Words: Samuel Pert Images: Ola Urbanska and Sandrine Herbert-Razafinjato
It’s winter and Sunday night in Shoreditch, London: not the most appealing prospect, I thought. Sullen hipsters are milking the weekend for its last dregs of debauchery, but the beard-fear was soon allayed as I entered Rich Mix, a room full of bright smiles, infectious music, explosive colour and the intoxicating aroma of the Ghanaian kitchen. Tonight, Rich Mix has been taken over by Open The Gate, to host Prâna: The Journey Of The Drum – a work of music and dance devised by drummer-percussionist Siemy Di, exploring the rhythms of Africa, India and the US, and paying homage to the late, great Max Roach.
The stage is set with an array of drums and percussion: a DrumCraft Series 8 acrylic kit, with enough pedals and add-ons for three drummers. Then there’s the cajón, congas, djembe, a sarod… the list goes on. We’re in for a rhythmic feast.
Prâna is the Sanskrit word for ‘life force’, and Siemy Di’s production connects the world of rhythm to a sense of balance and connectedness in the universe. Inspired by Max Roach’s travels, Siemy Di’s performance demonstrates and celebrates the rich musical heritage of Europe, Africa and India.
Act one opens with Siemy Di demonstrating his talents on the cajón, with his left foot keeping time on the tambourine, while he sings to tell the story of the birth of Shiva, the omniscient Hindu deity, patron god of dance and the arts.
In act two, Ghanaian master percussionist Afla Sackay introduces the sounds and techniques of the West African instrument the kashaka. With effortless dexterity and co-ordination, he stands on stage, swinging the shakers as he speaks, before taking up the djembe to describe its significance in African culture. When Sackay sits behind the conga set the audience is mesmerised by the speed, groove, strength and melody that he creates. Siemy Di then joins Sackay on kit, and what follows is a bombastic, polyrhythmic and syncopated duet, summoning the energies of Shiva and the African god of thunder, Shango, to signify creation, and the coming-together of cultures in America.
The next act sees Siemy Di performing konnakol to accompany flamenco dancer Lourdes Fernandez. Di’s independence is enviable, with his left foot keeping the ostinato on auxiliary snare, as Ganga Thapa brings in his serene sarod notes and Sackay enters the fray once more on congas. The combinations and textures are lush, as the drummers trade fours and we see a call and response between dance and rhythm.
A major part of the success and power of this production is the dancing. Lourdes Fernandez and contemporary dancer Gabriela Solano interpret and follow Di and Sackay’s rhythms with passion, grace and terror, heightening the mood and accenting the impact of every beat as they battle, sway, twirl, stomp and thrust before reconciling in the finale.
The pivotal moment occurs when Siemy Di introduces himself as Max Roach, being inspired by watching the great tabla player Chatur Lal play with Ravi Shankar in 1944. Di leaps from one side of the stage to the other as he vocalises Lal’s tabla rhythms and then Roach’s interpretation of them in to his own, unique sound – “jazzing it up” as Di puts it. As photographs of Roach are projected above, Di switches to kit, displaying complex Indian rhythms and Roach’s counterpart versions in an unaccompanied solo – swing, waltz and more.
Siemy Di’s Prâna is a fantastic production that respectfully celebrates Max Roach’s unique impact on the world of drums, as well as the merging of the diverse cultures that have helped shape what we know of music today. Catch it if you can.