Almost every Wednesday evening in summer Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Drive between 121stand 123rd streets comes alive with festival sights and sounds reminiscent of Mardi Gras Carnival, Harlem Week and church. It is reminiscent of every occasion when people, in droves, congregate to support and celebrate something.
This evening renown vibraphonist Milt Jackson, sponsored by Jazzmobile, performs before a sardine packed audience. At 9:00 pm, the headline act ends, but not the night’s festivities. Djoule African, a drum ensemble sets up on the backside of the tomb and beats out a fast rhythm that creates an irresistible urge to join them in a bémbay: West African celebration- human voices responding to the call of the drums, bodies swaying to and fro with the beat, feel moving out of control in a dance that is inspired by the drum.
Standing in a circle the drummers link with the cosmic vibrations that govern the ebb and flow of water, that rotate the earth that expand and contract the universe that pump the heart and move a baby to birth. Everything is suddenly One, one life, one feeling, one voice, one body with many extensions moving at once away from and into the whole. Successions of young men and women inspired to enter the drummer’s circle freely dance and pound out a barefoot response to the call of the drums. A baby in his mother’s arms, too small to walk or talk, grins as the drums speak to him of bis powerful roots and promising future. And he begins to bounce and clap in syncopation, responding to the call. An old wasted vagrant leans heavily on his stick-cane, his face raised skyward wiggling his arthritic hips in time with the familiar, harmonious meter of a glorious past. He slowly lowers his head, the twinkling pulse of dimming light in his eyes tells us that for the first time in a long, long time he is home. The drums have brought him home. In a throbbing tongue common to every life, we are all called home.
The last homecoming celebration was August 28th. But the final fading beat only served to remind us that home is not a place it’s a feeling. It feels warm and friendly, safe and free. Djoulé African easily tapped that feeling within us.
If you’ve missed this bémbay don’t worry. There’s next summer. Or sessions performed by Djoulé African throughout the year. Call Director Gene Osbourne, (212) 831-3946, to find out where.
Also in this issue: Call to the Drums, Part II