Afro-descendent percussion drums beat a timeless rhythm

On Friday evening, a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered at the ’62 Center’s CenterStage for the opening concert of the 10th annual StalwART Originality conference. The annual conference, originally begun by Sandra Burton and Annmarie Bean, explores Afro-descendent arts and its modes of expression. This year’s symposium focused on Afro-descendant percussion. Six highly energetic percussion ensembles shared the stage for the opening concert. The musicians played everything from upside-down trashcans to classical percussion instruments in an impressive demonstration of the wide spread influence of African musical traditions.

A high level of audience engagement and participation imbued every individual performance. This quality was apparent immediately when Brazilian artist Café da Silva began by teaching the audience members a simple clapping rhythm and then singing over their beat. In African musical traditions, the distinction between performer and audience is not nearly clear-cut as in classical Western traditions – everyone must participate to some degree. This is not to say that the roles of audience and performer were blurred during Friday’s show. Still, as the audience settled into its clapping pattern and da Silva’s song progressed, it became clear that music was being made by all present in the performance hall.

After da Silva came Ilu Aye, a Caribbean-focused percussion and vocal group. Equipped with at least three times as many drums as players, the group awed the attentive audience as it used every one of the drums. Smaller rattles and shakers were abundant and accompanied each song. The group played African-inspired percussion pieces from three different Caribbean nations: Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. For a non-expert, it was difficult to distinguish between the musical styles of the three islands, as many of the underlying rhythms and vocal styles were remarkably similar. As the group moved between styles, the number of performers, several drummers accompanied by one smaller percussion instrument and two singers, remained the same. Only the switching of drums at every transition tipped off the audience as to which island was being represented. Visually, Ilu Aye’s bright-colored clothing added Caribbean-themed flair to their already a high energy performance.

Though drums dominated most of the two-and-a-half-hour show, several of the College’s student ensembles briefly interrupted the pattern. The Zambezi Marimba ensemble played arrangements of “La Bamba” and Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” on its chromatic marimbas. Kusika’s drum and dance ensemble incorporated dance and singing to its drum playing. The ensemble’s usual set-up of dancers in front and drummers behind was reversed, so the drums became the focus of their piece. Yet the dancing added another layer to the show, reminding the audience that percussion is often an accompaniment rather than the focal point.

Kusika choreographed its drumming along with its dance routine. At one point, four plastic trashcans were upended and drummed upon. Lined up next to one another, the drummers incorporated drumsticks into the beating rhythm of the piece, both by clicking their own together and by clicking with another drummer’s drumstick. The dancing and choreographed drumming provided an engaging visual counterpart to the complex drum rhythms that commanded the evening.

Also part of the evening’s performance was the Williams Percussion Ensemble. The ensemble provided an interesting juxtaposition to the other more traditional performers. The students were dressed in black and were the only group that read from sheet music, performing a modern piece that integrated computer-generated sounds. Contrasting with the presentation and musical styles of all the other performers, the ensemble’s piece drew themes from African rhythms, but was more clearly influenced by classical Western percussion styles.

Friday’s concert served as an excellent introduction to a symposium about Afro-descendent percussion styles. A wide range of artists represented a variety of music, yet the underlying beats and musical approach that characterize African percussion remained present for the entire show. The only appreciable weakness was its length: Though percussion is a diverse and complex area of music, it often accompanies something else in order to avoid underscoring its inherently repetitive nature. Towards the concert’s end, this lack of melodic instruments became evident. Regardless, the show accomplished its goal of engaging a wider audience with Afro-descendent practices, and the crowd left with higher levels of energy and enthusiasm than it came in with.