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Drums United seeks an international rhythm

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Drums United
Drums United on the stage of the Ordway Center in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

The Ordway Center in St. Paul will be rocking all this week as eight percussionists from around the world showcase their rhythmic stylings.

Drums United is based in the Netherlands, but includes drummers from Africa, South America, India, and Europe. 

On stage, Pape Thiam plays a drum from his native Senegal. He's a  tall, rake-thin man with a stylish green cap pulled down over his eyes. He beats out a rhythm with a drumstick on one hand and the fingers of the other, while   squeezing his instrument under one arm to bend the notes.   

Lucas van Merwijck sits to one side and watches. He's a drummer through and through with corded arms and long silver hair. He created Drums United over a decade ago at the invitation of a festival in Dusseldorf, Germany. After working on a project featuring singers from around the globe, he decided he wanted to do the same thing with drummers. 

Talking drum
Pape Thiam of Senegal during the Drums United sound-check
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Van Merwijck lives in Amsterdam, which, like New York, attracts people from all over the world. So finding all those players wasn't hard. 

"Percussionists from South America, Asia, and Europe," he said. 

He said despite coming from all over the world they could play together immediately.

Drums ring the stage for a Drums United show, ready for the eight musicians, seven men and one woman, in the group. Two rock kits shine in the spot light on each side of the stage. In between stand congas, tom toms, timbales, djembes, tablas, boxes and cymbals. And cowbells — you have to have cowbells.

Lucas van Merwijk
Drums United founder Lucas van Merwijk playing his kit at the Ordway
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Van Merwijck said he began as a punk rocker back in the 1970s. Then he played jazz for a while, and traveled to Havana to learn Cuban rhythms. But he admits to a short attention span sometimes.

"For example, I go to a concert that has only Indian music, or only African music for two hours, you know after only half an hour I get kind of bored," he laughed.

Which is why you get a little of everything in a Drums United show. He said each of the performers are experts in playing a particular kind of drum. During the show he explains a little about each style. 

"We do a lot of communication with the drums."

"I noticed that when you do say something about the instrument people tend to listen differently," he said. "People who don't know anything about these rhythms or about any drums or whatever, or maybe don't recognize if someone is a top player or not, they are still going to have a great time watching the show."

They also use voices. One of their numbers "Dimetaki" builds on the tradition of Indian tabla players learning their rhythms by singing them. 

Van Merwijck said language is Drums United's biggest challenge.

"The guys from Senegal speak Wolof and French. There's German guys, Spanish, Dutch, English. So there is a lot of confusion of language all the time," he said. "We do a lot of communication with the drums." 

Gianna Tam
Drummer and vocalist Gianna Tam plays with Drums United.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Drums United will extend that communication to thousands of Minnesota school students this week. They are playing two concerts a day as part of the Flint Hills Children's Festival at the Ordway. The shows are open to the public on Saturday and Sunday. 

Van Merwijck said he didn't design the show with young people in mind, but such is the power of rhythm — it works for all ages. He's traveling the world with Drums United now, and intends to just keep going.

"I love to play rhythm, and it's everything I want to do. So I hope I am going to do that for the rest of my life," he said. 

And watching van Merwijck smiling as he plays his kit, it's easy to see why.