Growing up in North Philadelphia in the 1930s, Robert Crowder began drumming on wooden crates and other found objects.
He quickly grasped the fundamentals of drumming, but he wanted to learn more about this seminal African art form.
Inspired by acclaimed percussionists from around the world, such as Ladji Camara of Guinea, Chano Pozo and Desi Arnaz of Cuba, and Saka Acquaye of Ghana, Mr. Crowder dedicated his life to African drumming, leaving a vast legacy in Philadelphia.
Mr. Crowder, 82, who founded a dance and drum ensemble and played with many renowned musicians, including saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner, died Friday, Nov. 30, of a stroke at his West Philadelphia home.
In the 1950s, he "was one of the first to work really closely with continental musicians and to start bringing this new, deeper understanding of African continental traditions here," said Debora Kodish, director of the Philadelphia Folklore Project, a nonprofit agency that supports folk life in the region.
He was the recipient of many honors, including awards from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, which he received in 2004.
He used proceeds of the awards to travel to Ghana and Guinea to further study drumming.
In a 1995 news article, Mr. Crowder reflected that a recent visit to Ghana "proved to me that I had touched gold, that my first introduction to drum, it was correct.
He became a specialist in the bata, a two-headed drum used in Yoruba ceremonies, and the pandeiro, a Brazilian tambourine.
Mr. Crowder was born Jan. 3, 1930, in Parkersburg, W. Va. His family moved to Philadelphia in the 1930s. He attended public schools, where he studied music.
As a child, he taught himself to play drums using wooden cheese boxes and other objects.
Later, he studied the drumming of Pozo, Camara, and others. He also worked with dancers including John Hines, Arthur Hall, and Sydney King.
He learned the African, Brazilian, and Haitian drum traditions from native artists. Mr. Crowder was heavily influenced by the Ghanaian drummer Acquaye, who came to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In 1969, Mr. Crowder founded the Kulu Mele African Dance and Drum Ensemble in Philadelphia. That ensemble, which remains active, is where many Philadelphians learned African dance and drum traditions under Mr. Crowder's tutelage.
The ensemble works out of the Lee Cultural Center at 44th Street and Haverford Avenue in West Philadelphia.
Mr. Crowder studied Yoruba culture and was known by the title of "Baba," which means "father."
The noted percussionist Leonard "Doc" Gibbs said Mr. Crowder inspired him as a teen studying hand drumming. "There was nobody before or after him for a long time who had the kind of understanding and impact that he did," he said.
Marilyn Kai Jewett, a Yoruba priest in Philadelphia, said: "Baba Crowder was the father of the African drum in Philadelphia. That's why we called him Baba."
Mr. Crowder was a fixture at Odunde, the African New Year festival in Philadelphia.
For many years, Mr. Crowder, with his bata drum, led the annual procession from Odunde headquarters at 23d and South Streets across the South Street Bridge.
"Baba is an iconic figure," said Lois Fernandez, founder of Odunde. "Many drummers learned from Baba Crowder. He was always humble, in my view. . . . His drum was his voice."
Saudah Amin, Mr. Crowder's wife of 46 years, said he played behind the actor Paul Robeson in a TV production of Othello. She said he also played with the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji.
A service is scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27, at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St.