A young, all-women ensemble upends the percussion paradigm

Oct 14, 2021
Originally published on October 14, 2021 5:43 pm

The story begins in a New Jersey elementary school, where four young girls of color — Aline Vasques, Alexis Carter, Tiahna Sterling and Arlene Acevedo — were all best friends. In middle school they began studying percussion together with Joe Bergen, a member of the Mantra Percussion ensemble. They continued through high school and graduated from Mantra's Youth Percussion Program. Now, at ages 19 and 20 — still mentored by Bergen — they've formed Recap and released Count to Five, an outstanding debut album.

These young women, and their new recording, represent nothing less than a paradigm shift in the field of percussion, where ensembles have long been populated almost exclusively by men. In addition, all the music on Count to Five is by women composers. Acevedo, talking about the new album online, said, "We want to show the world that anyone can do this. We're young women of color doing this and you can too."

Each of the six pieces on the album establishes a unique sound world. On Hammers, Sterling doubles as a flutist, deftly negotiating the jagged rhythms that interlock with various sizes of drums played by her colleagues. The music is by Allison Loggins-Hull, who happens to be Sterling's flute professor at Montclair State University.

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The album is anchored by Lesley Flanigan's Hedera, a mesmerizing and surprisingly meditative 20-minute work. Recap, on bass drums and tom-toms, lays down a pulsating foundation. Over top, the composer's voice floats like pastel-colored clouds, increasing in density.

Percussion isn't only about banging on drums. The album's title track, by Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón, sounds like you've opened up a dusty box of household items — and memories. Playing cards get shuffled, bubble wrap is squeezed, wine glasses are struck and chairs get dragged across the floor while a harmonica repeats a single note. Memory also plays a part in "Samar's Song" by Mary Kouyoumdjian. Her voice — backed by violin, vibraphone and bass drum – pours out in grieving tones to remember the story of 5-year-old Samar Hassan, whose parents became civilian casualties before her eyes during the Iraq War.

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Two recent Pulitzer-winning composers, Ellen Reid and Caroline Shaw, contribute to Count to Five. Reid's shimmering Fear / Release twirls like a kaleidoscope of shiny metal, while Shaw looks back in time with the song "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown." She borrows words from an old 19th century hymn, one that's also been recorded by the likes of George Jones. But the song assumes a new identity when Recap takes to marimbas, backed with subtle colorings of strings, piano and clarinets by the new music ensemble Transit. Shaw keeps the old-world feeling, but in this rendition the song feels more like an incantation than something to be sung in church.

With this impressive debut, the members of Recap see themselves as role models for other young women interested in percussion. And now, they're all off to college — but oddly none are majoring in percussion. Still, for the time being, they simply want to continue playing together, strengthening that longstanding bond of music among friends.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Percussion ensembles tend to be a guy thing - you know, dudes pounding on stuff. But here's something different.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECAP'S "FEAR / RELEASE")

CHANG: This is the percussion quartet called Recap. No guys in this group. It's made up of four young women of color from Rahway, N.J. They've just released their debut album, and our reviewer, NPR's Tom Huizenga, has been listening.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Our story begins in elementary school, where Aline Vasques, Alexis Carter, Tiahna Sterling and Arlene Acevedo are all best friends. In middle school, they began studying percussion, continuing through high school and a special youth percussion program. Now at ages 19 and 20, they formed Recap and released "Count To Five," an outstanding debut album.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECAP'S "HAMMERS")

HUIZENGA: That's Recap's Tiahna Sterling on flute, with her colleagues on various sizes of drums. The music is by Allison Loggins-Hull, Sterling's flute professor at Montclair State University. All of the music on "Count To Five" is by women composers, and that's in line with the group's intention to show that, in the male-dominated world of percussion, women can pound just as mightily as men.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECAP'S "HEDERA")

HUIZENGA: The album is anchored by this mesmerizing work, "Hedera" by Lesley Flanigan. Recap, on bass drums and tom-toms, lays down a pulsating foundation. Over top, the composer's voice floats like pastel-colored clouds.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECAP'S "HEDERA")

HUIZENGA: Percussion isn't only about banging on drums. The album's title track by Angelica Negron sounds like you've opened up a dusty box of household items and memories. Playing cards are shuffled, bubble wrap squeezed, wine glasses are struck, and a harmonica repeats a single note.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECAP'S "COUNT TO FIVE")

HUIZENGA: Two recent Pulitzer-winning composers, Ellen Reid and Caroline Shaw, appear on "Count To Five." Ellen Reid's piece called "Fear / Release" twirls like a kaleidoscope of shiny metal.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECAP'S "FEAR / RELEASE")

HUIZENGA: Caroline Shaw collaborated on "Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown." The words are from an old 19th century hymn recorded by the likes of George Jones. But the song assumes a new identity when Recap takes to marimbas packed with subtle touches of strings and clarinet by The Transit Ensemble. Shaw keeps the old world feeling, but in this rendition, it feels more like an incantation than something you'd sing in church.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BY AND BY: I. WILL THERE BE ANY STARS IN MY CROWN")

RECAP: (Singing) Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown when at evening, the sun goeth down?

HUIZENGA: The members of Recap view themselves as role models for other young women interested in percussion. And now they're all off to college, but get this. None are studying percussion. Still, for the time being, they simply want to continue playing together, strengthening that long-standing bond of music among friends.

CHANG: The album is "Count To Five" by Recap, and our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.