The culmination of Blended Rhythms at Montserrat’s St. Patrick’s Day Festival

This was it, the day we’ve all been waiting for! St. Patrick’s Day in Montserrat certainly did not disappoint. It was a whirlwind of activities, starting with the parade from the Montserrat Secondary School down the main road to “Heritage Village” in Salem.

The paraders gathered at MSS starting from around 1pm, and troupes included the Emerald Shamioles Masquerade Troupe (in their colorful ribboned costumes), Sankofa Garden (with their truck full of plants), Coral Cay (the local conservation research team), the Blended Rhythms Irish dancers, and Jalikunda (West African dance/drumming troupe). There were donkey rides for kids (and some adults!) and everyone was dressed in the kitschiest green “paddywhackery” you can imagine. If it weren’t for the hot sun, you might have thought you were in Dublin itself. Maybe.

Graham Clifford from the Irish Independent was there, reporting back home to Ireland about St. Patrick’s Day festivities on Montserrat. He spoke into the camera while paraders sang “Proud to be Montserratian” in the background, waving shamrocks and wooden machetes.

The groups lined up and started walking at around 2pm. I have to describe how incredible this experience was for me. The Irish dancers were between the masquerade dancers at the front and the West African drummers at the back, and so we were literally dancing to blended rhythms. We didn’t know which rhythm to follow! Both sounds kept fading in and out, and they both worked for the dancing, but the dancing had to change significantly depending on which rhythm we paid attention to.

The girls did a great job dancing, and we kept it simple: just some 3s and “sliding doors,” and we heard a few spectators exclaim, “Irish dancers!!!” The sun was bright and hot, and the road was long, but we powered through anyway. The excitement was infectious.

When we arrived at Heritage Village, we were greeted by Basil Chambers, who announced that he had no program for the day’s performances, and he would just be calling groups on stage as he spotted them in the crowd. The Blended Rhythms Irish dancers went up fairly early, and since we didn’t have time to arrange any music, we did our 3s and swings to soca music! Like the masquerade and djembe rhythms, the soca rhythm works just fine for Irish dancing, if a little off-putting at first.

The adult dancers also did a reprisal of their Siege of Carrick céili dance from Wednesday evening’s Shamrock Cabaret, and Mike Evans, visiting from the UK, played an Irish jig for us on his fiddle. We had a great time!

From there, the day was chock full of different forms of music, including local reggae, the Rude Boys String Band, a political rap, and soca. Calypso/soca King Wallace was in attendance, and I was disappointed that he didn’t give a performance of his famous “Dracula” hit from Christmas.

Jalikunda also performed again, and dancer Marietou Kouyate gathered some of the Blended Rhythms dancers together for an impromptu African dance performance! We threw on some skirts and jumped up on stage to shake it. We each did a solo as well, and you could see traces of each dancer’s background, from Haitian dance to masquerade dance to samba. It’s always the unexpected things that are the most fun!

Mike Evans also joined Jalikunda for some fun collaborations: he and Sidiki Dembelé paired up for an interesting ngoni/fiddle duet, and Landing Mané and I traded West African and Irish dance steps on stage. Marietou and Mamadou Cissokho also sang along with Sidiki and Mike for an improvised blended performance. Finally, the sound of the fiddle and djembe together lured me up on stage for some sean nós dancing, and I was joined by some others for some energetic steps on stage. It was impossible to resist!

The Volpanics and Genesis steel pan orchestras also played, and added a lot to the ambience of the afternoon. There were food stalls around the perimeter of Heritage Village, selling rotis, wraps, rice and peas, chicken, fried fish, duckna, goat water, and other treats. There was plentiful Guinness and Carib beer too, of course.

The Montserrat St. Patrick’s Day Festival was deemed a huge success, and it was a great finish for the Blended Rhythms program! We will take a week to recover and will start up a more limited schedule of Irish dance workshops next week.

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Masquerade dancers line up for the parade

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Blended Rhythms Irish dancers dance in the parade

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Jalikunda add some West African spice to the St. Patrick’s Day parade

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Paraders arrive at Heritage Village

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Masquerade dancers whirl up a dust storm in Heritage Village

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Landing and Kate trade West African and Irish dance steps on stage with djembe player Sidiki and fiddler Mike

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Blended Rhythms drumming students enjoy Jalikunda’s rousing performance (and see what they are working towards!)

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Some Haitian dancing adds a new element to Jalikunda’s West African music

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Jalikunda and fiddler Mike bring together Irish and West African rhythms on stage

Jalikunda and Oliver Mtukudzi liven up the African Music Festival stage

The African Music Festival was a huge success! The evening began with performances by local soca artists such as Nyne, Kelvin “Tabu” Duberry, and others, and the last small act before the featured performers went on stage was the one and only…Blended Rhythms drummers!

We had to manage the performance without Dominique leading us, so I mustered up my courage (and spent the day obsessively listening to recordings of our classes) and led the group for three of our favorite rhythms from the past couple of months: sinte, assiko, and kassa. Members of Jalikunda were kind enough to back us, as a favor to their friend and bandmate Dominique, and their djembe and dun dun support made us sound pretty awesome 🙂 Thank you Mamadou, Landing, and Sidiki!


You can see that we had a good turnout of adult drummers, and I thought we did a great job. And everyone retained their composure when the electricity in the park went out completely for about 3 minutes in the middle of our first rhythm (how professional!). We just kept going without lights or amplification, which I think actually gave us some more confidence (haha).

Jalikunda was on stage next, and…wow! I have to apologize for having very few photos or videos of their performance, but I was too busy dancing my a$$ off! We crowded towards the front of the stage and went wild. The band played a combination of sweet almost-lullaby-like songs with high energy djembe numbers: Mamadou Cissokho played some moving songs on his kora (African harp) and sang with Marietou Kouyate, and Sidiki Dembelé wowed the audience with his impossibly fast djembe hands. Oumar Sagna played djembe and calabash and danced, Landing Mané played the dun duns and danced, and Ernest played djembe and also danced.

Marietou was new to the band at this year’s Montserrat African Music Festival, and she really added a whole new (female) element to the performance. Ernest was also a newcomer this year, and his solo dance moves from Ghana were clearly distinct from the Senegalese style we saw in the other dancers. I may have seen a bit of azonto in there?

Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits were up next with a very different vibe—their music from Zimbabwe is much calmer and it is absolutely mesmerizing. I wasn’t jumping up and down the way I was with Jalikunda, but I found myself swaying back and forth, getting lost in the music. Not even the rain could keep me away from the stage (whereas some fled temporarily for cover)!

At the end, both bands joined up on stage for a “West Africa meets Southern Africa” collaboration. The joint performance was entirely unrehearsed, but you would hardly know it. They blended together seamlessly and the dancing, once it was released from the confines of “choreography,” was out of this world! They even brought out Tabu and their stage manager for an impromptu dance on stage, introducing Montserrat and the UK to the mix.

The atmosphere at the festival was wonderful. There were more people than I remember from last year and the program surprisingly stayed on schedule, without any delays. Congratulations to Kato Kimbugwe, Jonette Silcott, and the rest of the African Music Festival committee on a successful 2nd annual festival! I can’t wait for next year.

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Mamadou Cissokho on kora

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Sidiki Dembelé on ngoni and Mamadou on kora

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Ernest and Marietou Kouyate dance at the end of the night

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Ernest throws some high kicks during a solo dance performance

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Landing squats down for an impossibly cool “knee” dance (he makes it look easy…it is not)

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Dance party on stage

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Jalikunda and Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi get Montserrat’s schoolchildren on their feet

Yesterday the African Music Festival guest performers Jalikunda and Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi visited Montserrat’s three primary schools, starting at Brades, then St. Augustine’s, and ending at Lookout. They brought their energetic beats to the schoolchildren and got everyone on their feet!

Tuku brings his traditional music style from Zimbabwe, creating a chill and relaxed (but certainly rhythmic) atmosphere. The kids were swaying back and forth and bopping up and down, and a few couldn’t stay in their seats, jumping up to show off some fancy footwork.

Jalikunda’s members are based in the UK and Europe, but they hail from Senegal, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. They offer a combination of serene lullaby-like songs with wild drumming and dancing. Band leader Mamadou Cissokho taught them a call-and-response song: “Zebele zebele, zebele zebele, zebele zebele, coco va coco wa” (pardon my spelling). Then Sidiki played an incredibly fast djembe solo that led into a tight drumming segment that brought out dancers Mariatou Kouyate, Oumar Alex Sagna, and Ernest. The children were mesmerized and then went crazy, especially when Mariatou danced!

Jalikunda tried to end their demonstration, but the students demanded more, more, more! So the band played some more rhythms and the kids rushed the stage area, losing themselves in the music.

Teacher Sarah Allen thanked the band afterwards, explaining how important it is to feel connected to their African heritage:

“The rhythm that was played this morning by the bands is the same kind of rhythm that we have here in Montserrat. When I hear the drum, I move. Whenever I hear that drum beat, it is just typical African music. And as for that dancing, Lord have mercy! I wish I was young again so I could move like that!”

Tuku and Jalikunda will both perform tonight on the big stage at Salem Park. The festival will begin at around 8pm, and be sure to be there by 8:45pm, when Blended Rhythms adult students will demonstrate the djembe rhythms they’ve learned over the past couple months!

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Drumming Workshops for Kids

WorkshopDuring the African Music Festival, Jalikunda gave a workshop to children learning music at a school in Salem. The young musicians were led by a young woman named Becky Chalmers, who is in Montserrat on a fellowship this year from Sir George Martin (famous for being the Beatles’ manager and who is a Montserrat resident) through the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. Her job is to boost interest and talent in music for Montserrat children. The fellowship is awarded to a new person every year, and her term was extended for another year so Blended Rhythms will be teaming up with her and her efforts!

Here is some footage from the West African dance and drumming workshops that Jalikunda offered to kids in Montserrat last March. The kids loved it, especially once they got out of their seats to dance!

If the video does not play, please click here: Kids Dancing

St. Patrick’s Day 2013

Communications and Projects Officer Richard Aspin explains why the African Music Festival was added to St. Patrick’s Week festivities, for the first time in 2013:

“The whole point of having an African music festival as part of St. Patrick’s week is that, in the 1700s, the slaves, the African slaves, in Montserrat, rebelled on the day of St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1768, I think it was. They had a big slave rebellion, and all the slaves were hanged for rebelling against the Irish, and it was the Irish people on island who had plantations. So all these slaves worked for the Irish. So they rebelled! During a big party because of St. Patrick’s Day. So because of that, we remember St. Patrick’s Day not because of the Irish, but because of the slave rebellion, which eventually led to the freedom of the slaves.”

Here is a video of Irish dancing and West African drumming/dancing at the 2013 festival, featuring workshop instructors Kate and Dominique (with Jalikunda). We can’t wait for more and even better performances bringing together Irish and West African traditions in 2014!

If video does not play, please click here: Montserrat Irish African