African Drumming Ensemble will debut at college

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — San Juan College Assistant Professor of Music Teun Fetz understands that African drumming may not be the most natural fit for the area, but he’s hoping the genre has enough appeal to develop a long-term presence.

Teun Fetz

Fetz, who joined the SJC faculty last year, said he created the school’s African Drumming Ensemble this year after starting a similar group at his previous school, Eastern Oregon University. The new SJC group will make its debut this weekend in a concert with two other local drumming groups, the Crash House Drummers and the Ashay Drummers. Each group will perform three to four songs on its own, then the three groups will combine to perform two songs together.

As was the case here, African drumming had no presence at Eastern Oregon when Fetz started the group. Nevertheless, he said, the ensemble flourished.

“It was very well received by people with music knowledge and no music knowledge,” he said. “And I felt it would go over well in Farmington.”

So far, so good, he said. The group has attracted seven or eight members, a total that includes students and community members. Those aren’t huge numbers, he acknowledged, but it’s certainly enough to get the program started.

Fetz said he is appreciative of the faith displayed in his idea by Allan Nass, dean of the School of Humanities at SJC, and Associate Professor of Arts Don Ellis, Fetz’s department head. They made it possible for Fetz to buy the equipment to get the group going, which consisted of several large drums.

He then had to recruit enough students and community members to make the venture worthwhile. Fetz said when he floated the idea, the response was mostly curiosity, as most people had little idea of what African drumming is.

“So, a big part of that is translating it and teaching them what it means,” he said of his approach. “Drumming for African music is essentially storytelling. It’s usually accompanied by dance, so there’s a visual element to it, as well. The drumming and the dancing correlate to form a story. … It’s like folk music for them.”

The ensemble focuses on West African styles from such countries as Guinea, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, he said. A rhythm section made up of dunumba, sangban and kenteni drums lays down a beat around which djembe players improvise. Fetz described the sound as very groove oriented, but also very syncopated and rhythmic.

That will contrast somewhat with the performance of Crash House Drummers, who are led by music teacher George Rowe, who owns Crash Music at the Aztec Theater. Rowe said he started the Ashay Drummers in the early 2000s before that group became strong enough to go off on its own, and he originated his current drumming group four and a half years ago when he opened Crash Music.

George Rowe, owner of Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, says the Afro-Cuban style of drumming his Crash House Drummer play is built primarily around the conga.

Rowe said there are important differences between West African drumming and Afro-Cuban drumming, which is the style his group employs, though he’s not sure how many of those will be noticeable to the audience. Primarily, he said, West African drumming relies on the djembe, while Afro-Cuban drumming is oriented around the conga.

The dynamics of the two drums are very different, he said. The djembe is very explosive, with the sound popping out of the top, while the conga sound is very earthy, hitting the listener in the gut.

Rowe, who plays a number of instruments, has been a fan of African drumming for at least 40 years. He became fascinated with it when he was working at a restaurant in Boulder, Colo., in 1974 and found himself playing with an accomplished German musician. Rowe asked him how he had developed his expertise, and the man told him it came from his experience with African drumming.

Rowe tried it himself and was thrilled with the results.

“I really learned how to make a sound and shape a sound on conga,” he said. “From there, I went backward and put that into my guitar playing.”

It wasn’t long before Rowe incorporated that into his teaching, as well. He introduced African drumming to New Mexico public schools and said it proved to be a very effective tool for reaching some students.

“I saw how it helps at-risk kids,” he said. “It gets them to thinking about relationships in music, and then we could talk about how we should treat other people. It became a harmonious thing.”

Rowe said he was delighted when he learned that Fetz had joined the SJC faculty and had a background as percussionist. Rather than view the African drumming program at the college as competition for his music classes, he views Fetz’s efforts as a complementary attempt to build community.

“Drumming is good for people,” he said. “There are going to be people who are going to want to sign up for this because it’s something artful and social at the same time. ... I’m excited to see the college do this.”

The Ashay Drummers perform on Dec. 22, 2015, during the Winter Solstice celebration at the Farmington Public Library. The group has been together since the early 2000s.

Fetz said the debut performance of his ensemble is partly designed to give the members of the group a chance to show what they’ve learned, but it’s also intended to serve as a means of attracting more participants and keeping the program going.

“It’s a skill I can teach anybody — you don’t have to have any musical knowledge,” he said, adding that the program is open to students and nonstudents alike.

Rowe said membership in his Crash House Drummers has remained largely intact since it began almost five years ago, and the group is finding more and more opportunities to perform since it attracted a vocalist last summer. The group performed on a local radio station on Dec. 3 and was featured at a fundraising event in October for a nonprofit group that builds houses in Kenya.

“They’re pretty advanced for amateurs,” he said of his five-person group. “We don’t pretend to play authentic Afro-Cuban music, but we value authenticity.”

Fetz encouraged anyone who is interested in unusual forms of music to attend the show.

“If you like upbeat, rhythmic drums and music, you’ll enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to play and even more fun to listen to because it’s fun to see how the parts fit together. ... I often compare it to the layers of a cake.”

Fetz said the atmosphere at this concert will be much different from that of the classical performances he spends much of his time leading.

“That can feel like a prim-and-proper atmosphere where you’re just supposed to sit there respectfully and listen,” he said, noting than an African drumming performance, by contrast, often includes the opportunity for the audience to sing or clap with the performers. “This is more of a party atmosphere.”

Rowe said the experience can even serve as somewhat of an adventure for listeners.

“I get a lot from interacting with another culture, and it tells me a lot about my own culture,” he said. “There’s value in that.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Concert by the San Juan College African Drumming Ensemble, the Crash House Drummers and the Ashay Drummers

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9

Where: The Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Tickets: $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors at sanjuancollege.edu/silhouette

For more information: 505-566-3430