Community School Drummers keep African percussion alive: ‘If people forget it, it’s gone’
Jan. 16, 2023 Updated Tue., Jan. 17, 2023 at 9:17 a.m.
When a high school’s African percussion group performs at Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Spokane Convention Center, they will drum joyful rhythms as people return from the march through downtown.
Except for an interruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community School Drummers have played at the event every year since the group was formed about 15 years ago.
The group of about 25 students at the Community School, a public choice high school in the West Central neighborhood, plays West African and Afro-Cuban percussion as part of Guinean drummer Mamady Keita’s movement to spread the music across the globe. Keita died in June 2021.
Michael Moon Bear, who studied under Keita, teaches the group, along with social studies teacher David Egly.
“This is a happy event,” Egly told the students in a pep talk at a practice Thursday in the Community School’s cafeteria. “We are pushing society to make positive change, and it is a celebration of coming together as well. Let’s bring that energy.”
Their six-song set list includes rhythms from Liberia, Nigeria, Guinea and Haiti. Students learn the cultural context of each rhythm and explain their meaning to the audience.
The beats are not random. “All of the music has specific meaning,” Bear said.
For example, Haitian slaves created a rhythm called “Congo” to make fun of their French enslavers.
Another rhythm from Guinea, called “Moribayassa,” is for a woman’s dance that breaks taboo. When a woman prays for something especially important to her, such as to have a child, she promises to perform this embarrassing dance if her prayer is answered.
Although they have different meanings, each rhythm is positive and celebratory. They encourage the audience to dance along.
Bear, who is the station manager of KYRS community radio, heard Keita’s music when he used to own a world music store in Spokane called Moon Shadow.
When he heard Keita was visiting the East Coast, Bear reached out and invited him to Spokane. Keita agreed and taught several workshops in Spokane in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Bear even helped him organize a teaching tour along the West Coast.
“It was a wonderful thing to have him here, to develop a relationship and study with him directly,” Bear said. He also studied with Keita in Belgium and Guinea. He said Keita was a national treasure of Guinea.
Sunny Gonzales, a sophomore, said the camaraderie makes the group fun, and she enjoys learning the stories behind the songs. “I didn’t know anything about African music,” she said. “I just assumed it’s not something I would be interested in, because I usually listen to rock.”
As a social studies teacher, Egly teaches students about the societies where the rhythmsoriginate. Maps of Africa and the Caribbean are posted in the corner of the room.
“We want this to be cultural appreciation and not appropriation,” Egly said.
Bear teaches the music exactly as it was taught to him. He is continuing Keita’s mission to preserve the tradition of his music.
“Where do traditions live? They live inside of people,” Bear said. “If people forget it, it’s gone.”
Egly writes grants to order the authentic djembe drums from Africa, which aren’t cheap.
Both Bear and Egly play alongside the students, performing at other events during the year.
“I love it because it gives students leadership opportunities that they might not have otherwise,” Egly said. He sees them carry those skills into the classroom and other aspects of their lives.
After the practice, Elizabeth Day’s hands turned red from drumming so hard. “My hands and arms do get really tired, but I stick through it and keep playing,” she said.
Day, a junior, joined the group because she wanted to try something new and upbeat.
“I get embarrassed easily, so I was a little nervous going into it,” she said. “But once I started playing and learned the rhythms, I had so much fun, I kept going.”
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