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Blended Rhythms Drum Up Community

Montserrat is a tiny island in the West Indies, and recent volcanic activity caused mass emigration to the UK and US, leaving just 5,000 people to rebuild. This “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” has a unique connection to Ireland: settled by Irish Catholic refugees from British colonies, Montserrat celebrates St. Patrick’s Day every year! (See website for more history.) Their St. Patrick’s Festival features Irish bands, but also West African music—a crucial aspect, as local woman Flo explained to me: “Love for Ireland is good, but we no white people, we black people. We become what we are told: white is good.”

Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory, and Irish and African music allow for creative expression against English influence. Flo said, “You’re not gonna hear much more than a little [clap clap clap] cause that’s how the English behave. But it doesn’t come naturally to us! The Irish are more rowdy—robust, you know?” I do know. Irish reels are rousing and spicy! So are African rhythms! Last year’s West African troupe had festival crowds dancing ecstatically; the drummers gave a workshop to schoolchildren whose faces lit up once they got their hands on the djembes.

Locals lament that arts are suffering due to poor government funding. While visiting in March 2013, I brainstormed an idea to offer “rhythm” workshops starting in January, before the 2014 St. Patrick’s Festival. I will teach Irish dance, and Senegalese drummer Dominique Mbaye will teach djembe. I am partnered with Montserrat’s Ministry of Culture, Tourist Board, and local music teachers. The workshops will be free and open to all, targeting the island’s youth. The experience will allow them to explore aspects of their heritage through shared rhythms. As the island’s Prem. Reuben Meade told me over dinner, “We must not see ourselves as Irish or Africans or Caribbeans [but as] people of the world, irrespective of our culture, and we will come together.”

We have the feet; now we just need the drums!

Funded by Awesome Without Borders (February 2014)