Drummers of West Africa | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Drummers of West Africa 

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DRUMMERS OF WEST AFRICA

Mickey Hart and Steve Reich have studied with them, the Japanese taiko troupe Kodo has performed with them, and the Rolling Stones have taken them on the road as an opening act. Now on their first North American tour, the Drummers of West Africa seem poised to become celebrities in their own right. The troupe's 35 members are masters of sabar, a style particular to Senegal--and every one is related by blood or marriage to musical director and chief griot Doudou N'Diaye Rose, the father of modern sabar. A sabar drum is tall and narrow, with a head of shaved goatskin that's struck with the hands or a thin stick to produce a wide range of tones and timbres; elaborate cross rhythms and delicate grace notes give the music its distinctive texture. Ensembles of drummers and dancers accompany tribal ceremonies--a wedding, a holiday, the birth or naming of a baby--and sometimes wrestling matches, where each combatant is identified by his own rhythm. The wide repertoire the Drummers of West Africa command is drawn in part from these traditional functions, but Rose has also experimented with new hybrid drums and bigger and bigger ensembles--his recording Djabote features 55 drummers and a chorus of 80 singers. As the story goes, Rose's aristocratic parents tried to discourage him from taking up drumming, but he defied them and studied with many of West Africa's celebrated poet-musicians, or griots, copying and refining their rhythms and eventually creating his own. Now he's 71 years old, and the 38 children he's fathered over the years have all become percussionists. These days he conducts more than he plays, and his group's precise, theatrical choreography and colorful tribal costumes make its stage show look a little like a Busby Berkeley production number--but don't let the flash put you off. If you've ever got a thrill from a drum and bugle corps, then listening to 35 master Senegalese drummers in thunderous unison is as close to an out-of-body experience--with the possible exception of Beethoven's Choral Symphony--as you're ever likely to get in Orchestra Hall. Monday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 800-223-7114 or 312-294-3000.

Ted Shen

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