World Music Percussion Ensemble will perform ‘Turn the Beat Around'

by Caela Murphy | 11/6/12 11:00pm

Tonight, the Hopkins Center's World Music Percussion Ensemble will perform "Turn the Beat Around," a lively musical and cultural celebration of popular jazz, dance and R&B songs of the 1970s and their Latin and African roots. A collaboration between the World Music Percussion Ensemble and Bala Bala, the performance is an ensemble of jazz and world music musicians from the Upper Valley led by Hafiz Shabazz, the director of the World Music Percussion Ensemble.

The title of the performance takes its name from a disco song popularized by Vicki Sue Robinson in 1976. The song's title conveys the overall theme of the performance, which is an exploration of the ways in which several artists of this decade incorporated international rhythms and melodies into their songs, changing the dynamic of popular American music, according to Shabazz.

"In the past 25 years, African musicians have used our Western musical theory while applying their own traditional and contemporary rhythms," Shabazz said. "This has led to the promotion and production of what is known as Afro-Pop.'"

The show will open with two performances by the World Music Percussion Ensemble. First, the ensemble will play a medley of songs performed on djembes, African drums played with bare hands, immediately introducing traditional African rhythms into the show. This will be followed by a performance of "What's Going On," an R&B song by Marvin Gaye.

Bala Bala will then take the stage to perform three compositions "Maza Cote," a Cuban improvisational piece in the style of son/mambo, "Cantaloupe Island," a jazz piece by Herbie Hancock, and "Oye Como Va," a popular song by Latin-American artist Carlos Santana.

After their separate performances, the World Music Percussion Ensemble and Bala Bala will share the stage, performing six popular African and Latin-inspired jazz and disco songs from the 1970s, including music by Fela Kuti, Stevie Wonder and James Brown.

The performance will feature four guest instrumentalists, who will accompany the songs with music on the saxophone, flute, harmonica, guitar and trumpet. Three guest vocalists will also perform during the concert, and three guest dancers will perform an improvisational dance to accompany the Fela Kuti song "Zombie."

Guest vocalist Xavier Curry '14, who had performed in several Hopkins Center musicals and is a member of the Dartmouth Aires, will be singing "Higher Ground" and "Superstition," both by Wonder. One of the purposes of tonight's performance is to demonstrate to the audience how traditional African rhythms translate into what we know as modern music, according to Curry.

"We want to highlight just how much African music has inspired R&B and pop and how similar they really are even though they seem different," Curry said. "The ensemble will be putting African drumbeats underneath these pop songs, and the point will be that it doesn't sound weird or strange. It almost makes it sound even better."

Shabazz echoed this point and added that members of the audience would enjoy this juxtaposition of unfamiliar rhythms with more commonly recognizable music.

"Most people have heard of artists such as Stevie Wonder and James Brown," Shabazz said. "We will be using music that is familiar to the audience, but playing it alongside African rhythms. We think people are going to be really excited."

Doris Pu '14, who has been playing in the ensemble since her freshman fall, said that one of the World Music Percussion Ensemble's goals is to introduce students to music that differs from the typical orchestral music to which they may be accustomed.

"The purpose of the ensemble is to explore world music and make it accessible to the audience," Pu said. "We use different instruments and styles of playing to accomplish this."

When it was first created, the group was originally called the West African Drumming Ensemble, but Shabazz changed its name when he became its director in 1984 to reflect its new focus on the musical traditions of other cultures of the world. Shabazz said that the original role of the ensemble felt restrictive at times, especially considering the expertise that he had gained from traveling to and studying the music and culture of several African and Latin American countries.

"What I wanted to do was to expand on the particular concept of the percussion ensemble by utilizing music from these other cultures that I had studied and visited," Shabazz said.

Ever since the name was changed, the World Music Percussion Ensemble has been playing a wider range of global and cultural musical compositions, putting on performances inspired by music from Africa, Asia, South America and various other regions of the world.

"In our performances, we draw from many different cultures," Pu said.

Shabazz said that the growth of different racial and cultural groups on campus over the course of the past few decades provided an additional incentive for the extension of the ensemble's repertoire.

"There now exist on campus larger populations of Asians, Hispanics and Africans," Shabazz said. "I intend to develop the ensemble's repertoire in order to encompass more of their cultural compositions."

"Turn the Beat Around" was originally scheduled to be performed in Spaulding Auditorium on Oct. 31 but was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy. Although Shabazz was initially concerned that it would be difficult to get the word out about the change in date and venue, he is optimistic about the turnout for tonight's show. Alumni Hall cannot seat as many people as Spaulding Auditorium, but the more open venue will provide audience members with the opportunity to stand up and dance to the music, he said.

"Turn the Beat Around" will start at 7 p.m. in Alumni Hall.

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