What do, say, the Rolling Stones and West Africa have in common? How about Chuck Berry and Senegal? Or the Sex Pistols and the djembe drum? In his PBS series and accompanying book The History of Rock and Roll (1995), the late music critic and historian Robert Palmer deftly traces the relationship between West African drum traditions and the birth of rock and roll. He writes clearly and compellingly of Deep South racial segregation, America's early banning of the more ethnically driven rhythms, and that sound's slow seepage into American musicians' consciousness.
Rock's earliest purveyors were as influenced by their ancestors' carefully executed drum styles as by emergent jazz and Tin Pan Alley. Fats Domino, Little Richard, and drummer Earl Palmer were first-generation rockers who took a convoluted route to Ivory Coast flavors via Cuba, up through New Orleans, into Memphis, and beyond. By the time Elvis got hold of it all, the dense combo of jump blues, boogie-woogie, and country and western had crystallized into the spontaneous genius of "Blue Suede Shoes." But transmogrified African-based rhythms were in the mix too. And after all, what made rock so revolutionary and different from all the Euro-based music was The Beat -- one that has permeated every form of rock since. Think about it: AC/DC's "Shook Me All Night Long" certainly doesn't find its throbbing muse in Gilbert and Sullivan.
And you may not hear their muse directly in the more pristinely kept forms of West African drumming either, but it's there. And on January 31, two heady elements will permeate the air of Bass Performance Hall: patchouli and the polyrhythms of the Drummers of West Africa, led by Senegal's DouDou N'Diaye Rose. While the local drum-circle contingent rarely has reason to pick the lint out of their blond deadlocks and wear closed-toe shoes, the stately Bass Hall and the revered presence of Senegal's 35-strong ensemble should inspire them.
N'Diaye Rose is the chief drum major of Dakar, Senegal, a region rich in drum tradition and a kind of mecca for all those impassioned and amateur djembe drummers who haunt scrappy college towns from Denton to Olympia to Ann Arbor. Rose, who has performed with some greats -- Miles Davis, the Stones, Peter Gabriel -- leads this group (all of them members of his extended family) following its celebrated appearance at the Cannes Film Festival. This is the group's first North American tour after having hit the capitals of Europe and South America, and while the ensemble reflects the conventions of West Africa's drum culture, Rose and company aren't afraid to veer off into unexplored territory. Unlike many traditional touring groups, these guys, well, freak out. (That's drum-circle speak for "jam session.")