They Got The Beat

The First Annual Asheville Percussion Festival

By: Laura Hope-Gill


Let’s be honest.

There’s something about a guy who drums. As younger girls, we barely stood a chance against the drummer in the band that played at Homecoming. We crushed on Peter Gabriel and let Mickey Hart carry us away on the twenty-minute drum solo at the Dead Show. What we did during those twenty minutes can safely remain a secret in all of us. When we sang songs, it was to the melody. But when we danced, it was to the beat. Undeniable, preternatural, the strike of stick or hand against the rawhide (or whatever synthetic material has taken its place) does something to us, and we can’t help but move.


On June 8 through 10 in Asheville, all the power and time enclosed in the pounding rhythm will sound from the campus of Odyssey Community School, translated from the soul of the earth through the skill and soul of men and women with drums.


The mission of the Asheville Percussion Festival, as stated on the website, “is to provide a creative environment where percussionists of all traditions gather to explore, create and innovate. World-class percussionists will exchange ideas about performing, improvising and educating. Over the course of the weekend there will be workshops for drummers of all levels and concerts for the community.”


The age is done when the past was deemed primitive or naive. Drumming and other ancient arts now re-emerge, vessels of wisdom for helping us achieve balance in our


lives and balance in the universe. What more powerful vehicle for this information than the pulse and variations on the pulse of the heart? The festival features teachers and performers whose stories touch on places in the world both mysterious and well-traveled: Motown clubs of L.A., Istanbul, New York and Ivory Coast and more. The theme of the first festival is “Tradition to Innovation,” for the many ways that drums open our psyches to the past and how the trance they induce frees our minds to envision a better world while opening our hearts to the one we live in now.


Jamey Haddad is regarded as one of the foremost world and jazz percussionists in the US. Dancing and drumming infused his Lebanese-American childhood, leading Jamey to love and play drums of all kinds from the age of four. For the past nine years Haddad has performed as Paul Simon’s percussionist and played with countless others including Yo Yo Ma and Esperanza Spalding. He teaches at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and the Oberlin Conservatory. Jamey offers his drumming as guide and educator, helping empower others to embrace their mission in life through their talents.


David Cossin’s website opens with an image of two seashells connected by a headband, exemplifying the oceanic aspect of his work on the full spectrum of percussion instruments. Anyone who was spell-bound by the percussion-centered soundtrack while being swept up in the saga of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has already experienced David’s remarkable gift. Last summer at this time he was touring with Sting.


Ashevillians are familiar, and nonetheless fascinated by River Guerguerian, the Artistic Director of the Festival. River is known all over the globe for his unique hybrid set-ups that include frame drums, hand drums and drumsets that can be applied to many styles of music. He plays with Omar Faruk Tekbilek, his world jazz trio Free Planet Radio with fellow citymen, Eliot Wadopian and Chris Rosser and is an active touring, recording and teaching artist. River guides the children  at Odyssey Community School in listening to the music that lives within them when he isn’t performing in a palace for a sultan.


The list of the world’s percussion instruments is vast as the wind. When an artist chooses to speak in one current, as in the case of Rohan Krishnamurthy, whose niche rests in the South Indian Classical Drum, the mridangam, the impact is mysterious and profound. Featured on NPR and welcomed as a prodigy into the private office of the President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam, Rohan embodies the power of focus as well as the vitality of commitment to something so ancient and central to a cultural imagination, it can only live forever.


Versatility across styles also speaks volumes in the narrative of tradition and innovation. Jeff Sipe (AKA “The Apartment Q-258”) is well known on the touring circuit and has performed with a stunning list of “names” in the music world including Trey Anastasio, Bela Fleck, Steve Vai, John Medeski, Joan Osborn, Waylon Jennings and his own group the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Born in Berlin, and raised in the D.C. area and in Europe, he bridges worlds from the seat of his drumset.


Adama Dembele’s family home in Aboba, Ivory Coast, West Africa, is known as “the house where the Djembe is played.” He is a master 33rd generation Djembe player known to Ashevillians as a member of Afromotive and frequent accompanist to Toubab Krewe as well as a teacher and experimenter among forms and sounds. He has taught at South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind and performed with Terpsicorps. Beyond the city, he has toured with Angelique Kidjo, Affou Keita, Oumou Sangare and more.  He currently performs with his own group, Zansa, which translates to “mix or blend.” In Dembele’s work, many things come together: generations, cultures and sounds.


From Afro-Cuban percussion to Balinese Gamelan, Michael Lipsey is both an artist and an educator. He is the Director of the Percussion program at the New Music Ensemble at the Aaron Copland School of Music as well as the City University of New York. Lipsey approaches music as polyglots approach language: he holds the world in his hands as multilinguists hold the world on their tongue. He has performed in Bali, London, Lisbon, Madrid, Berlin, Mexico City, Taipei, Macao, Tokyo, La Jolla, New York, Moscow, Bogota and Lille, France, and worked with a diverse blend of musicians like Subash Chandran, Ganesh Kumar, Glen Velez, Carlos Gomez, Antonio Hart, Roland Vasquez and most recently he formed a duo with percussionist River Guerguerian.


Matthew Richmond is an accomplished Jazz Vibraphonist and is well known in the WNC community. He is currently a member of the Asheville Symphony, Stephanie’s Id, and is a Percussion instructor at UNC-Asheville. Matthew has performed with a long list of ensembles and soloists in classical, jazz, rock, theater, drum corps, and world music.  He has appeared as a guest marimba soloist with the ETSU Symphonic Wind Ensemble and the Johnson City Symphony, and premiered Ukrainian Rhapsody for marimba and wind ensemble by Taras Nahirniak.


Drumming is hardly only a man’s world. Performing at the festival also is Raquy Danziger, a young woman whose vivacity and skill have secured her a place among the masters of Middle Eastern drumming. Raquy has spent the past several winters in the Middle East. Performing in Egypt as a soloist with Ustaz Saiid El Artist (The Egyptian King of Tabla) and Ustaz Hamis Henkish are among her accomplishments as a music ambassador between cultures. She has appeared on Good Morning Egypt, Leila Kebira,  O TV, the Culture Channel and has been interviewed on Al Gezira. Cairo Opera House, the Cairo Citadel, the historic Ewart Hall in downtown Cairo and the Great Hall in the Bibliotheque Alexandria have hosted her performances. An educator as well as performer, she has taught Arabic Drumming at the American University of Cairo. Raquy’s infectious enthusiasm for Middle Eastern music has attracted students from around the globe. Her students often perform with her as “The Messengers.”  She hosts drumming retreats for her students in the Catskill Mountains, NY and in the Sinai Desert in Egypt. Her band Raquy and the Cavemen, a duo with Liron Peled, tours all over the world. She now lives in Istanbul and New York.


In an age when electronica can replicate the surface sound of just about anything, the Asheville Percussion Festival offers a multi-directional step back to the sound of natural device. The instruments audiences will hear at the festival are drawn from the earth and carry with them the stories of generations. The masters who wield them promise to open up something in us, and in our city we might not have known for a long time, but will recognize, as the rhythm to which we live on this earth with one another. The festival is a festival of people who have opened themselves up to the power of ages, allowing the heartbeat of time itself, across cultures, to speak through their hands. There’s a reason the drummer of the high school band had that ability to weaken us at the knees.


That’s the first sign that it’s time to dance.


The Asheville Percussion Festival takes place at Odyssey Community School June 8-10. The website is


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker