The Unitarian Society’s sanctuary was transformed on Saturday into a multicultural musical playground as African drum and dance ensemble Panzumo, headed by co-directors Budhi Harlow and Lisa Beck, shared the space with musicians on instruments native to the Western musical tradition.
Vienna Collins opened the show with original and traditional compositions on the harp, which were somehow ethereal and earthy at the same time, including a duet with Ray Tischer on viola. Venessa Kay then provided a Native American blessing, chanting and gently waving sage bundles over an abalone shell.
Later in the show, Tischer returned with his viola and played traditional and original pieces, including one which he described as coming to him during a spiritual experience in the Amazon. It was as if he was a clear conduit and music flowed through him, the sounds richly evocative of the lush rain forest.
Pianist Stephen Kelly played original compositions based in traditional African and Indian rhythms, as well as joining Tischer and the other musicians.
The Panzumo dancers, led by Beck, performed traditional dances from Guinea and Sierra Leone. The multi-talented Beck sang Orixa chants in a sweet and soaring voice, accompanied by Kelly and Tischer, and danced a Senegalese initiation dance, dressed in white with a feathered mask and blue chiffon “wings.”
In addition to traditional drums, Panzumo uses melodic percussion instruments like the steel pan drum, hammered dulcimer, tongue drum, and moyo: a spherical instrument originally made from a propane tank. Several high-energy drumming interludes brought a spirit of revelry to the proceedings, especially when the audience was invited to rise and dance along. Renowned African drummer Dramane Kone, from Burkina Faso, provided a dose of pure joy, which was apparent on his face as he played.
All proceeds from the show went to benefit Harlow’s Drum and Dance Program at Santa Barbara High School’s Opportunity Academy. The academy is composed of students who are considered “academically at-risk.” On the borderline of failing out of school, they take classes separately from the rest of the student body. This is their last chance to get it together, and as Paul Betts, instructor of the Opportunity Academy, said in his introduction to Panzumo’s performance, the program is making a huge difference to these kids.
Harlow, who lived in Senegal off and on for nine years, has been teaching drumming and working with youth and other groups for 20 years now, and specializes in work with people with brain injuries. He teaches at the Opportunity Academy twice a week.
“The kids have the chance to play African drums, which has been proven to be one of the best things for brain function,” he explained. “We do drumming and also dancing, because in the African tradition of djembe, from Guinea, the drummers have to dance and the dancers have to learn the rhythm.”
In addition to finding an outlet for their personal expression, these students are experiencing a fundamental shift as they learn to work as part of an ensemble.
“They’re showing a greater sense of responsibility and connection with each other,” Harlow said. “If someone doesn’t show up for class, they’re calling and texting to see what’s going on and where he or she is. There’s a greater sense of community.”