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Asheville Percussion Festival Stretches How People Hear and Think of the Music

Photo: Casey Lance Brown. Background: Clinton C Brown

If you feel a rumbling in the air this week, don’t look to the weather report. Instead, check out the schedule for the Asheville Percussion Festival. To the ears of founder River Guerguerian, this festival is as much about community as it is about music.

“I look at it like there’s a kitchen, there’s 10-12 cooks, each cook brings one recipe,” he said. “You put the recipe on the table and we all work on it together.”

Community plays out with the festival in a few ways. First, the people—master local and international percussionists are performing and teaching over the weeklong festival. Second, it’s the instrumentation, with roots in Africa, South America, Asia and elsewhere. Then there are the performances, when musicians will take the stage alone and in intriguing collaborations.

The seventh annual festival runs seven days, though the public should largely dial into the Friday night performances at Diana Wortham Theatre, solo performances Saturday night at Odyssey Community School and the Sunday sound meditation.


“Most people think the drums and percussion are an accompanying instrument,” Guerguerian said. “It can be everything from an entertainment tool to a therapeutic tool to a calming tool to something that makes you want to get up and dance.”

Guerguerian is a founding member of the Asheville world music trio Free Planet Radio and a percussionist who has made and taught music around the world for more than 30 years. He founded this festival seven years ago to foster community between top percussionists around the world and the dedicated performers of Western North Carolina.

“I thought how can I get cool percussionists into this town and present this music and on the weekend give workshops for the public,” he said. “I just had this gut instinct the town would support it.”

This version of the festival has a strong focus on women, and it also stretches how people think of percussion. Asheville favorite Abby the Spoon Lady is performing, and so is Aparna Keshaviah, a South Indian dancer who lives in Clyde.

Keshaviah said the dance is as much percussion as it is movement.

“The basis is heavy rhythmic footwork, so it’s decorated by ankle bells, where you can hear this delicate jingle, but you can also hear a heavy slap of the foot,” she said. “That’s an element I’ve been exploring in my dance, this percussive nature, kind of like how you hear in tap dance.”

Jessie Lehmann started West African drumming more than 20 years ago through a club at Warren Wilson College, and she’s since made three trips to Guinea and the Ivory Coast to study the culture and techniques behind West African drumming. Lehmann also co-founded the women’s percussion ensemble Boom Chicks, who are reuniting to perform at this festival.

Lehmann said West African drumming is all about community.

“You draw from your different parts and parcels of a language you’ve learned from different people,” she said. “(We) put that together to make a creation that’s something new but gives respect to the traditional context I’m drawing from.”

In all, 12 composers are presenting new percussion works, but very few of these have specific charts for the musicians to follow. For instance, Keshaviah is creating work to perform with Abby the Spoon Lady, Guerguerian on a frame drum and a cellist. The music will largely take shape only once they begin rehearsing in the days before the performance.

“I’ve never really considered myself to South Indian venues or audiences,” Keshaviah said. “Specifically, in fact, I’ve sought to broaden and expand the dance form.”

“Having everybody come here once a year has opened me up on the basic level musically, and in another way trying to be an-open hearted, gracious person and host for percussion in this city,” Guerguerian said. “I feel it’s one of the things I’m supposed to do.”


Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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