'Hands on' music begins concert series

June 27, 1999

Wheaton Park drummerBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

Rhythm passed like thunder through Wheaton Park on Sunday.

It came from the hands of children striking and shaking instruments most had never seen before. It spread loud through the crowd, swaying heads and limbs.

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Surrounded in the gazebo, Barnett Williams led a call-and-response chant. Dancing in a purple and periwinkle robe, the shells on his necklace hopping, he slapped the skins on two drums and sang, "Toe-La-Dee-Ayyyy!"

It was the opening of a summer concert series sponsored by the Washington County Arts Council and Citicorp. Williams, a Washington, D.C. musician, performed his show, "Hands On Percussion."


He demonstrated how to play a variety of exotic instruments such as the balafon, a West African xylophone, and the djembe, a goblet-shaped hollow log.

He invited curious spectators to play along in a makeshift ensemble, describing their origins of instruments and the unique ways some were used. "This is what people used to send messages far away," he said, striking one drum.

Striking a string on the spindly, curved frame, he described the berimbao as a martial arts instrument. The note hung in a spherical gourd at its base. "This instrument goes back thousands of years to a place called Angola," he said.

He bent and crept forward, describing how assassins disguised their attacks with a dance. The berimbao was made from a bow and arrow, according to Williams. He said it was the first single-stringed instrument and it is also played in Brazil.

Blowing a blues riff on a harmonica, he brought out a hambone - two strips of wood tied by a cord. Dangling them between his fingers, he twirled out rapid triplets. The hambone is played by Scots and Irishmen, but it came from China, he said.

Standing before his timbale, Williams did his best Tito Puente impression, knocking out a mambo and a cha cha before taking a final bow.

"That was good!" said Raymond Johnson, one of the spectators.

"It's good to have something to come and listen to," said Elizabeth Russ.

"This park is underrated. It's perfect for events like this," said Mark Stoner.

After the show, Williams described how his 39-year career as a musician began. As a student at Howard University in the 1960s, he was fascinated by an African dance troupe performance. Until then, he had studied to become a physical education teacher.

"When I started playing, I was trying to embrace my culture," he said. It was long before "World Music" became a typical section in upscale music stores and ethnomusicology became a known field.

It was a repressive environment, he said. In 1965, he helped found another group, "African Heritage Dancers and Drummers." But he branched out into jazz and other forms and soon began touring professionally.

As he traveled, he amassed instruments from all over the world.

"I have stuff museums don't have," he said.

Williams has since performed on hit records, on Broadway and at the Kennedy Center, he said.

But in 1980, he started "Hands On Percussion" independently to teach and inspire children with music.

"That's what saved me," he said. "The children are our next hope for the future."

Williams hopes kids in the audience become drummers or pianists or even ethnomusicologists, he said.

"You never know when that seed will be planted."

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