Katherine Hagedorn dies at 52; Pomona professor was Santeria priestess

Katherine Hagedorn was not your stereotypical priestess in the Cuba-based Santeria religion, known for its complex, ecstatic drumming that adherents believe can call forth deities.

She grew up in New Jersey, was white, had a doctorate in music and was a longtime popular professor at Pomona College.

But as a graduate student on a cold, rainy day at Brown University in 1988, she spotted a poster for an upcoming performance by an Afro-Cuban ensemble of drummers and dancers. The performance changed her life.


“From the moment the drummers struck their instruments, I was stunned,” Hagedorn wrote in her 2001 book, “Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santeria.” “Each delicate stroke seemed to hit my solar plexus, and I was immediately embarrassed lest anyone guess how intimately I was experiencing the sound. I could not breathe normally.”

Hagedorn traveled to Cuba, studied with masters of sacred bata drums, and after a decade of practice and study, became initiated into Santeria as a priestess. It was a journey from academic objectivity to total involvement in a world that once seemed entirely foreign to her.

“My wide-angle lens of folkloric performance,” she wrote, “had suddenly zoomed in to the close-up focus of personally experienced religious performance.”

Hagedorn died Nov. 12 at home in Claremont after a long struggle with cancer, said Pomona College. She was 52, and had been part of the school’s music faculty since 1993.

Drumming was just one of several topics she taught at the school. She also oversaw the Balinese Gamelan ensemble and taught courses in gender in music, performance traditions of the African diaspora and protest music. Her classes were emphatically participatory, not to mention loud.

“If we are learning about West African music, if we’re reading about it, listening to it, we’re playing it too,” she said in a 2001 Pomona College Magazine article. “Same with Tuvan throat singing and Balinese Gamelan. I try to get the students to do it.”

In 2000, Hagedorn was named California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Katherine Johanna Hagedorn was born Oct. 16, 1961, in Summit, N.J. Her undergraduate degree was from Tufts University, with a triple major in Spanish, Russian and English studies, plus a minor in classical piano. She earned a master’s degree in international relations from John Hopkins University and a master’s and doctorate from Brown in ethnomusicology.

In 1989, she made the first of many trips to Cuba to study bata drums, which are played in sets of three. “The only way you can learn to play those things is to be taught by someone who is an expert, who is consecrated,” said Raul Fernandez, professor of Latin American studies at UC Irvine. “They knew she was honest and truly interested, not there on some capricious whim.”

She completed her first step of initiation into Santeria about a year after her studies of the bata drum began, but then took each subsequent step only after “much trepidation” and self-examination, “shying away from what appeared to be my religious calling,” she wrote in her book.

When she finally became a priestess, she wore a special outfit for the occasion.

“It’s the dress she will be wearing when she is buried,” said her friend Margaret Waller, a professor of French at Pomona.

Hagedorn is survived by her husband, Terry Ryan, a professor at Claremont Graduate University’s Center for Information Systems & Technology; a son, Gabriel; her parents, Fred and Grace Hagedorn; and her sister Martha Hagedorn-Krass.