Born in West Virginia in 1930, Robert Crowder and his family moved back and forth between his home state and Philadelphia until they finally settled here in the late 1930s. Many of today's dancers and drummers trace their own roots through Mr. Crowder, who began drumming as a child in North Philadelphia using wooden cheese boxes and found objects. He had learned to drum, but he kept wanting to explore his music further. Local parades featuring African American rhythms excited him, but he was searching for something else - and he began to find what he was looking for when he saw drummers Jean la Destiné, Chano Pozo (at the Academy of Music with Dizzy Gillespie), and Desi Arnaz.
Inspired by skilled percussionists, Mr. Crowder found (and made) opportunities to learn from drummers conversant with the styles of the African diaspora. He played informally with visiting artists, began to study with percussionist John Hines, and also learned from drummers who were accompanying "interpretive dance" (the name for African dance at the time) at Judimar School of Dance, from Sydney King's Dance Studio and John Hines's own school, and from dance classes and schools associated with André Drew, Eleanor Harris, and Libby Spencer. Mr. Crowder's perspective expanded as he drummed for all types of dancing, and he was an important part of the Philadelphia African hand drumming tradition.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, Mr. Crowder learned Haitian, Brazilian, and African drum traditions from artists who were born in or had immersed themselves in those traditions, but when Ghanaian artist and drummer Saka Acquaye came to town to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Mr. Crowder said, "It clarified and helped me become more alert to what I was about. Saka was a big influence on my drumming because he was an historian also, and studying with him started opening up things."
Mr. Crowder was the founder and director of Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble. In 1995, a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts enabled him to travel to Ghana to continue his studies with Saka Acquaye. He was initiated into higher levels of the drum there and honored, as well, for his skill and dedication. Mr. Crowder received a prestigious Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 2004. Along with Kulu Mele dance ensemble, Mr. Crowder was featured in numerous Philadelphia Folklore Project artist residency programs and in "Philly Dance Africa."
"You have completed a circle: Baba Crowder in Ghana, " Philadelphia Folklore Project, Works in Progress 8:3 (1995) 4-5
"Kulu Mele in Guinea: Travel Stories. A conversation with Baba Robert Crowder, Ama Schley, Payin Schley, Dorothy Wilkie and others," Philadelphia Folklore Project, Works in Progress 22:1/2 (Summer/fall 2009) p. 4