John Wilkie started playing conga drums in the 1950s, while he was in high school in North Philadelphia. His first mentors and teachers were William Powell and Charles Brown, both noted percussionists who were among the first generation of Philadelphians to undertake extensive study of African and Afro-Cuban hand-drum traditions. Later, he met Robert Crowder and studied batá under him, as well as Garvan Masseaux, master Cuban drummer Kikiyu (Enriqué Adamo Admiral) and a circle of others. At this time, in the 1970s, Mr. Wilkie became a member of the Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble. Currently, he is music director of the ensemble.
While studying with Kikiyu, Mr. Wilkie began drumming at bembés, spiritual gatherings, and worship services. From “Kwesi,” Darrell Burgee, he learned djembe and West African drumming. In the early 1990s, he joined the company Jaasu Ballet. He also performs with the Spoken Hand drum ensemble.