They all come from different places, different eras, and each approaches music from a different perspective. But one thing John Dee Holeman, the Fairfield Four and the Holmes Brothers do have in common is their African American heritage. Another is their undying love for music.
Holeman is a Piedmont blues picker and husky-voiced singer in the tradition of the Rev. Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee and Bowling Green John Cephas -- except none of those guys dances. Holeman doesn't just dance, he combines the juba -- a West African-derived hand and body percussion -- with the highly syncopated footwork of buck dancing, the rural equivalent of tap dancing.
The Fairfield Four actually began as a trio of young gospel singers in the early 1920s at Nashville's Fairfield Baptist Church -- two of the pastor's sons and their next-door neighbor. Over the next 40 years, the Fairfield Four went through many personnel changes -- at one point, around 1950, they were a sextet led by 15-year veteran and Fairfield Baptist Church member, tenor Sam McCrary.
In the 1960s, after decades of success and many mini-breakups and revivals, the group finally fell apart. Some of the members went on to establish solo careers, and others became preachers or pursued other work.
Ten years ago, the Fairfield Four were invited to participate in a "quartet reunion" in Birmingham. Four members from the 1950 incarnation of the troupe, including McCrary, got together to perform, and it was such a success that they kept it up for a few years. Since then two have dropped out and others have joined, but McCrary -- after 55 years -- is still there.
Unlike the Fairfield Four, the Holmes Brothers are enjoying success for the first time. The trio -- guitarist Sherman Holmes, 51, his brother, bassist Wendell Holmes, 47, and drummer Popsy Dixon, 48 -- have been playing the blues in small Greenwich Village clubs and Brooklyn bars for more than 20 years. It was only a hobby and an income-booster -- something they did on the weekends.
"We were busy raising families and working day jobs," says Sherman. "In general, living life and making ends meet."
Then one day not too long ago, someone caught their act and, says Sherman, "he told us he could get us a recording contract."
He did. The result is the critically acclaimed "In the Spirit" (Rounder), a collection of gospel-tinged blues filled with luscious harmonies and rich, vibrant melodies. Needless to say, the Holmes Brothers quit their day jobs to become full-time musicians, performing from Texas to Turkey.
"We had this make-believe place in our back yard called Garden Village," says Sherman of their childhood in Christchurch, Va. "And sometimes now I say to Wendell, 'Boy, we're a mighty long way from Garden Village.' " He laughs, then adds, "I'll tell you, this is the icing on the cake. It is very good."
John Dee Holeman, the Fairfield Four and the Holmes Brothers are performing at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium Saturday night at 8. Tickets are $18 and available at TicketCenter. For information, call 202-994-1500. DYNAMICS Thomas Pinnock calls himself a performance artist-storyteller. His instrument is his body. His stories are of his life.
"It's about that age-old question of identity," purrs the Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-based artist. "Exploring the African and Caribbean background of my heritage. The sights and sounds. The dynamics of dance and theater and storytelling. Performing to the audience and digging deeper into what might be considered a spiritual or traditional legacy. To create a more profound effect on what I do on stage."
What he does on stage is tell stories through speech, action and dance. His background is in dance -- at 20 he was performing with the Jamaican National Dance Company, and later as a member of Martha Graham's junior dance company. And he says, "Dance is very much part of it. An ingredient of it. But not a total picture. Coming from a lineage of oral tradition and with my own personal need to describe what is around me, the quickest way to do that was orally, hence the connection to storytelling."
The stories, he says, are mostly about his experiences, his observations -- both political and social -- and, of course, his relationships. The music is reggae-based -- the passionate Caribbean rhythms that have pulsed through his life since childhood. There is also what he calls "a primal scream, if you wish, that really infuses what I do -- that music that comes from the breath-pulse to color what I am saying or performing."
Thomas Pinnock is performing at the Publick Playhouse Saturday night at 8. Tickets are $5. For information, call 301-277-1710.
KORA! KORA! KORA! He's called the Prince of the Kora -- primarily because his father is the King of the Kora. But also because, as is the case with so many princes, seventh-generation kora player Toumani Diabate was precocious -- at least when it came to music.
Diabate takes this ancient African 21-stringed instrument and plucks out tunes that combine flamenco, gospel and even rock-and-roll with the traditional sounds of his native Mali. He uses the kora to recount proverbs and legends -- that's the job of one born into the griot, or storytelling, caste. He just adds a contemporary twist to make them more accessible -- and to have more fun.
"When you are a little child, they give you a kora to play with," says Diabate's assistant and translator, Tony Van der Eecken. "Toumani taught himself to play by listening to any music he could lay his hands on -- Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, whatever was available on cassettes. So he developed his own style."
Three years ago, Diabate moved to London for six months to cultivate a musical career, and, says Van der Eecken, he was "introduced to the West." Since then he has toured worldwide, performing with musicians from other genres -- most recently with world folkie Taj Mahal.
However, the 26-year-old prince has not forgotten the purpose of this 300-year-old instrument: "He sees it as communication," says Van der Eecken, "and he is the library, the carrier of the culture."
Toumani Diabate is performing at the Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium this evening at 5. Tickets are $12 for Resident Associate Program members and $16 for nonmembers. For information, call 202-357-3030.