By turns spiritual, primal, playful, ritualistic, swinging and dramatic, the "Sacred Drums" concert at the Duke Ellington Theater last week was a unique celebration of world-beat rhythms and cross-culturalization.
The performance, organized by the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York as part of District Curator's Multi Kulti season, gathered together an extraordinary cast of percussionists from around the globe: jazz great Max Roach, Nigeria's (and New York's) Babatunde Olatunji, Cuba's Daniel Ponce, Puerto Rico's Tito Puente and Milton Cardona, Japanese kodo drummer Seiichi Tanaka and Native American drummer and dancer Benito Concha.
Except for Cardona, who for some reason seemed shortchanged by the programming and mostly played a cameo role, each of the musicians demonstrated his mastery at length. Olatunji opened with a chanted invocation before illustrating Africa's fundamental contributions to what he called a musical "diaspora" by pounding out stirring tribal rhythms on elongated, tree-trunk, single-skin drums. On one piece, a steady bass beat was reinforced, punctuated and shaded by three other long drums manned by Olatunji as well as by gourds and cylindrical drums played by his rhythm mates.
Two other performances had a distinctly ancient and ritualistic air: Kodo drummer Tanaka and a colleague brought a deeply focused, body-mind intensity bordering on a martial arts exhibition to their dramatically choreographed performance, while Concha chanted over the brooding rhythms he forged on a circular frame drum before demonstrating his remarkable physical agility with a traditional hoop dance.
The sets by Roach and Puente were comparatively lighthearted. The two teamed up for a delightfully spry improvisation that found Puente playing darting melodies on timbales and Roach throwing solid and glancing blows at a high-hat cymbal. In their solo spots, Puente combined crackling barrages of tones and rhythms with a bit of vaudevillian silliness, and Roach demonstrated his trademark command of rhythms, colors and dynamics on a conventional drum kit. Like Ponce, who later delighted the audience with a vibrant, if somewhat meandering, workout on congas, Roach also enlisted the crowd's help during a few rousing call-and-response dialogues.
Occasionally augmenting the percussionists was a five-piece horn-powered band, conducted by "Cubop" trumpeter, composer and arranger Mario Bauza. With trumpeter Larry Lunetta, saxophonist Rolando Briceno and trombonist Conrad Hernig making for a fiery and colorfully expressive front line, the ensemble evoked memories of Bauza's work with Machito's Afro-Cuban bands of the '40s and '50s before launching a rousing, all-hands-aboard version of "Take the 'A' Train" that led to an inevitable and richly deserved encore.
Fittingly, the concert was dedicated to legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey, who died of lung cancer recently and helped pioneer similar open-minded collaborations.