Sandy Blocker was told he couldn’t chase his dreams because he was white. As a senior about to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BFA in dance, Blocker attended a class that he said changed his life.
“A friend of mine invited me to watch his African dance class,” Blocker said. “I just watched, not the dancers, but the (African) drummer.”
Blocker told the drummer, Hashim Sali, he wanted to learn to play the drums. Sali immediately told him no because he was white and didn’t know enough about Africa. Blocker was too hooked to accept no for an answer.
“I went back with more information than he was ready for me to put on him,” Blocker said.
Within a few semesters, he became the staff accompanist for UNCG’s dance department, paving the way for his career.
Blocker had been trained as a classical dancer from an early age. In 1988, he moved to Greensboro to attend UNCG, going back to the city where he was raised. After graduating with a BFA in dance, Blocker remained on staff at UNCG to accompany the dance classes as he continued to learn more about the art of world percussion drumming.
But as time went on, Sali’s words rang in his ears, and Africa was calling. He left for New Guinea and Senegal in 1995 for what would be the first of several trips across the Atlantic.
“I went to study in New Guinea, West Africa with Les Ballets Africains — the national ballet of New Guinea — for two months,” Blocker said. “I lived with the dancers and the drummers — I studied with them.”
Two years later in 1997, Blocker went to Mali to study the djembe with the indigenous Malian people. The djembe is a specific type of African drum, rope-tuned and skin-covered, played with bare hands, thought to have originated from the ancient Mali Empire.
This trip to Mali was an intense learning experience for Blocker as a musician, who felt he needed a more authentic comprehension to ground and define himself as a genuine world percussionist.
Transition to Elon
Blocker remained on staff at UNCG as the accompanist for 19 years before budget cuts cost him his job. Luckily, through a connection at Elon University, Blocker found out about the need for an accompanist in their dance department.
Sara Tourek, adjunct assistant professor of dance in Elon’s performing arts department, met Blocker in graduate school at UNCG where she was a student in a class he accompanied for. When she heard Elon was looking for an accompanist, she immediately thought of Blocker, with whom she had become better friends during her time as a UNCG dance student.
She knew he’d be a perfect fit for Elon’s tight-knit performing arts department, where he would be able to have plenty of artistic freedom. Lauren Kearns, the chair of Elon’s dance department, hired Blocker in August 2011. As the university accompanist, he plays the drums for the upper-level ballet, modern and African dance classes.
“We really like having his perspective and voice here,” Tourek said.
She said she especially enjoys working with him because they have a performance background together.
“He is really open to trying new things in the classroom, and to lending his talents,” she said.
Junior Carly Flynn, a dance major, enjoys the unique musical experience Blocker brings to her classes. The dancers had only previously worked with an accompanist who mostly played piano, so learning how to move in tune to the beat of Blocker’s drums has been a fun and interesting adjustment, Flynn said.
“He’s very in tune with us as dancers and very aware of our movement due to his personal dance background,” Flynn said. “He even gives us great feedback about our dancing — supposedly he’s an amazing ballet partner.”
Heart and soul
Blocker loves being able to help people find music and connect to it through movement, he said.
“I love what I do. I get to play drums, watch dancers dance and am challenged all the time by (adjusting to) the way people want to put movement to music,” Blocker said. “It’s really wonderful because I have a kinetic sense with the music. I have to dance it inside myself as I’m playing.”
He is also able to further apply his more creative side through performing with Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands, a dark and whimsical band based out of Greensboro for which Blocker plays percussion as one of Crystal Bright’s “Silver Hands.”
Blocker and Bright met in 2001 at UNCG, where Blocker taught her African drumming. Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands formed in 2010 — Bright is the lead singer and performer, multi-talented as she simultaneously plays the accordion. The other members of the band, or Silver Hands, as Bright refers to them, play a wide variety of offbeat instruments to add to her very eclectic, otherworldly sound.
As a versatile world percussionist, Blocker contributes African, Middle Eastern and South American rhythms to the band by adding sounds from various percussion instruments such as the riqq, djembe and conga drums, the kick drum and cymbals.
“(Sandy) is a very versatile and amazing musician,” Bright said. “He adds a world percussion flavor to the band and has great ideas that I normally wouldn’t think of.”
According to those that interact with Blocker, his character and spirit are some of his greatest trademarks, aside from his musical talents.
“Sandy is a great friend and collaborator — he keeps me grounded,” Bright said. “He is very thoughtful, open-minded and funny.”