Back to the basics
by Charmie Gholson
Outside the historic Stockbridge Township Hall, an older gentleman wearing a John Deere hat calls to me from his truck, "Miss, is this where the drumming thing is?" "Yes, sir," I shout. My boys and I are sharing a snack on the bench in the picture-perfect town square before going in.
That same man stops on his way into the performance to tease my four-year-old in a very grandfatherly way. There's something I don't see too often in "the city" older men initiating friendly interactions with my kids. Most men are annoyed by children or, at best, ignore them.
I wonder how these quaint village locals will respond to Repercussions, five women in shimmering clothes who play drums fiercely and sing for the Spirits. For fifteen years Repercussions, all of whom have day jobs, have been sharing their obsession with world music, rhythm, and instruments with audiences all over Michigan. And now they're in Stockbridge.
Babies, children, young teens, couples, and older folks fill the auditorium. We've missed the beginning because I had to take my son to the bathroom, but from the basement of the 103-year-old building, we heard drumming, singing, and a fine roar at the finish.
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.
After the show, the audience crowds the stage to meet the women and to see and touch the instruments. Making music used to be something families did together. I think these folks are closer to that reality, or at least the memory of community music, than their urban counterparts.
Repercussions is at Top of the Park on Sunday, July 2.
[Review published July 2006]