teacher and an inspiration to many of the finest percussionists in the region. Dido’s dignity, gentleness and powerful presence live on in all of our drumming and in our hearts and our hands, but perhaps most importantly, he is woven into our souls.

– Mahara Brenna

Dido and the hand people

ONE OF THE most memorable groups to emerge from the Vancouver music scene in 1979 was Dido and the Hand People. Led by the charismatic and dynamic African American percussionist Dido Morris, originally from South Central LA, (via Montreal where he played with Gino Vannelli for three years), the band was a frequent attraction at the original Soft Rock Café on W. 4th Avenue in Kitsilano, and was a big draw at several High Life Society dances organized by Dhyana Bartkow, which were held at various halls and community centres throughout the city. The band also put on a number of outdoor concerts and held occasional performances on some of the Gulf Islands.

With their unique form of original Afro/Latin jazz – composed by Dido, the late keyboardist Kathy Kidd and guitarist/keyboardist Tony Bosley – the group developed a major following and their concerts always attracted a very eclectic and colourful crowd, many of whom could be seen twirling about the dance floor, adorned with beads, flowers, face paint and flowing garments and hair. The band was also noted for its flamboyant soundman, Paul Hood, who often spent more time on the dance floor than behind the console.

Dido and the Hand People provided an alternative to the standard entertainment fare of the era and a great outlet for those fringe members of society (of whom there were plenty), who preferred a much more magical and spiritual entertainment experience. The group went on to win the Battle of the Bands at Gary Taylor’s nightclub in 1980, which resulted in a recording session at Little Mountain Recording Studio with engineer Bob Rock. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough time to properly complete the project so due to lack of funding, no album was ever released at the time. However, a tape of the recording session has been preserved and will soon be available on CD.

Don Powrie (drums), Brian Samuels (bass) and Graham Ord (sax and flute) comprised the other original band members. The group was also graced by the presence of several well-known musicians, who sat in for many of the gigs, including Kat Hendrix, Bill Runge, Mark Hasselbach, Rob Ferguson, Wayne Kozak and Pat Caird, just to name a few.

The sudden passing of Dido this past January was a shock to all of us, however, the memorial brought together a vast array of people associated with Dido’s life, including many of the original dance attendees, the surviving band members, and, of course, plenty of Dido’s drum circle followers. Paul Hood, Dhyana Bartkow and the surviving band members have decided to organize another dance event in the traditional Hand People style as a tribute to Dido and Kathy, while, at the same time, offering an "alternative dance event" option to anyone, both young and old, who may want to participate. (See below for information.)

-Tony Bosley

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