The beat goes on: World Beat Drummers kick off Homegrown Music Festival
Children filter in and get to work arranging chairs in the music room of Myers-Wilkins Elementary. In front of the each chair sits an elongated drum called a tubano. Resting in the center is a group of trophy-looking drums — djembes. Under the chairs sit finger cymbals, maracas and even a couple of tambourines.
The chatter dies down as one, two, three drummers stir the tubano tops, and the trance begins. More students arrive, and they fall in line, following the heartbeat of the room, their hands in unison.
It's rehearsal for the World Beat Drummers, a group of about 20 students and three faculty. For 16 years, they've played around the city and the state, and this week, they're performing twice for Homegrown Music Festival — at 12:15 today at the Duluth Children's Museum; and at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Clyde Iron Works. It's the third year the group has played for Homegrown, and to have two gigs is an honor, said Kiana Langdon-Larson, 11.
She's been in the drum group since third grade. She's the leader on the song "YeYes," setting the beat and moving the rhythm along.
"It's a big privilege to be in this group. You get to do a lot of fun things," she said. "It's pretty cool to be able to control something."
Each child is responsible for guiding one of the songs, and they learn how to become leaders and followers, said Michelle Bowker, drum leader and second-grade teacher at Myers-Wilkins.
"We have kids who really need those leadership skills, and the kids who need to learn how to not always be the star and how to work within the community," she said. It builds self-confidence.
After the drummers finished "YeYes," Teri Akervik asked for feedback from Langdon-Larson, who gave suggestions. Then, the group tried it again.
As they play, though, it's hard to tell the song leader. They all move and drum as one.
In a traditional African way of learning and playing, the World Beat Drummers do call and response — meaning the leader signals or calls out direction, said Akervik, faculty drum leader and music curriculum specialist at Myers-Wilkins. Representing world cultures has been a focus for the group.
The children wear dashikis, a colorful garment with West African roots. They play music with influences from Liberia, Latin America, Scotland — and some are the children's original compositions. Akervik will write down their work as a record-taking measure, but they don't use sheet music. What they're doing and how they learn is very intuitive by feeling the pattern in the drumbeats, Bowker said.
A recent original work is a mashup called "Break It Down Sevens" that combines clapping and drumming. And the inspiration: games the kids learned from each other and after-school programming, Akervik said. The result is a song that's very complicated. "I'll be honest that I'm not ready to play it myself."
Faculty group leaders, Akervik, Bowker and Margie Maloney are circled up, drumming alongside the children. It's a very communal way of learning, which helped Bowker who had no experience drumming when she joined.
"The key skill is willingness," she said. Now, she feels comfortable in the circle and she calls the drum an intuitive instrument. You start to hear how the parts interact. "Once you hear that give and take, you know exactly where you fit in."
Today marks the first big performance for Myers-Wilkins fifth-grader Kamya Skyes, 11. It's her first year in the group, and she said some of the musical pieces seem hard, but you can catch on really quickly.
'Emotions with sound'
There's a waiting list to join World Beat Drummers. The group number stays at around 20, and being a member comes with responsibility.
"We expect kids to be appropriate with their behavior, we expect them to be caught up with their school work. We expect our drummers to be leaders in school," Bowker said.
And the children are privy to that.
"It is a privilege," said Samantha Laderman, 10. Being in World Beat Drummers means leadership, setting an example and "that you are very kind to others because that's what it takes to be in this group," she said.
Bowker and Akervik noted seeing changes in students throughout the school year. They grow their skills and learn to trust their instincts.
The drumming has a calming effect on the students, the teachers and the audience, they said. "Music is emotions with sound," Akervik said, and participation aids social and emotional learning for the kids — tools they'll need as adults.
Joining was one of the best decisions she made as a music educator, Akervik said. It's a team effort and a tight community, where the children are collaborating, teaching one another and using music to process life.
One of their original works, "Phoenix," is an ode to a classmate who passed away from a heart condition five years ago. The school lost another student in a tragic accident about two weeks ago. They're thinking about those kids when they play, she said.
During a recent rehearsal, Miret Anchamo Grant, 11, led "Phoenix." With a concentrated and authoritative look, she lowered both hands. The drummers abided, letting up on the tubanos. When Anchamo Grant raised her hands, the drummers lifted their arms high and beat down hard and fast, sending vibrations through the floor of the music room.
After "Phoenix," Anchamo Grant said it's a tough song, but "I learned it when I was in fourth grade because I really wanted to be a leader for it." Her favorite part of World Beat Drummers is socializing with her friends and the places they get to perform. (They played the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley last year.)
Also on their setlist: "Fruit Salad," a story about their favorite foods, and "Hot Sauce."
During their last rehearsal before Homegrown, the mood was light and focused. The drummers weren't nervous. "Everyone's really forgiving even if you do make a mistake," said Langdon-Larson.
"It's not strict, it's free," Anchamo Grant said.
At the end of rehearsal, the drummers stood for a few moments. Akervik thanked the group, and they dispersed. "We learn as much from the students as they learn from us," she said.
While it was a team effort to launch the group 16 years ago, the idea for the World Beat Drummers was the brainchild of John Schmidt, of Duluth. He was a teacher at Nettleton Elementary when he visited New York City.
There, he saw a group of young people drumming on five-gallon buckets that were turned upside down. The drummers were surrounded with people, who were bouncing up and down and clapping in sync — including him, he said. He saw how drumming brought people from different walks of life together, and he wanted to share that.
"Being a classroom teacher, I was always looking for ways to connect the class and build a strong culture."
He teamed up with other educators, and the World Beat Drummers was born. They got started with a grant that provided a few drums. Interest was piqued in the student body and a group was formed.
Student autonomy has always been a strong suit for World Beat Drummers. The first group came up with the name, the logo and the idea for wearing dashikis. They also decided that a focus should be giving back to the community — drumming for Martin Luther King Jr. marches, Take Back the Night events, and more.
When it's working, the music engages all listeners and hooks them into some kind of participation, and that's "the magic in the music," Schmidt said.
His lasting impression from being a group member: "Do not sit outside the circle. Get in there and drum."
If you go
• What: World Beat Drummers perform for Homegrown Music Festival
• When: 12:15 today
• Where: Duluth Children's Museum, 115 S. 29th Ave W.
• When: 6 p.m. May 3
• Where: Clyde Iron Works, 2920 W Michigan St.