Drum ensemble creates African beats

Tracy Ryan and Rachel Stone are a part of the West African Drum Ensemble founded by Steve Biondo in 2001. His spring 2007 class performed on Wednesday in Dailey Theater. At the end of the evening Biondo invited former students on stage to participate in the final number, “Fabro.” / photo by Christina Carter
Tracy Ryan and Rachel Stone are a part of the West African Drum Ensemble founded by Steve Biondo in 2001. His spring 2007 class performed on Wednesday in Dailey Theater. At the end of the evening Biondo invited former students on stage to participate in the final number, “Fabro.” / photo by Christina Carter

Tha-tha-tha-ta di-di-shaka-shaka-plop, heads moved to this rhythm and hands clapped with an unstoppable beat, and it all was part of the West African Drumming ensemble performance that took place Wednesday night.

The large crowd of 45 or more attended the night performance in Dailey Theatre.

“We have been doing this for six years,” said Steve Biondo, director of the West African Drumming Ensemble.

There are 300 different rhythms and the class has only learned about 60 of them.

The rhythms performed on Thursday originated mostly from what was once the Mali Empire. Today, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia, and Senegal, take up that region.

As the performers got ready, the crowd cheered for them. The audience members seemed excited.

The drummers took their spots. There were two rows of drums. The first row of drummers had chairs to sit on; they used only their hands to make a beat. The second row of drummers stood up and used drumsticks to play. Near the middle and end of the back row there were two huge drums; these played the bass sounds.

The first piece performed was “Mendiani.”

Biondo rhythmically tapped the bells on his foot to give his student the lead. This first performance seemed like a warm up. The beat was not to fast nor too slow and the timing seemed almost perfect.

After the song finished, the drummers shifted their positions. Some went to the back, others to the front, and others played the shakers.

The second rhythm was similar to a battle. The front row played a certain beat and the back row responded with a deeper one. Biondo had a small solo that stood out from the whole beat.

There are basic combinations that produce distinct sounds. The most basic techniques are the stroke and slap.

The third rhythm performed, “Toro,” was for the boys.

Again the bells guided the drummers. The beat sounded like the background music that is featured when kings walk through crowds.

After a while the rhythm got slower and softer and slower and softer until it was hardly audible; then slowly, the beat got louder and louder. It almost seemed like a musical rollercoaster.

The next piece performed was not recited. “Now you’ll see how they learn a rhythm,” Biondo said. “I play the music, they hear and then repeat it and learn through repetition..”

Biondo first showed the beat to the bass drummers, once they got the beat he moved on to the rest. The back row had no problem learning the rhythm. But the front row of drummers seemed to have trouble.

The rhythm was fast and their hands could not catch the beat. But after a while, the front row finally fell into rhythm.

The last beat performed was “Fabro,” a more modern rhythm.

“Fabro” was the fastest beat out of all of the rhythms. It was fast and funky.

Next up was a different kind of song, one that required pipes and skirts.

Nicholson Pipes and Drums, a Scottish band, played several songs. The music was different but the crowd definitely enjoyed it.

The West African Drum Ensemble is a Wednesday night class that can be taken in either Fall or Spring semester.

Priscilla Segura can be reached at psegura@ulv.edu.

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