Joakim Lartey describes himself as a youth advocate, musician and storyteller.

One suspects he is much more, but too humble to say it.

“As a youth advocate, I work in a different school district every day,” Lartey, 64, says.

His official title is coordinator/specialist of supportive learning environments at Ulster County BOCES.

“The students trust me, they confide in me and tell me things,” he says.

"Wherever I go, they surround me and talk about what they are feeling. I’m a good 'people person' and I listen.”

Lartey is also a much-sought-after drummer and percussionist.

He was co-founder, lead singer and percussionist of Futu Futu when they played in front of a crowd of 350,000 people at Woodstock ’94.

“We played ‘world beat’ music back then,” he says. “It was dance music, a collaboration of African, Caribbean and American music.”

He has also played with the likes of Natalie Merchant, Jack DeJohnette, John Hall, and Baba Olatunji.

Lartey currently performs in the duo Joakim & Chris with guitarist Chris Lane, and The Sonark Trio with multi-instrumentalist Thomas Workman and cellist Gabriel Dresdale.

A platinum disc for playing on Natalie Merchant's album “Ophelia” hangs on his studio wall.

Born in Ghana, he came to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student in 1971 and graduated from Washington state’s Hoquiam High School in 1972.

“I had to go back to my country for two years to finish my basic education,” he says. “But I knew I wanted to come back to the United States.”

“Back then, my father was a political dissident who was almost executed because of his political views,” he says.

“It was safer for males of my family to be out of the country.”

As soon as possible, his brother moved to Ivory Coast and his father moved to Nigeria and lived in exile.

Joakim was accepted to Vassar College, where he majored in biology and ethnomusicology.

“I pretty much had played drums and percussion my whole life,” he says.

“But they were communal drums – they belonged to everyone. I didn’t own my own drums until I moved to this country.”

He graduated from Vassar in 1978 and was accepted into Johns Hopkins University to study biology.

“There was a real need for scientists in Africa, and my plan was to assist in that effort,” he says. “I was interested in smallpox and malaria.”

“But I took a two-year break because I needed a job,” he says. “So I took a job as a healthcare aide.”

That was in 1978 - and 40 years later, Lartey is still working with young people in the Hudson Valley region.

However, he always kept music close to his heart.

“In my parents' generation, music was a hobby, it wasn’t serious,” he says.

“You had to be a doctor or a teacher and then a musician on the side.”

“But once my mom came over here and heard me play, she said, ‘You should do what you love,’” he says.

“And if it was OK with my mom, well, she knows me better than anyone in the world.”

So now he teaches and plays and listens.

“I always try to relate and connect with the students,” he says. “And I don’t judge them.”

John DeSanto is a freelance photojournalist. Find more of his 845LIFE stories, photos and videos at Reach John at