Thank you, Montserrat! #BlendedRhythms 2014 comes to a close


This photo is from the first day of Blended Rhythms workshops back in January, and it’s hard to believe how much has happened since then. A lot of dancing and drumming, that’s for sure!

THANK YOU to Montserrat for supporting #BlendedRhythms this year and welcoming me and Dominique into the community and schools. We are making plans for next year, which promises to be even better!

A VERY SPECIAL THANK YOU to Herman “Cupid” Francis for all of his support: helping us promote and schedule the workshops, setting up our performances at the St. Patrick’s Festival, and the hardest job of all, carting the drums across the island 3 times per week amid his busy schedule.

Yesterday we had our last adults workshop in Salem and we reignited the Bonfire dance from a few weeks ago. Thanks to everyone who came out for this final class! I hear that some of the students will continue meeting (same time, same place) so that they can keep up the dancing and exercise. I can’t wait to see what new choreography you’ll have to show off by the time I come back next year!

An update on the djembes we ordered through the #AwesomeWithoutBorders grant back in January: unfortunately, they still have not arrived due to some issues with the international post, but we are still trying to locate them and hoping they will arrive eventually. I hear that some people on island are also still waiting for Christmas packages, so there’s still hope!

UPDATE ON MAY 23: Guess what! Two of the djembes arrived the day after I left, and they are beauties! These drums, hopefully along with the others we ordered, will be waiting for us when we arrived next year for #BlendedRhythms 2015. Thanks again, #AwesomeWithoutBorders!


Until next year!

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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Successful rehearsals, ready for performance!

Yesterday we had some great rehearsals. First, students at St. Augustine had a general rehearsal in the afternoon for the Skype call they will have with students at the Gaelscoile d’ide Primary School in Fermoy, Co. Cork, Ireland:

The pupils will share how they prepare for St. Patrick’s Day and will begin developing friendships with students in Ireland.

Among other things, the Pupils will sing to each other, recite poems, exchange St. Patrick’s Day cards, dance, dress in national wear or green and white outfits.

Five different newspapers in Ireland, with a combined readership of one million people, have been and will be covering the event: ‘The Irish Independent’, ‘The Irish Examiner’, ‘The Evening Echo’, ‘The Avondhu’ and ‘The Corkman.

Graham Clifford, feature Writer and Broadcaster working with the Irish Independent Newspaper and ‘The Observer in the United Kingdom is on island to lead the coverage for the newspapers.

The school was decorated with lots of St. Patrick’s Day accessories as well as the cloth from the national dress. It looks very festive!

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The girls were really focused and practiced the choreography we’ve been working on over the past few weeks. I think the Irish students are going to be impressed!

In the evening the adults had dance and drumming rehearsal. We were sharing the space with the Emerald Community Singers while they decorated the hall for tonight’s performance (more green, orange, and white!) so it was a bit crowded, but we made it work. We were able to rehearse on the stage and work on some of the finer points of the Siege of Carrick céili dance that we’ll be performing. After many repetitions, collisions are now at a minimum and everyone is looking much more comfortable.

The Emerald Community Singers and Martin Healy Band will be the main acts (and the band will be providing live music for us!), so it promises to be a great show. The ECS is always entertaining—a fun combination of singing, dancing, and comedy.

We then went outside to the basketball court to go over some drumming patterns. It wasn’t easy without Dominique, but luckily I had recordings of previous classes for reference. Once we get started, it sounds pretty good, and we get tighter as we go along. I think we can manage a simple, basic presentation of what we’ve learned over the past couple of months, especially if we can convince one of the members of Jalikunda African Band to lead us (they arrive on Thursday!).

St. Patrick’s Festival really kicks in today—from now until Monday, March 17, the week will be jam-packed with events. Ready, set, go!

A successful blending of rhythms at our last day at Brades School

It was our last day at Brades Primary School this afternoon, and we joined the drumming and dancing classes again, like we did last week. First we had to get a hang of the rhythm again and get our energy up. It is Friday, after all! The girls needed a little push before we started hopping around.

We reviewed the céili dance from last week, which we hope to perform on St. Patrick’s Day at the afternoon Slave Feast festivities in Salem. The choreography is looking good, and it’s a good combination of Irish dance with some movements created by the students themselves. The drumming is also sounding tight!

Stay tuned for more about St. Patrick’s Day performances! We will definitely be there, but the details have yet to be confirmed.

Also, next week there will be a workshop during our usual slot at Brades School with visiting artists Jalikunda (West African drum/dance troupe, with members from Senegal and the Ivory Coast) and Oliver Mtukudzi (from Zimbabwe). It will be interesting to see what they perform and teach the students, and how it differs from what they’ve been learning the Blended Rhythms workshops!

A whole slew of rhythms at Lookout Primary School

This afternoon was all about rhythm (more so than usual) at Lookout Primary School. The drumming class reviewed every rhythm we’ve learned over the past couple of months, and the students remembered them well! We also had a reprisal of “Dracula” from last week.

The dance class was small this week, but very concentrated. These girls at Lookout are some of our most creative and focused students. They are always adding their own twist to the steps and choreography, and they are always interested in breaking down the footwork so they can learn it properly. Their hard work does not go unnoticed!

We focused this week on sean-nós steps, including the basic step and heel/toe steps. We even put together a simple choreography, using the steps to move around the room and dance together in a circle. I explained where sean-nós comes from (the West of Ireland) and that it’s a older style that is more rhythmic than the céili dancing we’ve been doing lately.

It was an afternoon all about rhythm!

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Dancing and drumming blend together at Brades

Yesterday at Brades Primary School was the first time that we had truly “blended rhythms” when the drummers played for the dancers! The dancers started with a warm-up around the room to get used to the new music, and it only took a few minutes for everyone to get a hang of it. The rhythms are essentially exactly the same, but the drums just sound a little different from the Irish fiddle and accordion 🙂

Putting the dancing and drumming together was a great experience. Not only do the rhythms blend surprisingly well, but the students (both dancers and drummers) seemed to focus more, since they knew they were relying on each other for the collaboration to work. And they also seemed to feel a bit more pressure with a new audience!

And the dancers learned, of course, to always bow to (or otherwise acknowledge) their musicians after dancing.

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“Dracula” takes over Lookout’s drumming class

This afternoon at Lookout, the drumming class was invaded by the “Dracula System”! The catchy calypso by this year’s calypso and soca monarch, King Baptiste Wallace, was the tune of choice while the students were playing the assiko rhythm. They were moving and grooving to the beat, and spontaneously burst out in song: “I been working night and day…for the same old salary! Although I get paid…it makes me angry! Dracula…take your money! Dracula…suck your money! It is Dracula System…it makes no sense!” Check out the video to hear the boys’ rendition of this most popular song of the year.

This student in particular was having a blast:

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Dance class was small but focused this week. The girls worked on performance choreography, breaking down some of the steps and working on keeping straight lines and round circles. Stay tuned for news on when and where these students will be performing this self-choreographed céili dance!

More outdoor rhythmic exercises with St. Augustine students

This week we were outside at Little Bay field again with the students from St. Augustine, and once again we lucked out with the rain (which is always unpredictable here in Montserrat).

The drummers worked on the same rhythms they’ve been practicing for the past few weeks, including assiko and kassa breaks. This time a few of the girls who usually do the Irish dance class decided to drum instead, so there was some good cross-over!

The dancers worked more on a possible performance piece, this time incorporating the “waves” from the Waves of Tory céíli dance and their own version of the “body wave,” which is different from the Brades students’ “hand wave.” I guess every school has its own flavor!

We also did skip two threes all the way around the track, which was the crazy suggestion of one of the girls. A quarter mile is much longer than it looks! We were all huffing and puffing by the end.

This week one of our students took a long video of the drumming class, and I’m happy to have his unique perspective on the class. It’s always good to have different videographers to look at things through a fresh eye!

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