Drums all have different voices, just like people, master drummer ManDido Morris tells a group of students in Porter Creek Secondary School’s music room.
The 30-some teenagers sit in a circle watching every move of his capable hands. Each student clutches a different African drum — some bongos, some congas, some are the bell-shaped djembes and others are ice-cream-cone-shaped ashikos.
The bigger drums, like djembes, sit on the floor between the students’ legs and the smaller ones, like bongos, sit on their laps.
If there’s one thing ManDido knows, it’s drums.
He runs a travelling teaching school, dubbed Have Drums Will Travel, and shares his skills on the skins with students up and down the West Coast.
He boasts a collection of 400 African hand drums of all sorts — djembes, bongos, congas, ashikos and kpanlogos — and thinks nothing of packing 200 of them in his trailer and hitting the road to show students from elementary school to high school how to keep a beat.
This week he’s in Whitehorse teaching classes at nine schools around the city, and drumming in The Story of the Rainman, slated to hit the stage at Mount McIntyre this weekend.
The Story of the Rainman is an original music composition.
It’s a play performed with musicians instead of actors; it’s storytelling through song, says Whitehorse-based rookie composer Lisa Turner.
She began writing the piece as a school project while completing her Fine Arts degree in music composition at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
Its lyrics are based on Canadian author Caroline Adderson’s short story of adversity and blind-faith, The Chmarnyk.
Turner took Adderson’s words and worked them into an 11-song series where the lyrics tell the story.
It’s about a cursed Ukrainian family that moves across the prairies in the 1920. They think that by moving away they’ll be able to outrun the curse, but then they discover it’s not the land that’s cursed, it’s them.
“It’s a really gory story, but the music is really upbeat and vibrant to contrast,” says Turner with a laugh.
“It’s almost like poetry the way Caroline Adderson’s words circle around and a lot of the phrases connect,” says Turner.
Fuelled by a government Arts Fund grant, she took the score through countless revisions and assembled an all-star cast of local folk, root and jazz musicians.
Kim Barlow will sing and play banjo. Andrea McColeman will be heard on piano and accordion. Tom Connor will play vibraphone, Anne Turner the upright bass and Emily Tredger the cello.
“I picked these musicians because of their character and their qualities,” said Turner.
“I wanted to mix their styles together more than I wanted them to play the music that I’m orchestrating.”
She brought ManDido up from Vancouver to play the kpanlogo — the great-great grandfather of the conga drum. It’s a waist-high, West African hand drum carved from one piece of wood.
The skin, usually from a goat, is held on to the base with metal hooks or braided ropes.
“With ManDido I just imagine all this great energy flowing out and keeping things going,” says Turner.
“When Lisa asked me, I said ‘sure;’ I was just prayin’ it would be OK weather-wise up here,” says ManDido with a laugh.
ManDido grew up in Los Angeles. He’s a self-taught drummer, except for a stint in Ghana studying at the Academy of African Music.
“I started off as a kid about 12 or 13 banging on sticks and cans and pots and pans, and when I was about 15 I bought myself a pair of bongo drums.
“I started playing jazz in the clubs even before I was old enough to get in the clubs. I used to paint on a moustache with my mom’s eyebrow pencil.
“They let me slip by most of the time,” he adds with a hearty laugh.
Back in the high school’s music room, the students watch ManDido tap out a simple beat.
He hits the side of the drum and produces a sharp, high sound. Then he brings his hand down flat on the drum’s centre making a duller “goom.”
The students follow his lead, timidly at first, but by the end of the lesson they’ve strung together an elaborate rhythm of bangs and taps.
The room rings with sound and the students sport big smiles to match.
The Story of the Rainman runs Friday and Saturday evening at the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at Rose Music, Hougen’s ticket office and at the door. They cost $20, $15 for students and seniors.
On Sunday, the group heads to the St. Elias Convention Centre in Haines Junction for a 7 p.m. show.