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Monday May 29, 2017
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Upstairs, the stage is covered with at least twenty drums of various materials, sizes, and shapes, plus many other percussive critters I was able to identify — cowbells, standing djembes, congas, a flute, shakers, shells strung together, and a rain stick. One performer is explaining the huge, C-shaped xylophone from Ghana that has both a tone from its keys and a vibration from the gourds suspended underneath them. Smoke and fire are used to tune the keys. Children in Ghana collect spider egg sacs from the corners of rooms and spread them over holes cut in the gourds to create a vibration. Apparently in the United States we don't use spider egg material, but thin cigarette papers instead.

Some of the songs are surprisingly peaceful. Judy Piazza wrote and performed her piece — based, she says, on a "Middle Eastern rhythm for the heart and the breath" — on one of the "oldest" stretched-skin drums. It's white with what look like metal tassels hanging all around. Soft flute music begins the song. It's joined by some shells strung together and wiggled a bit to create a sound so much like rain I wonder if I've left my windows open. Judy holds the drum at chest level. She doesn't strike it but rather runs her fingers slowly across the skin so that it vibrates. It's meditative, and ancient sounding.

Those quiet moments are rare. As the concert heats up, the songs become more and more thunderous, filling the hall. The musicians teach us African chants of welcome and friendship, and even the big guy in front of me shouts along. The women are sweating and laughing, showing off at times with choreographed movements that accent the drumming.

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