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The Beat Goes On at the Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival

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The sound seemed to exist outside of any the performers - it unified and enveloped everyone in its perimeter.
With a blend of music that incorporated the powerful rhythms of traditional Japanese taiko drums with non-traditional jazz and electronic styles, the On Ensemble was one of many high-caliber groups performing at the 24th Annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival on Saturday, September 24, 2005. Contrapunto, an ensemble dedicated to preserving its Afro-Peruvian roots, performed traditional instrumental and vocal music, accompanied by dancers in colorful Peruvian costumes. As the Locke High Saints Drumline performed, some of the festivalgoers wandered over to the "drum pavilion, surrounding the performers and swaying to the beat of the Universal Drum Circle.
The Day of the Drum Festival is a popular outdoor celebration held annually in September, that also includes the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival held on Sunday. Both events celebrate multiculturalism and bring people together from all walks of life in Southern California and from around the world. "Dedicated to percussion and the traditional role of drumming in human societies, the Drum Festival is held in the center of Watts, at the site of the Watts Towers. The historic Watts Towers are seventeen major sculptures that were created by Sabato "Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, out of steel that was covered with mortar and decorated with a variety of embedded mosaic tiles, shells, glass from broken bottles, ceramic pieces of broken plates, and rocks. The sculptures were a 33-year obsession, which the artist worked on from 1921 until 1955, calling his steel structures Nuestro Pueblo (Our Town). Tours of Rodia's Towers were held throughout the weekend, as the events brought together artisans, musicians, food vendors and music lovers. The diverse crowd fanned out into the various areas of the festival, which was free and open to the public. Some browsed the ethnic goods available at merchants' booths while many participants remained seated in front of the main stage area or converged in the area of the Drum Circle.

The On Ensemble (pronounced "ohn ) was coming to the end of a composition entitled "After Rain, as I arrived Saturday afternoon. A young performer hummed a throaty chant into the microphone, while two other musicians played a rhythmic beat on classic Japanese drums and a drum set that included cymbals, bass and snare drums. A vibrating sound that was reminiscent of bees swarming, or rain, faded away as the piece came to an end. Before they began the next number, one of the musicians, Shoji Kameda, explained that while the ensemble members were all Americans - he himself was fourth-generation Japanese-American - they had studied traditional music in Japan. He stated that their music was influenced by jazz, rock, electronic music, and contemporary urban music. Enthusiastically talking about the influence of hip-hop on their music, he said, "Nothing feels that good! Like nothing! Their work combines 21st century experimental sound with centuries-old Noh and Kabuki music. One of the pieces performed was "Turns, which started out with Kris Bergstrom scratching on a DJ's turntable. The Japanese drums played by Masato Baba and drum set played by Kelvin Underwood came in with a gentle pounding rhythm in the background, starting out softly and building in volume. The sound from the turntable at times resembled chirping, laughing, and chuckling until the constant beat in the background transformed the music into the chattering of animals in a forest or jungle. After swelling to a dull roar, the turntable took a turn and sounded out, "fu. . .fu. . .fu. . .fufun. . .fun-ky. . . and "ch. . .ch. . .chi. . .chek-it-out. With the combination of ancient drum rhythm and the scratching on a turntable, the piece was a mix of old and new that took one from a primeval place to a contemporary dance floor. The combination was a great mix, technically precise, and the unique sound was delightful to hear.
Taiko drums were originally used in religious ceremonies, folk music and court music. During the 1950s, taiko began to evolve into a dynamic performing art, according to information found on the group's web site. As the group began the next composition, "Osi Yon, Kris took a place on the right side of a large drum. In traditional Japanese dress that included wide-legged black pants, Shoji squatted with his legs spread horizontally, in a beautiful pose perpendicular to the left of the drum. Kris began a light, rhythmic drumming on his side, with Shoji responding with beautiful, wide swings of his arms before pounding majestically on the reverse side of the drum. It was a call and response, with gracefully choreographed drumming in a traditional style, combined with a chanting/humming/singing called "throat singing. No translations of the Japanese singing were provided, but the music communicated a soulful interaction between the two performers, with the rhythm becoming very soft and prayer-like in a 3/4 time - beating softer and softer until it was almost imperceptible. Background noise from the festivalgoers milling around behind the seating area proved to be somewhat distracting - this dramatic and moving arrangement deserved full attention.

Following that performance, there was a short break while the eight members of the all-male Contrapunto ensemble came on stage, each taking a seat on wooden boxes formed in a half-circle. All of the men wore black pants and white shirts, with red cumberbunds around the waist and red scarves around their necks. They brought with them a variety of instruments, including bongos and conga drums, and what looked like sheets of aluminum placed between their legs. One man held a wooden box with a lid that opened and closed and grasped a wooden drumstick that he would later beat on the side of the homemade box. The first performance seemed to be a warm-up number - with all members beating a constant rhythm on their various drums for several minutes, punctuated with shouts of "Ohp! Ohp! Ohp!, and then all coming to an abrupt stop. The next performance was described as a traditional Afro-Peruvian composition, called "Sama Pegua. The beginning of the piece started with rapid clapping by all of the performers, followed by a capella singing between two of the performers, who sang back and forth to each other. Acoustic and electric guitars came in together, with a Latin melody. Two female dancers, dressed in traditional Peruvian style with long, flowered dresses, came to the center of the stage, shaking their skirts and gracefully swirling white scarves in their hands. They performed a romantic, feminine dance, with hips rolling to the music while the drummers played a constant, rhythmic beat. The electric guitar interjected several times with a series of sharp and unusual-sounding pizzicato tones. The two vocalists were joined towards the end of the arrangement with a long chorus of "la, la, la, la, la which got quieter and quieter and then ended abruptly with a loud, "Oh!

The next couple of numbers performed by Contrapunto included the same fast, rhythmic tempo interspersed with vocal shouting and chatter. Most of their tunes had upbeat, happy melodies. Two men demonstrated a traditional dance called "Sabatayo, which was accompanied by the acoustic guitar and clapping. They faced the audience and did a fast tap dance and then each performed a solo dance that included lowering themselves to the floor and slapping their knees. The tap dance sounded like someone fumbling around in an attic, bumping and knocking.

The next performance consisted of all the performers sitting on wooden boxes (cajónes) and beating the boxes between their legs with their hands. They would beat in unison at a fast speed, interspersed with clapping. Towards the end of their performance, six children came out and told the adults that they had to get off the stage so that they could show them "how to really play the cajónes. The young players performed a fun, rain-like beat that included waving their hands off to the side, as if to wave their elders away. The Drum Festival program explained that the performers had no formal musical training or scores and that instruction is transmitted orally. The mix of homemade instruments, with the dancers' colorful costumes and the inclusion of children in this Afro-Peruvian musical tradition gave the audience a glimpse at a culture that blends Latin melodies with African percussion.

Wandering over to the "drum pavilion, which was actually a grassy area near the craft booths, the Universal Drum Circle was in full swing. Upon arrival, there were more than fifty drummers sitting and standing in a large circle in the hot sun, rhythmically beating a wide variety of instruments - congas, a drum set, bongos, shakers, rattles . . . one of the performers blew on a penny whistle while others kept up a steady beat on wooden frogs and cowbells. The sound was primal and compelling. Dancers entered the middle of the circle and swayed or stomped to the music. Those around the drummers were as much a part of the music as the drummers. The sound seemed to exist outside of any the performers - it unified and enveloped everyone in its perimeter. Occasionally one performer change to another rhythm and the group as a whole followed without being directed - all as one. The acoustics at the festival were interesting in that the loud rhythmic music created in the Drum Circle area could not be heard from the main stage and vice versa. Najite Agindotan acted as the Drum Circle Master, although the group seemed to be largely self-directed. At one point in the afternoon, back in the main stage area, a toddler sporting a blue striped shirt picked up a rock and started tapping it lightly against a steel pole that supported the canvas awning that covered the audience, contributing his own sound to the event. You could not be present at this Day of the Drum Festival without feeling compelled to participate in the beat.

Photo Credit
Jan Seeger

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