Duke University is better known for turning out star athletes and funding groundbreaking scientific research than for gamelan virtuosi or didjeridoo players. Still, those future doctors and scientists need the occasional break from libraries, lecture halls, and laboratories, and the university wisely provides its overachieving student body not only with performances by internationally recognized musicians, but also with the opportunity to perform a little musical experimentation. The school’s curriculum includes both beginning and advanced courses in playing the djembe, a West African hand drum, as well as instruction in Afro-Cuban music (think Santana without the guitars).

Under the direction of instructor Bradley Simmons, Duke’s beginning and advanced Djembe Ensembles and its Afro-Cuban Ensemble gave an energetic yet relaxed recital in Baldwin Auditorium to show off what they’ve learned this semester. Guest artist Steve Kroon, world-renowned Latin and jazz percussionist, took the stage during the second half and joined the Afro-Cuban Ensemble for a few jams.

Students in the beginning djembe class, drums held between their knees, sat in a semicircle of twelve chairs onstage to open the performance. This drum looks a bit like a minimalist bedside table or an urn for a large potted plant; the drumhead responds with varying tones – thuds, pops, drips – when struck with different parts of the hand in different places. Two other students commandeered two massive sets of stacked drums mounted on stands behind the others. The heads of these drums faced to the side, and players used a mallet in the right hand to alternate between the higher-pitched top drum and the lower-pitched one beneath it while banging out an acute, incessant groove on a metal plate attached to the top of the high drum with the left hand.

Simmons joined the group signaling the start of the first selection. The beginning group cycled through a quartet of exercises in staple rhythms; the players held together as an ensemble quite well (even through a few hemiola sections) and provided a stable base over which Simmons beat more complicated rhythms. A stampede of sound resulted from the tutti playing of hand drums, clattering and popping in a mesmerizing hail underscored by the large drums banging out driving, instinctive beats.

The advanced group concluded the first half, with eight hand drummers and two students on the large drums. Multiple metric shifts, spacey simultaneous rhythms, and a greater use of silence showed the advanced class had logged some serious practice time. Shifting emphasis from micro- to macro-rhythms and a broader tonal range gave their six selections a heady power that would serve as a suitable accompaniment for carefree, free-wheeling dance celebrations or deep, solitary meditation.

After intermission, Simmons introduced the guest performer with a short video clip of Kroon performing a spastic percussion solo during a Luther Vandross concert. Kroon’s big break occurred when he got the gig touring with Vandross in 1981, and he added a little extra flash to the sequined spectacle of Vandross’s performances until 2001; he has also worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin and performed in The Lion King on Broadway. Kroon’s menagerie of percussion instruments included three tall, shapely congas, a set of bongos, a dried gourd encased in a net of beads known as a shakere, a ridged wooden guiro, and a variety of blocks, cowbells, and shakers. But he began what would become a seamless primer on Latin percussion by introducing the berimbau, a Brazilian idiophone with a single string stretched across a bow with a small gourd resonator attached to one end. Kinetic swirls and quick glissandi emanated as Kroon tapped the string with a wooden stick; the addition of small wicker shakers, or caxixi, simulated the sounds of a forest buzzing with the activity of insects.

After tossing aside the berimbau, Kroon smoothly incorporated the low patter of the bongos, eventually adding in conga hits and fluctuating rapidly in tempo and volume. The jam came to a frenetic climax when Kroon focused exclusively on the congas, fluttering his hands over the three drum heads in an astonishingly rapid sequence of thirty-second notes in which each section of the beat could still be heard, recognized, and let go. During the transition to snare drum, block, and cowbell, Kroon found a familiar groove and launched into a verse of Santana’s “Oye Como Va” before concluding his solo performance. Simmons and the Duke Afro-Cuban Ensemble then joined Kroon onstage with claves, shakere, cowbell, and a few more congas for four more selections of tumbling conga sequences, far-off firecracker noise from Kroon on snare, and the fastidious metric accuracy of the timekeeping claves.

After the enthusiasm apparent in this performance from Duke’s Djembe and Afro-Cuban Ensembles, it is to be hoped that this visit from such a luminary as Steve Kroon has inspired greater interest in the superb classical, world, and folk performances at Duke. Whether you’re working with a scalpel or a crash cymbal, a little artistic exploration goes a long way to boosting creative thinking in any field.