Drumbeats for Learning and Health

Two showcases for African drumming offer exciting opportunities for education and healing.

Ayanda Clarke, a second-generation African-American musician, will give a lecture workshop on Monday, February 21, 2:30 p.m. at Princeton University’s Hagan Dance Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. As founder of the group Palms Down (see inset of album cover), Clarke will examine the relationship between traditional African music and dance through video viewings, historical references, experiential discussion, and musical demonstrations. A second-generation African American percussionist, he has a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University (Class of 19989) and also earned his master’s degree in ethno-musicology from there. The lecture is free.

Three African drummers — Foluso Mimy, Kolipe Camara, and Ray Philip — will perform at the African Soiree, a benefit for the United Front Against Riverblindness, on Saturday, March 12, at 6 p.m.

The evening includes a silent auction, authentic cuisine and music, and a mini-concert and demonstration of African rhythms. It will be held at the Mackay Campus Center, Princeton Theological Seminary, 64 Mercer Street, Princeton. Admission is $50 ($25 for students) and advance payment is required. Go to http://www.riverblindness.org or call or email Princeton United Methodist Church, 609-924-2613 (office@princetonumc.org). Free off-street parking is available.

It’s a great cause and a fun evening (I was on the planning committee for last year’s African Soiree. Proceeds will help United Front Against Riverblindness (UFAR) to eradicate riverblindness in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where approximately 21 million of the 60 million people are at risk of getting this disease, according to Daniel Shungu, founder of UFAR.

A socially disruptive disease, riverblindness starts with an excruciatingly itchy rash, and when it leads to blindness, children must leave school to be full-time caregivers for family members. There is a drug for riverblindness, provided free by Merck & Co., but it is a challenge to get the drug to remote villages and ensure that every person takes the drug once a year for at least 10 years.

After feasting on sumptuous African dishes, provided by cooks from different African countries, and before the dancing begins, Soiree guests will be entertained by the percussionists. After a solo drum introduction, the three musicians will play together, then explain the rhythms they played, break down each part, and talk about that rhythm. Then they will introduce each instrument in the orchestra and invite two Soiree guests to come and try them out. “Then we will perform another traditional rhythm displaying how we communicate through the drum,” says Foluso Mimi (pictured with three drums at the Lincoln Park Music Festiva, photo by Amanda Brown). He belongs to the Mandingo Ambassadors, billed as “a living library of musical science.”

Each of the musicians is distinguished in his own right. For instance, Ibrahima “Kolipe” Camara (above, top right) began studying the djembe at age 10 in Guinea West Africa, traveling to learn the different instruments, rhythms, and dances. In 1992 Kolipe jonied Les Merveilles De Guinee, working with the world renowned director and choregrapher, Mohammed Kemoko Sano. After 3 years he joined Le Solei D’Afrique and toured out of Africa, playing in Belgium as a lead percussionist. For five years he was lead drummer for Les Ballets Africains, and he is now teaching and performing in New York.

The complex rhythms of African drums can send messages across the miles between villages, or celebrate joyful occasions, but they can also be deeply spiritual. It’s so appropriate that, on March 12, these drums will sound as heartbeats to health.

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