This past Sunday afternoon, the Mallarmé Chamber Players presented their third family concert of the season, Djembe Fire, performed by The Magic of African Rhythm. There was something undeniably extraordinary about the concert. First, the size of the audience was remarkable. Despite the concert falling on Easter Sunday, the spacious Kirby Horton Hall at Sarah P. Duke Gardens was packed. Every chair was filled. People stood in the back and off to the sides, and some even sat on the floor up towards the front of the room. Also remarkable was the diversity of the audience; there was a rare balance of ages, genders, and ethnicities. Everyone in attendance demonstrated incredible enthusiasm throughout the concert, breaking into applause during songs, cheering frequently, and wholeheartedly participating when invited. The program itself was like no other. The Magic of African Rhythm is an organization focused on connecting to the African cultural tradition and demonstrating ngoma, an African concept that their website describes as “the ‘rhythmic thread’ that links drumming, singing, dancing, and visual arts together.” The musicians of the Magic of African Rhythm do not simply perform cultural songs, they engage the audience with interesting discussion, storytelling, and opportunities to participate.

The concert began with Teli Shabu, music director of the Magic of African Rhythm, and Mabinti Shabu walking across the front of the room, barefoot and dressed in traditional African attire, each holding an unfamiliar instrument. They sat down in chairs covered in brightly colored fabric and began to play the instruments. Playing without an explanation of the instruments or the song sparked immediate curiosity within the audience. Audience members listened intently to the timbres of these unknown instruments, and to the new rhythms and melodies being played. By the time the song drew to a close, people were eager to learn about the music that had transpired.

Following the song, Teli and Mabinti talked about the instruments in their hands. They did not do so in the style of lecturers, but in the style of storytellers. Mabinti spoke first, describing the balafon, an African xylophone with keys made of wood and gourds fastened beneath the keys as resonators. She then told the tale of the creation of the first balafon while Teli continued to pluck the strings of his instrument, providing a dramatic backdrop to the story. Likewise, while Teli talked about the kora, a harp with 21 strings made out of fishing line, a body made from a gourd, and covered in animal hide, Mabinti accompanied on the balafon. In his discussion, Teli also talked about the jali, West African storytellers and historians who use music, often music featuring the kora, to help people remember their histories. Jali could look at a person and tell stories of ancestors that person didn’t even know they had, Teli said. In Teli’s words, “Once you know what’s in your blood, you can understand the capability you have within you. That’s the power of the jali.” Both Mabinti and Teli had a remarkable ability to capture in their words and in their music the essence of what makes music important and powerful. People of all ages clung to their words, nodding and smiling back as the duo talked.

Immediately after this discussion of the balafon and kora, the duo picked back up with the song they had been playing at the beginning of the concert. This time, the audience was invited to participate by singing the chorus, which was simply the names of the two instruments. It did not take much prodding to get the audience to sing. Almost everyone in attendance caught on within a few seconds as if this was a song they had been singing their whole lives. The voices of the large and diverse audience filled Kirby Horton Hall, intermingling with the joyful playing of Teli and Mabinti.

The concert continued on in this pattern of alternating music, discussion, and audience interaction. Teli and Mabinti were eventually joined by another member of the Shabu family playing the shekere, a percussion instrument also made from a gourd and covered in a beaded net that produces sound when the instrument is shaken.* The musician playing the shekere selected a child from the audience and gave a brief shekere lesson while the audience looked on and smiled, many choosing to participate in the lesson from their seats. After the shekere performance, the African bass drums took the spotlight. Dancers from The Magic of African Rhythm joined the musicians on stage. The sound of so many drums playing at once and the sight of the dancers in their colorful attire dancing openly to the pounding rhythm were incredibly powerful. The audience cheered and clapped frequently throughout the piece. Then, the same musician who spoke about the shekere talked about the four different types of bass drums that he had on stage. He compared the drums to different members of a family, illustrating that each played a unique and important role in the creation of rhythm.

The Magic of African Rhythm ended their concert with a bang. They selected a large group of audience members to join them at the front of the room in dancing and singing the final song, which spoke of community and of people taking care of each other. It was an incredible sight to see a crowd made up of all ages, likely with no prior knowledge of African song or dance, dancing freely in front of large audience as if they had been waiting for that opportunity all their lives.

“We’re a village. No one is a spectator,” Mabinti said at one point. Indeed, no one was a spectator at this concert. The audience learned about African music, dance, and tradition not by observing it from a distance, but by experiencing these things firsthand through the engaging words and interactive music of The Magic of African Rhythm. The audience had the opportunity not only to gain knowledge of African music but also to connect personally with it and gain understanding of what makes it so powerful. One thing can be said with certainty: the members of The Magic of African Rhythm did a tremendous job getting people excited about music. For that, they deserved the sustained applause that followed their performance.

*We’re grateful to the MCP’s artistic director for this update: “The percussionist who described the shakers and Dunduns (those are the name of the big drums) is Atiba Rorie, a well-known drummer and griot in the area. He is not technically related to the Shabu family, but in African music all story-tellers are ‘brothers,’”