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Children of the Drums: echoing the past, heralding the future

Published:Sunday | February 28, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer

In the rituals of the Maroons, Kumina, Revivalism, Pocomania, Rastafarianism and reggae, the African drum is never quiet. But how could it have been in a country where during a particular period of our chequered past it was the singular voice of liberation and promise? In its hypnotic and pulsating beats lie its power and strength. It is even immortal.

From one generation to the other, it has passed on its diverse vocabularies and poignant cadences, conveying messages of freedom, sounds to move the mind and body. Now, it's a constant reminder of what should never happen again and a revered symbol of our musical heritage, to be preserved for posterity.

One entity which is doing much to keep our heritage of African drumming alive is Children of the Drums, a cultural group based in Montego Bay.

"The Children of the Drums have taken our African base and enriched it with the colourful mix of cultures and traditions found in Jamaica," said Alex Foster, owner/manager of the group. "The rhythmic and pulsating beat of the drums never fail to have the audience moving as the beating of our hearts falls in tune with the beating of the drums. The dancers take you through the varied African retentions that form our traditional dance genre."

Mesmerising drummers

Started in December 2006 by Ruel Reid with a 10-member ensemble of drummers and dancers to fill "the need for a strong cultural performance for the tourism sector", there are now 25 members, and an additional academy of trainees. Most of the members originate from western Jamaica with drummers coming from the Corporate Area. Ninety per cent of them are full-time performers. Some are still going to school, while others teach dance and drumming in schools.

The mesmerising drummers and dancers, ranging from age 18 to 25, and led by Paul Mullings, can mainly be found performing in one of our North Coast resorts, but they have also performed for prime ministers and government agencies, and at opening ceremonies, corporate functions, stage shows, cultural expositions and national events.

"In addition to providing employment opportunities for these young Jamaicans, they are learning and preserving our heritage ... many times after their performances, young people express interest in joining the group as our presentations of the culture appeal to the youths," Foster said.

"From the gyration of the hips to the acrobatic stunts, to the sacred traditional messages, they speak the entertaining language of dance and drums. Children of the Drums never failed to wow their audiences. The tourism product keeps them very busy but the group yearns to take the culture to another level and take on new challenges and ventures."

Widened repertoire

With this in mind, they have widened their repertoire to diversify their presentations to satisfy their many clients' needs and have constantly been redesigning their products to stay current. They have also been working with many choreographers from across the island to enrich their offerings. Every appearance is important as it "secures their next booking". But the group is not without its challenges.

"Definitely poor salaries and lack of respect," Foster pointed out. "We are told how good we are, and we see how much the tourists appreciate our performances, but once off stage the resorts treat entertainers like an interruption to their businesses, and in the most disrespectful of tones. I can recall getting a standing ovation one night at a resort in St Mary, and while the talents were backstage after the show, security came to escort them off property as they were on the property for too long."

Yet, they are not giving up. Their hope is to get the "honour of travelling abroad to represent Jamaica", someday. The Children of the Drums' mission is "to preserve and showcase our rich and diverse culture in a youthful and energetic way, so not only the mature and learned, but the young, and even the ignorant, can appreciate our heritage". And that's why they are this week's keepers of the heritage.