The 18th annual Procession of the Species was set to begin with a fiery tribute to a man who brightened many lives with his passions for drumming and for community.
The Planet Percussion multicultural drumming and dancing group, dressed as firebirds, will lead Procession down the streets of Olympia in memory of founder Jay Sicilia, who was just 43 when he died unexpectedly in October.
“Jay always loved the fire element; he always loved wearing red,” said Lisa Swihart, who has performed with the group since 2003. “He had a fire intensity.”
Planet Percussion has been a staple at Procession and beyond since Sicilia founded it in 1998. The group has performed year-round, inspiring new generations of drummers and dancers at events such as Music in the Park and Sand in the City.
The group — including many alumni members who are returning specifically to honor Sicilia — will perform in Sylvester Park at the close of the smaller Luminary Procession tonight, then lead the main Procession Saturday and participate in a drum circle afterward, all in honor of the man they remember as the spark who ignited so many.
Procession is organized according to the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, with sea creatures, for example, being grouped with other water-themed participants. Usually, Procession organizers wait until the day of the event to decide the order of the elements in Procession. This year, they made an exception. The order of the other elements will be chosen Saturday, but fire will be the first, said procession founder Eli Sterling.
That seems particularly appropriate considering the way many saw Sicilia.
“Olympia has lost its Pied Piper,” drummer Kimberly Moore recalls someone saying at Sicilia’s memorial service.
“Jay’s vision was to bring the community together through music and dance,” Swihart said. “He oftentimes brought in people who had seen us perform and said, ‘I’ve never performed, but I always wanted to.’
“It didn’t matter how many mistakes were made. It was just about having a good time. That’s the spirit that Jay brought to Olympia.”
Moore, who first drummed with the group in the 2002 Procession, met Sicilia at an open-mic night.
“A man of small stature but unbound spirit and energy walked in carrying an old suitcase,” she wrote in a 2004 article. “He played drums with a few folks and then pulled out the suitcase of ‘his toys.’ After passing them out, along with a little instruction, he had everyone up in a circle and playing. Now we were all performing, laughing and having a great time shaking maracas, hitting bells and clacking claves.”
Sicilia’s love for drums started in childhood. He was born in India and came to the United States when he was adopted by a Vancouver, Wash., couple. They bought him a conga drum and he taught himself to play.
He made his living as a drummer and also taught drumming in schools. But Planet Percussion was his burning passion.
Sicilia’s vision was an all-percussion band that included anyone who wanted to drum and dance — trained and untrained, young and old, able-bodied and physically or developmentally challenged.
“He always loved what drumming did to people’s souls and hearts,” Swihart said. “His vision of the band was very clear from the beginning. It was his life. It was what gave him joy.”
The band also made room for instruments from all over the world, many owned by Sicilia himself, as well as everyday objects — anything that would make a unique sound.
Asked whether Planet Percussion will continue without Sicilia, Swihart said that’s still being decided.
“It would never be the same without Jay’s spirit and dynamic presence and humor,” she said. “But whether or not Planet Percussion continues as a performing band year-round, there’s a very good likelihood that we will continue to meet at Procession time.”
Sicilia’s memory still is glowing brightly.
“Once he got started drumming, his eyes would get so focused, and they were already big,” Swihart said. “He just captivated people because he was so intense when he started drumming. It was hard not to like Jay.”