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Drummers support New Orleans

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JOSSELYNE PRICE OF Weybridge will be traveling to New Orleans with her West African drumming ensemble this week to perform and to volunteer in the Habitat for Humanity Musicians’ Village. Price’s ensemble is made up mostly of her students from St. Michael’s College, where Price teaches world music.<br /> Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By KATHRYN FLAGG

WEYBRIDGE — Josselyne Price’s tidy yellow house looks much like any of the other homes scattered among Weybridge’s intermittent grassy knolls — except, of course, for the flock of exotic drums sitting just inside the threshold of her front door.

“These are new,” said Price, indicating a set of Ghanaian drums, each carved from a single piece of tweneboa wood, decorated with notched ridges and topped with a drawn-tight skin. The largest stands at over five feet tall.

“You never know what you’re going to find out in the cow fields,” Price laughed.

Price, a percussionist and ethnomusicologist at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, will pack up her drums (new and old) this week, pile into a 12-passenger van and lead several members of the Akoma Drumming Ensemble south. She, her students and her drums are bound for New Orleans, where the ensemble will participate in Tulane University’s New Orleans Dance Festival and volunteer at the Habitat for Humanity Musicians’ Village.

Price will be joined on her trek by four St. Michael’s students — Dan Klug, Alex Furdon, Jud Wellington and Luke Lombardi — as well as Ghanaian master dancer and Seattle resident Awal Alhasson and Haitian master drummer and dancer Johnny Scovel.

“It’s always been a priority of mine to try and illustrate to my students that music is a part of your work and community,” said Price. “It has a value past entertainment, and for many cultures it’s a vital part of who you are socially, of your identity.

“I wanted to link the idea of music to service,” she continued, “and show them that music can make a difference in a community.”

The Akoma Ensemble — which derives its name from a word that means “heart,” emphasizing, Price said, the emotional component of music making — has performed in venues around Vermont. This week’s trek marks the group’s first service trip, though Price hopes to take students to Ghana next year for another volunteer opportunity.

The ensemble will participate in the 12th annual New Orleans Dance Festival, which concentrates this year on the techniques, performance and traditions of African and Caribbean dance traditions.

“It’s a marvelously rich place,” said Beverly Trask, a dance professor at Tulane and the festival’s organizer.

The service trip will allow the group to connect to a city that is a hub of the African diaspora in the United States, Price said. The ensemble has studied the music of the diaspora — including from areas like Ghana, Haiti, Cuba, Guinea and Mali — through the lens of performance, and a trip to the historical center of African American music will function as an important learning opportunity.

“I’m so delighted that we have Josselyne and her students coming,” said Trask. “It just makes it a very wonderful enrichment that highlights a sharing which is at the true heart of African culture.”

At the heart of the trip is a desire to give back to a community long known for its rich musical heritage.

The ensemble plans to perform for volunteers at the Musician’s Village, a planned community being constructed in New Orleans’s 9th Ward. The project was originally conceived by New Orleans natives Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis as a home for the artists who defined New Orleans’s vibrant culture and who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Their performances, Price said, will hopefully contribute to the sense of community being constructed among the neighborhood’s 79 single-family homes.

“We teach (in this culture) that performer and audience are separate entities,” said Price, mentioning the popular television series “American Idol” as evidence of the “passive” relationship Americans have with music. More valuable, she argued, is the direct engagement for which the ensemble strives.

“I think that the best thing a class can do is take anybody … and show them that music isn’t necessarily about virtuosic perfection. It’s about connecting with other people,” she said.

In addition to performing for the Habitat for Humanity volunteers, Price said, she and the rest of the Akoma drummers — as eager to pound a hammer as a drum — will be on hand to do “whatever they need us to do.”

“What I’m hoping for most is that what we can add is some sort of revitalization to what I think New Orleans lost,” said Price.

The Akoma Drumming Ensemble hits the highway on June 26. They have already raised over $2,000 — funds Price hopes will cover the cost of transportation to the event — but will continue to fund-raise for the trip. They intend to donate any additional proceeds to the Musicians’ Village project.

Readers can follow the group’s adventure with day-by-day posts at their blog, akomadrummers.blogspot.com. Donations can be made at the ensemble’s Web site, akomadrummers.googlepages.com.

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