African Drum Ensemble shows what they have learned about culture, music through performance

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On Dec. 7, Ruth Lilly Performance Hall welcomed the University of Indianapolis African Drum Ensemble. The ensemble is led by Arthur “Art” Reiner, Director of the African Drum Ensemble and percussion instructor at UIndy. Reiner said he has been teaching the African Drum Ensemble course since 1992.  In the course, according to Reiner, students learn about the African diaspora, African traditions and how to perform cultural music. 

“African people went all over the world, and so we get music from those places, too. Like, we [play] Brazilian music, and we [play] Cuban music this semester, along with two African pieces. Part of what [students] are learning when they come in there is a cultural thing and how the music relates,” Reiner said. 

According to the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions, the drum is a significant part of African culture and communication. The CWCT claims that instruments such as drums, shakers, bells and rain-sticks have been used for centuries in West African drumming. 

“So we’re doing a piece [for the performance] called Funga Alafia, and it’s Nigerian folkloric, and it just means ‘welcome and peace be upon you,’ and they learn about call and response,” Reiner said. “That’s where either one drum plays something and then the other group of drums responds, or the leader says something and then the chorus responds.”

According to Reiner, students do not need to have any prior experience or knowledge of music to join the African Drum Ensemble class. Reiner said the class differs from a traditional ensemble because the class works in a traditional African way. He said that the class consists of a master drummer that passes the traditional music down to the less-experienced. 

Photo by MaKenna Maschino Two members of the University of Indianapolis African Drum Ensemble play a rhythm pattern on the drums. One of the pieces played at the concert was called “Funga Alafia.”

Reiner said that everyone who takes the class gets to try out every instrument and take on different roles in different songs. According to Reiner, the students prepare for their semester performance throughout the duration of their time in the course. 

“[During] the first few classes, kids start to learn about the drums– what drums go with what kind of music– and then they learn how to strike them. Then we learn how to start and stop together and get loud and soft,” Reiner said. “Then we learn rhythm patterns that are repeated until they can play them, and then we put them all together and each of those rhythm patterns is part of whatever the main groove is.”

When preparing for the performance, Reiner said it went very smoothly since the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down. The students were able to rehearse easily and there were no major complications, according to Reiner. The only struggle, Reiner said, was that the ensemble had many more students in years past, but his classes are much smaller now, which has caused some strain on the program. Reiner said he believes the class is great for students to take if they need an art credit. 

“In a lot of cases, this is the first chance– and maybe the only time– they’ll get in front of people, and some people are really shy about it and that’s another thing that’s good about the class is as people learn, they start getting more into it. …where at first they were more shy about it, or thinking that they couldn’t do it or that they couldn’t remember the pattern,” Reiner said. “After a while, they start figuring out that they’re better at it than they thought. By the end of the semester, everybody’s feeling okay about what they’re supposed to do, so that’s another kind of experience that leaves a mark.”

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