Drum ensemble beats march on

Posted Dec. 8, 2006

With practiced uniformity in rock steady rhythms created by swift hand movements, the West African Drum Ensemble and special guests the Kingsmen Alumni Corps Drumline guided the audience into beats varying from the aural tradition to a military-esque marching band style of sound Wednesday in Dailey Theatre.

Issuing a quick succession of slaps known as a “call” on his djembe drum, Steven Biondo, founder and director of the ensemble, jump started the night with “Mendiani,” a rhythm inspired by a dance for young virgins that originated with the Malinke people of northeast Guinea.

Following his lead, his larger than average class carried the next tune, titled “Alou Kassa” through mellow and heavy adjustments in speed, bobbing heads and tapping sometimes bare feet to the continuous and practiced product of more than 20 djembe and dunun drums.

Though many students have repeated the course time and again for additional opportunities to master the art of West African drumming, Biondo said the majority of the class onstage was new, attending weekly practices to reach the level of proficiency demonstrated during the performance.

“You should know that everyone here is new and learned this in basically 12 class sessions; there’s a vocabulary you have to know,” Biondo said as he explained the trio of strokes used — bass, tone and slap — to generate the complex rhythms reverberating through the air.

The rhythms varied in pace, decibel and story, ranging from the jingles and upbeat taps to the drum performed in “Alou Kassa,” initially meant to motivate farmers in the fields of the Guinean Highlands, to the swinging syncopation of “Jata,” a series of modern cadences mimicking a lion’s approach.

Biondo said he tried to incorporate new material into the class each semester but that he frequently brought back audience favorites such as “Favreau,” first measuring the ability of students to play complicated progressions taught in the aural tradition.

“I switch people around at the beginning of class to see what they do best but they kind of gravitate toward what they want to play,” Biondo said.

The performance of “Favreau,” another modern rhythm produced by the Soungalo Coulibaly of Mali, received the most animated participation, with students slapping the drums next to them in unison and exchanging smiles and nods of encouragement.

“It’s because of the breaks; it has more variety and the crowd likes it, so you feed off of the crowd,” said Elide Flores, a senior psychology major and a seventh semester ensemble member.

Biondo said many of his students were new to the stage experience and that he had schooled them in the act of engaging audience participation.

“You don’t want them to have that ‘deer in the headlights’ look, so I warn them and ease them into it,” Biondo said.

“When you come out to perform, people are going to clap and I tell [students] they have to give something back, make eye contact; it’s like a circle,” he added.

Once the last beat of “Favreau” sounded, he easily switched gears, dawning a new shirt bearing the Kingsmen logo and a set of tenor drums before taking his place among a large group of drumming professionals.

The drum line was invited to perform with the ensemble to introduce students and audience members to a new sound, also celebrating the 35th anniversary of its first Drum Corps International Championship title, Biondo said.

Displaying fancy handiwork, as blue and white striped drum sticks were tossed into the air and made into additional instruments during short staccato versions of such well known rhythm parts as “George of the Jungle,” the Kingsmen lent a large scale parade vibe to the event.

Biondo also said the stoic expressions on most of the men and women in the drum line were bred from concentration, showing the expertise wrought by more than 40 years of excellence.

“There was a mixed audience; some people come and don’t think they’re going to like one thing and end up liking it all,” Biondo said in response to the large crowd that gathered, whether to see the drum line or the newest incarnation of the popular ensemble.

The different styles of drumming seemingly blended into and complimented one another, proving that various types of percussion can serve as more than behind-the-scenes instruments.

“I didn’t think too highly of drumming before,” said David Duong, a senior business administration major.

“I thought of drums as back-up instruments, but this performance changed my mind,” he added.

Kady  Bell can be reached at rzezna65@yahoo.com.

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