Homemade rhythm: The group used West African fabrics, design concepts from Africa and Thailand, and their own hands to make their costumes and instruments.
A Lesson in Rhythm and Humility
Like Water Drum and Dance to bring West African-inspired choreography and percussion arrangements to second week of Santa Cruz Film Fest
By Steve Hahn
Do the material conditions in which musicians live affect the shape, expression and tone of their music? Ryan Edwards, who has been studying music since he was a small child, answers with a definitive "Yes!"
This revelation, reached in the middle of his percussion-focused musical career, was the motivating force behind Edwards' decision to launch annual trips to Guinea, where he and members from his West African dance and drum ensemble Like Water temporarily absorb themselves in the revolving waves of joy, pain, ecstasy and struggle that feed into the drum beats he has grown to love.
"It's almost like there are two routes: the roots culture where life is difficult but you band together and you have culture that saves you," he says, comparing the poverty-stricken Guinea with more affluent African neighbors; "the other route is the route of the modern world, in which you become infected with materialism and maybe you have a fire department and reliable telephone grid, but less culture, because people get more into their own bubbles."
The troupe's close learning relationship to their African hosts and the discovery of the communal culture of struggle that informs the music they play are central themes running through the film Illymanya: A Story of Guinea Music, named after the village Edwards and his Guinean compatriots built to host American students of West African drum and dance. The film, showing at the Rio on April 27, will be followed with a performance by Like Water Drum and Dance.
The performance will showcase not only the technical skills of the drummers and dancers, whose precise multilayered beats and large, sweeping dance moves can best be described as a conversation between sound and body, but also deeper lessons that were learned during the Guinea trips about where the passion fueling the music originates.
"The music and dance of the West Africans is their primary coping mechanism. It doesn't cost money, it brings people together and it's intense," Edwards says. "It's so intense and it's so captivating that you forget you're hungry, you forget that your cousin is dying of malaria. You can really get deep into the moment and it's really a survival tactic."
After Edwards and members of his troupe integrated this new understanding into their music and brought it back to their Michigan home, they found they had created a more energized and fuller sound in their performances that appealed even to those who were unfamiliar with African music or the culture that incubates it.
"The fact that you can really see what's happening, you can see the drummers moving their arms, you can really sit there and take it all in and understand what is making the music up," Edwards says. "It's not like fingers on a fret board, where, if you're a guitarist you're impressed but otherwise you just notice that guy's fingers are moving fast. With the dance, it's just a show. Everybody loves a drum band. We go to bars and people are there to see a beer-drinking rock band, we play, and people think it's incredible."
Coming back to Michigan also serves as a reminder to Edwards that he is not living in that literal struggle for survival that most Guineans face in their day-to-day life. Still, his experience and the lessons he has learned there inspire him to find his own form of struggle to fuel his personal and musical growth.
"Once you travel and get out of your comfort zone you really see what you're made of," Edwards says. "When challenges come down the pipe you can't just turn on the air conditioning or call your mom for a loan. You really just have to deal. That for me is challenging and magical and the kind of growth I love to experience in my life and really love to help other people break up the silly facade we live with."
Like Water Drum and Dance performs April 27 at the Rio Theatre (1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz) immediately following the 8:30pm showing of the film 'Illymanya.' Festival Pass and Program Ticket holders only: $15/$12; www.santacruzfilmfestival.com. For a sample of past performances visit www.likewaterdrumanddance.com.
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