Djembe! is a Disney-like journey through the history of the West African drum, a kind of “Around the Drum in 80 Minutes” diorama, and that’s OK. The intermission-less musical, in its US premiere at the Apollo Theater, is tailor-made for ‘tweens and families eager to make some noise together.
A large, tight drum (pronounced jem-bay) is provided for every audience member, and rhythmic instruction is provided on-stage by emcee Ben Hope and “Djembe Fola” Fode Lavia Camara. The call-and-response riffs are conducted throughout the program, when the drums have conversations like:
The pair is supported by a kit drummer, bassist, guitarist and keyboardist on a simple, bright stage with two screens. Colored lights in baskets hang over the audience while powerful singer Rashada Dawan, a south side Chicago native, takes the audience through an accurate but oversimplified journey of percussion in America.
Music is one of the few items that enslaved people can carry with them, so the story of this drum chronicles that legacy, as when Scott Joplin added syncopation to traditional beats to create ragtime. Then a double triplet was added to generate swing, and “Sing, Sing, Sing” is sung to illustrate.
The book, by West Hyler and Doug Manuel, explains that all US music is based in Black beats, including R&B, funk, hip-hop and rap, and song selections illustrate those influences, and trap and EDM are mentioned as well. A brief “greatest percussive hits” music montage from Algeria, Cuba, Germany and South Korea is featured too.
The all-ages Djembe! show runs at the Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave., through June 9. Tickets are $39-53, and the show runs Thursdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Student, senior and group discounts are available. The Old Town School of Folk Music offers classes in Djembe West African drumming.