Asha’s Baba is the only Jaliyaa, an African musician and storyteller, in North America. Baba was the special guest for the West African Drum Ensemble on Tuesday in Dailey Theatre. Steven Biondo’s West African Drumming class performed six rhythms following Baba’s performance.
The stage erupted in a sequence of rhythms as the University of La Verne’s West African Drum Ensemble filled the small Dailey Theatre with the reverberating sounds of 16 sets of hands harmoniously pounding on drums of varying sizes and colors Tuesday night.
Steve Biondo, founder and director of the ensemble, led his students into a set of several songs and provided audience members with an inside look and listen into the West African culture.
Students, decked out in matching uniforms, performed music rooted in the Malinke people of the once-upon-a-time Mali Empire on Djembe and Dunun drums.
“Drumming in West African culture is part of life, like a soundtrack,” Biondo said. “It is not usually performed for entertainment, but as part of daily life, along with singing and dancing.”
The ensemble played a set of six upbeat and fast-paced rhythms that easily flowed from one to the next, opening with “Mendiani,” a celebratory rhythm that honors the purity of the young girls of the Malinke tribe.
“Diansa,” a vibrantly energetic, competitive dance number, followed.
The ensemble proved the resiliency of music, as it instilled new life into the rhythms of West Africa, which date as far back as the twelfth century.
Biondo’s students, mostly bare-footed, were seemingly lost in their own music and clearly enjoyed themselves, as they continually bobbed their heads to the sounds of their own drumming.
Audience members also invariably moved to the music’s ethnic and tribal beats.
Special guest Asha’s Baba, a skilled folklorist, kora musician and true artist of words opened the night’s concert. Baba’s performance, a mix of narration, humor and audience interaction merged with bona fide African musical styles and instrumentation enticed listeners.
“Don’t get lost in the music, don’t get lost in the story, you’re a part of this,” Baba told the audience as he encouraged them to sing along.
His first song told the tale of a 200 year-old bottle of Palm wine that could only be opened by “the wisest man in the land.”
This “man” just so happened to be a woman, which elicited hoots of laughter and approval from the female audience members in the nearly packed auditorium.
The drum ensemble has been a part of ULV’s core curriculum since 2001.
Students enrolled in the course are exposed to the inner workings of the West African people, as they are taught both musical and historical aspects of their ?As part of the course requirement students must showcase their work by participating in two live performances during the semester.
Biondo, who remains true to African cultural forms, said he teaches his students in the oral tradition, just as ensemble drumming has been taught for hundreds of years, and that the course is open to musicians and non-musicians alike.
However, the abilities to create rhythm and to learn new skills are must-have traits for all potential students.
“I like the fact that the class is taught traditionally and is made for people who don’t really come from music backgrounds,” said Elide Flores, a junior psychology major and ensemble member. “It’s an open door.”
Participation in the course and ensemble definitely qualifies as a hands-on learning experience as well as a form of expression and tension release.
“I have learned about a completely different culture than my own,” said Elizabeth Canales, a junior behavioral studies major and ensemble member. “It was a stress free class where I could go to just relax and have fun.”
Students provided a fully energized performance and seemingly could have beat on their drums all night.
Jessica Bell can be reached at ledjessilin@ yahoo.com.