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Concert Review

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CJSW, Concert Review >>

The 2011-2012 BD&P World Music Series thundered to a conclusion with a sonically and visually arresting performance by Drums United, a world percussion group that was founded back in 2002 after a highly successful jam session at a festival suggested a need for a more permanent sort of arrangement.

Drums United is currently touring with eight percussionists hailing from six different countries packing an arsenal of percussive instruments and they work from a globe spanning palette of rhythms. During their Calgary stop, they played several well-received matinee shows at the Calgary International Children’s Festival prior to their finale in the Jack Singer Concert Hall at the Epcor Centre.

Last night’s lineup included group leader Lucas van Merwijk from Holland, a former punk drummer who has had a long-standing fascination with Latin and African music; Surinam’s Gianna Tam, van Merwijk’s daughter; Germany’s Nils Fischer and Mathias Holzner; Venezuela’s Marco Toro; Iran’s Afra Mussawisade; and Senegal’s Pape Thiam and Mousse Pathe Mbaye.

Van Merwijk is based in Amsterdam, which he has compared to New York City in terms of its cultural diversity. “The musicians were all right here, and it was logical to work together. Rotterdam is full of musical diversity as well. At the Rotterdam Conservatory where I teach, we have an African department, a tango department, a Latin department, and an Indian department, with lots of talented students and teachers. We have all these traditions, all around us. It made it easy.”

The format of a Drums United performance is to allow each individual member a chance to perform solo pieces that are interspersed with ensemble numbers aimed at dissolving geographic, genre, and stylistic barriers so as to promote the message that people from all over the world can work together.

If the challenge of conceiving and performing a percussion based show that can engage and maintain the interest of listeners over a full evening sounds daunting, especially in view of the fact that the musicians do not work from a common mother tongue, it is. According to Van Merwijk, “For some pieces, just figuring them out and writing them down can take a couple days. Then you have to rehearse it, and the band has to learn it by ear. It can take weeks to learn those breaks. Lots of things are like language, like turns of phrase. You have a rhythmic language, and then you have to translate it. We strive for a difference in textures, in the timbres and tempos between and within pieces. We like to switch quickly between type of instruments and zip between countries. It’s a matter of putting a strong program together.”

From my own mezzanine stage right location immediately behind van Merwijk’s drum kit, it was a treat to be able to experience the sheer physicality and vibrancy of a Drums United performance so close to the action and to be able to see each percussionist from different perspectives as they rotated around the stage.

Van Merwijk’s loose limbed technique and athleticism, his evident comfort level with the music and the sight of his large quiver of drumsticks reminded me of seeing Stewart Copeland of The Police many years ago.

Whether it was deliberate or not, my sense was that an already fast paced performance gained momentum after the break as more of the individual personalities of the percussionists came to the fore, notably in the case of Pape Thiam with his utterly distinctive ”talking drum” accompanied by Mousse Pathe Mbaye on his much larger sabar drum.

Another personal highlight was the sheer musicality and expressive range of Afra Mussawisade playing a small hand-held drum that looked something like a tambourine but sounded uncannily like a tabla.

All in all, the evening was a vivid and satisfying reminder of just how compelling drums and percussion can be in the hands of master musicians even in the absence of almost any other instrumentation, a point that first began to gain resonance for me the first time I heard a group called Fatala hailing from Guinea in West Africa.

After such a successful conclusion to this year’s program I would strongly encourage you to consider becoming a subscriber for the 2012-2013 BD&P World Music Series, for which tickets are available starting May 28.

 05/27/12 >> go there
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