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Rhythm on Rikers

More than a thousand events at this year’s Make Music New York, the daylong, citywide festival celebrating the summer solstice, were open to the public. But one concert took place behind closed doors, as well as iron gates and barbed wire. 

"Rhythm on Rikers” may be the least publicly visible component of this annual event, but it is also the most socially ambitious, bringing the joyful percussion music of West Africa into the prison on Rikers Island.

Eight inmates participated in a 10-week program of weekly lessons in music theory and drumming. On Friday they performed two concerts for fellow prisoners with their instructors, the percussionists Amy Garapic, Malavika Godbole and Matt Evans, in the gym of the Eric M. Taylor Center, one of the island’s jails.

The drum maker Remo donated a collection of African percussion instruments including djembes, djun djuns, a shekere and a gankogui bell. It was on this double iron bell that Mr. Evans tapped out the rhythm of the first song, “Funga Alafia.” Seated in a semicircle, the performers took turns pounding out solos, which the rest of the group then picked up. Attempts to draw the audience into the call-and-response chanting initially produced only a few embarrassed grins.

But the performers beamed and shouted encouragement to one another during a bembe, a complex West African rhythm that is also common in Afro-Cuban music, and a fully improvised number that culminated in a polyrhythmic whirlwind. During an infectiously cheerful kpanlogo, which featured a number of impressive solos, at least a dozen inmates in the audience joined in clapping, rocking and stomping their feet. 

 

As reported in the New York Times by CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM

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