Darrell Rose and the Afrikan Drum Festival

By Amy Briggs

Nothing stirs the mind like a little bit of music. In retirement homes, it means entertainment in the lounge; in preschools, it gets the kids reaching for their heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. Even infomercials bank on music’s stimulating effects, hawking specialized wombphones to pregnant moms, so that they can subject their tiny passengers to muffled classical.
But sometimes it just doesn’t seem fair to the helpless audience– whether elderly or very young. I wonder… if given the choice, would they willingly sit through hammy harpsichords, show tunes from Oklahoma, Jazzercise tapes, or the moral truths of Barney and Friends? Would any of us?
I think we’d all like something different, such as Darrell Rose and the Afrikan Drum Festival. 
You’ve most likely seen these percussionists Fridays and Saturdays on the Downtown Mall. Up close, it’s trance-like, hypnotic. You wonder how such skillful hands can withstand such constant abuse, at such velocities, on such unforgiving surfaces.
It turns out Darrell Rose has been learning, practicing, and generating such music since the mid-’70s. And he’s been trained in West African traditional methods by some of the finest, Mor Tiam and Abdou Kunta (Senegal), as well as Babatunde Olatunji (Nigeria).
No stranger to national attention, Rose, back in 1986, landed a video in MTV’s heavy rotation, the b-side of his then-band's single “Apartheid, Television Dreams.” He’s also had considerable exposure on the live circuit, both here and abroad, performing with such acts as the Wailers and Corey Harris. Also, since 1991, Rose has been an Artist in Residence, funded by the Virginia Commission for the Arts, for the public school system, teaching the technique and historical origins of his talent to children throughout Central Virginia.
Last Saturday at the Prism Coffeehouse was my first time to see the Afrikan Drum Festival in an actual venue. I enjoyed the family-like atmosphere, from the coffee and cookies in the kitchen to the stage up by the fireplace. The group’s songs all seemed to dance around polyrhythms (sometimes there were too many to count), with beats thrown in here and there for contrast, and patterns emerging and dissolving.
Each member of the group, extremely adept at maintaining his own, worked slight shifts into the songs’ organic growth. All the instruments were interesting, ranging from the tama, or “talking drum,” to the mbira, whose plucked tines sounded like a warm xylophone.
The Afrikan Drum Festival recently released a compilation of their finest recordings, encompassing 10 years of effort, on the local label Sourmash Records (www.sourmashusa.com). The CD painstakingly captures the group’s sound, inducing complete neuronal bliss after a few listens. So save your loved ones from mediocrity. Play them something you’d want to hear.

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