With drums and poetry, percussion group to play for social change

by Hallie Huffaker | 11/4/14 4:50pm

Combining the rhythmic energy of drumming with the emotive power of spoken word, the World Music Percussion Ensemble will play a cross-disciplinary concert inspired by prevalent social issues like racial and gender equality on Wednesday.

Director Hafiz Shabazz said that this is the first time he has combined percussion and poetry. Sudents, community members and alumni will perform including Olivia Scott ’13 and Darrin Jones ’95, who will read poetry at the show.

Shabazz said drums will be played for peace and social progress, rather than to connote war or danger.

“When you think of drums, you think of something hard, but here you will also get to hear drums played in such a way that they are tolerant and with a great deal of passion but not a great deal of overpowering sound,” Shabazz said.

The program includes pieces by Baba Michael Olatunji, Fela Ransom Kuti and Mongo Santamaria. Poetry by Maya Angelou, Sekou Sundiata and Rumi will also feature in the show.

Poetry selections like Sundiata’s “Long Story Short” discuss the challenges of being black in America, while Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” celebrates a woman’s intellect and power.

The poetry will be accompanied by a chord progression and interspersed with full compositions, Shabazz said.

“My focus of this particular concert, unlike many others, is dealing with conscience-raising,” he said. “I chose ‘Still I Rise’ because it speaks about the integrity, courage and self-worth of women, thinking in terms of the problems on campuses across the nation today, where women are facing sexual harassment and degradation.”

Shabazz tried to balance stories of despair and perseverance with music that evokes hope and strength. One poem, “Black Boys to Men,” discusses the difficulties of growing up, which he combined with a composition titled “Nature Boy,” which describes love’s importance to enduring human happiness.

Shabazz said he is hopeful that the concert will spark a deep emotional reaction.

“Overall, hopefully [the audience members] will come away from the concert physically, emotionally and psychologically touched,” he said. “[They] will come away feeling that you really visited another planet.”

Jones, a former member of the ensemble, said he looks forward to returning to campus and playing with Shabazz and the current ensemble.

“Hafiz was my first teacher, and my time here gave me the foundation for everything that I have done in music since,” he said. “He is a phenomenal professor and in this concert you will really be getting to hear quality stuff.”

Jones said the “story-like” feel of the show reflects Shabazz’s artistic preferences and the theme is relevant to contemporary audiences.

Scott, who was involved with spoken word at Dartmouth, said she is especially interested in the social issues that will be raised in the concert. She first discussed the show with Shabazz at Dartmouth’s candlelight vigil for Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, in August.

Scott was not in the ensemble at Dartmouth but has attended a few rehearsals to prepare for the concert.

“He creates a great energy,” Scott said. “The music and the poems will be loose, and we’re just going to play off the audience.

The ensemble combines rhythms with the feel of improvisation to create an “earthly sound,” Moises Silva ’16, who plays the drum kit, said. The members do not get sheet music, and instead are taught the rhythms of the songs and improvise to find the right combinations in rehearsal.

Silva, who joined the ensemble his freshman year, said he enjoyed the improvisational elements of the practice sessions and concerts.

“As opposed to ‘in-your-face’ music, it’s more of an ‘experience it, feel it,’” he said. “Every you time you listen you’ll hear something different — you’ll get a feel for how many layers of music there are.”

Percussionist and singer Andrew Nalani ’16 said he only learned how to play the drums when he joined the ensemble.

“I find it to be very grounding — it gives me a chance to use a different part of my body,” he said. “Hafiz takes each of our strengths and works with them, and that has created a very hospitable environment.”

Nalani said he is especially excited that the concert allows him to combine his interests in poetry and music.

“In poetry, we hear a rhythm, and in percussion, we hear a rhythm,” he said. “So I hope the audience will dance to the rhythm of compassion in this concert.”

The ensemble will perform at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in Spaulding Auditorium.