St. Louis Drum Ensemble Keeps the Beat Going Strong

Varied Groups Play at Venues Throughout the Area

The group is called Healing Hands and the last time I saw them play was on a Sunday at the Red Sea restaurant on Delmar in University City, near St. Louis. They sat near a wall in the front of the restaurant. Each had a type of African drum called a Djiembe. The Djiembe is sort of an hourglass-shaped drum, sometimes carved out of a tree trunk. Depending on its size, it is played between the legs, sat on, or strapped around the neck. The technical term for a Djiembe is a Membranophone. That means that it is a percussion instrument that has a head, or membrane that makes a sound when put into motion. They are struck with sticks, mallets, hammers, hands, and bows. The other group of percussion instruments are called Idiophones. These produce sound when vibrated. Think of marimbas, wood blocks, and symbols.

Healing Hands has about five original members, but anyone who is able can sit in with them while they play. The beat that they were producing on this warm summer night at the Red Sea was a perfect accompaniment to the spicy Ethiopian and Jamaican food being served. About halfway through the set, a slim young man comes in with his drum strapped around his neck. The members of the group don’t miss a beat as he joins them and starts beating his drum. At this point, things really start to cook as the new addition to the band beats the Djiembe with lightening speed, his hands whipping into a barely discernable blur. The amazing thing was that he kept this speed up for what seemed to be almost an hour without missing a beat.

Adam Rugo teaches Djiembe and Conga drum at the Focal Point in Maplewood on the first Sunday of the month. On the third Sunday, he gives the same lessons at the Ethical Society out on Clayton Rd. There are usually about 15-20 people in the class. The class starts off with some simple explanations on how to beat the drums. The Djiembes are “hot” drums. That means that after striking the drum, you quickly remove your hand, just like if you were playing a hot skillet. The Conga, on the other hand, is a “cold” drum. That means that after you strike it, the hand is left on the drum for a few seconds. After the explanations and a little bit of history, Adam shows everyone a few rhythms. Drums in Africa were originally used as a form of communication, so there are phrases that accompany what you are playing. One beat sounds just like “let’s play Djiembe” or boom…boom…boom boom. Then Adam teaches everybody a small part to play, and once everyone is in sync, he compliments the action by wailing away on a variety of different percussion instruments, sometimes using both of his hands as well as his feet to produce the sounds.

Adam Rugo, along with Matt Henry and founder Henry Claude are all members of the Nuclear Percussion Ensemble. The “Nuclear” in their name is like the meaning “nuclear family” as opposed to “nuclear bomb”. The group was founded in 1986 and has played at many venues throughout the St. Louis area. They will be playing at the second annual Percussion Festival at the Touhill Performing Arts Center in Clayton in March.

Percussion has been called “a part of the rhythm of life, the musical DNA that exists in all cultures at a fundamental level”.

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