Djembe! The Show review- African rhythms and audience drumming at the Apollo Theater

The joy of participating in percussive African rhythm; audience at DJEMBE! concert; photo by Liz Lauren

DJEMBE! The Show is making its U.S. debut at the Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln, Chicago, in a limited engagement through June 9, 2019. A new, vibrant and exciting interactive form of performance art and cultural exploration, Djembe! is an ultra high-energy experience. 

Leading this lively musical journey into the history of African percussion was Ben Hope as Emcee; De’Jah Jervai on lead vocals; and Guinean master drummer and folklorist Fodé Lavia Camara, backed by an ensemble of world-class musicians. There is a djembe drum provided for each and every audience member to play along with the cast!

DJEMBE! cast performing “Jansa”; photo by Liz Lauren

In 80 minutes, the audience is engaged in a rhythmically intense concert as well as an ongoing  music lesson; the history of West African drumming and its incorporation into American jazz and world music is presented throughout the concert as the audience is encouraged to learn and beat out compelling rhythms.

 We did some further research on the djembe, a hollow goblet shaped drum, one of West Africa’s most well- known instruments. Traditionally carved from a single piece of African hardwood and topped with an animal skin, scholars agree that the djembe drum is most probably between 400-800 years old.

African legend has it  that the drum contains three spirits or sets of spirits; the spirit of the tree from which it was made, the spirit of the animal whose skin is played, and the spirit of the carver or the one who cut the tree and the people who assemble the drum. Also, possibly the most important contributing spirits are those of the ancestors. In fact, inside some very old djembe drums are the names of generations of djembe masters from many countries and villages.

The cast of DJEMBE! sing “Keneh”; photo by Liz Lauren

During a typical drumming performance, the djembe may begin the ritual, followed by the singer and the other instruments, but the music can also begin in other ways. For example, the djembe player can change the beat of the drums in order to change the song, and the singer and instrumental players also respond to and use the djembe’s rhythm to recognize what they should be playing and adding to the whole. It was very exhilarating as part of the audience to beat out a rhythm as instructed, to recognize and participate in the drums’ own call-and-response.

Just like the guests at a djembe ceremony traditionally dance to the rhythm in a circle or are encircled by a large gathering of people, so the performers on stage at The Apollo circled gently about each other while the audience encircled the stage.

Fodé Lavia Camara before the crowd at DJEMBE!; photo by Liz Lauren

After West African countries gained independence, the djembe gained a new following. In the spirit of celebrating the original culture of these newly sovereign states, djembe was brought in for use in national ballets, and attention was drawn to its status as a premier musical instrument and solo voice, rather than as an accompaniment to song and dance. Modern troupes focus on drumming and traditional music, and in the new musical experience at the Apollo, in 20 performance pieces, emphasis was placed on how the entrancing rhythms beat out on the djembe have influenced samba music, rock and roll, the development of jazz, and music around the world.

The audience of all ages loved participating and the afternoon sped by as we all entered into the spirit of West African djembe music.

 Kudos to the creative team: musician and storyteller Seckou Keita, Lead African Artist; Todd Rosenthal, Scenic Design; Montana Levi Blanco, Costume Design; Zach Blane, Lighting Design;, Ray Nardelli, Sound Design; Resean Davonte Johnson, Projections Design.

Rashada Dawan and Bob Hope in DJEMBE!; photo by Liz Lauren

DJEMBE! The Show will be performed at the Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln Avenue, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. The Apollo Theater, recently renovated and fully accessible, delivers world-class theater as one of the city’s premiere off-Loop houses.

For more information on DJEMBE! The Show, please visit https://djembetheshow.com/.

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