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A Musical Joy

How drummer Kofi Shepsu found his life's calling on the skins.

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It’s no disrespect to say that Kofi Shepsu has quietly become the first alternate drummer for many of the best players in the area.

He regularly plays in top tier trumpeter John D’earth’s long-running Thursday night gig at Miller's Downtown in Charlottesville, and in Charles Owens’ group on the increasingly frequent occasions that Devonne Harris is on tour with Butcher Brown. He often fills in for a traveling Billy Williams in The Brotherhood and appears every Thursday with that group’s leader, Michael Hawkins, at the Cyber Café. When Rex Richardson’s concert with the Richmond Symphony Pops lost its original drummer when the concert was rescheduled, Kofi took centerstage and, as always, shone.

Not bad for a young player who, if the pandemic had not intervened, would have just graduated from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music.

“There is nobody like Kofi,” says D’earth. “He is his own thing and playing with him is musical joy.”

Richmond born and raised, his background is a both solid and a just touch unconventional. The second of four children of social worker parents, he owes his name to his father’s adoption of an African surname at the time of his birth. The rest of his family, often including his father, still goes by the original Williams.

“I don’t know what Shepsu means,” the drummer says. “But Kofi is Ashanti for ‘boy child born on a Friday.’ So that is accurate.”

He was home schooled, based on his parents’ informed opinion about the public education option. Musical training was a component, starting with piano lessons and traditional African drums at home, then a full set in Ashby Anderson’s Richmond Youth Jazz Guild in Shockoe Bottom. Shepsu enjoyed the play, but not the work. He had his own kit, but it often sat idle.

“My parents were really strict about piano, but they never made me practice drums,” Shepsu says. “I was playing down in Shockoe Bottom almost every day, but I didn’t touch the drums at home.” He didn’t know how to tune the drums at that time and admits “I hate playing stuff that doesn’t sound good.”

An audition for the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts in 2014 changed everything.

“[During] two or three weeks off for winter break I just started practicing, and about that time I just realized my love for it,” Shepsu says. He started researching and listening to the modern generation of players. “I knew that that was how I wanted to sound.”

He started playing with his older brother. First family gatherings, then house parties. When he was a sophomore, he had his first real gig, with bassist Michael Hawkins’ group at The Croaker Spot in Petersburg. “Playing with those guys, I was super nervous,” Shepsu says. “I don’t get nervous anymore.”

It was the start of a continuing association, giving Hawkins a unique perspective on Shepsu’s development.

“He’s playing in those African drum groups a lot,” Hawkins says. “He’s built his drum playing on those tight rhythms, the way they are built on top of each other. He’s combined that with his influences from playing in jazz clubs into one essential concept. He’s an excellent listener, knows what to do and when to do. It sounds way beyond his years.”

His full scholarship at the Manhattan School gave Shepsu the opportunity to learn from some of the most successful musicians in New York City. It was a brilliant grind, attending classes at the Julliard Building where Miles Davis once studied, learning from legends, living in Harlem, and taking the subway on long trips through the city to Brooklyn gigs. “I finally realized what [the Duke Ellington classic] “Take the A Train” was about,” Shepsu says.

COVID changed everything. Classes became virtual, gigs dried up, but the pressure never relented.

“I did not want to do online school at all,” he says. So he took the option to take a year off, but when the time came to return, the motivation was gone. “I did not want to sacrifice my happiness again. So, I just decided to drop out. And I haven’t had a depressed day since.”

Homecoming also has its charms. “Richmond pays about the same, sometimes even more for some gigs. And it's cheaper to live in,” he says.

The eclectic Brooklyn band he plays in, The Friendship Trio, released it’s second album in March and may go on tour this summer. In the meantime, the drummer is staying busy on the RVA scene. The future is, appropriately for someone Shepsu’ s youth, uncertain.

“I travel to New York whenever I want to. Right now, I would rather do that in moderation,” says Shepsu. “But it’s getting to the point where I kind of miss the stuff I used to do up there. So, who knows? After all the shit that I've talked about New York. I could be back. That's pretty much on my mind.”

Everything changes. Catch him while you can.

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