Finding a common ground

Drumming and dancing have graced every culture and time period.

In fact, these celebratory expressions are so interconnected they actually create each other — sometimes, it may seem like the drummers are dancing while the dancers produce the rhythm.

For millions of people and countless generations, these types of ceremonies were part of everyday ritual. In places like Guinea, West Africa, drums are still entwined with all the events of people’s lives — representing every nuance of the human condition.

Common Ground is a local West African-inspired ensemble that also moves to these ancient beats. The group’s roots were planted among Warren Wilson College students, whose encounters with Guinea drumming and dance — a style marked by rapid movements, with an emphasis on footwork — led them to gather and explore this traditional culture.

Soon, they began sharing their talents with the community, mostly at benefit performances for grassroots movements such as Asheville’s MAGIC gardens and Earth First! (including performing at a demonstration to close the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas).

Although none of the ensemble’s members is actually from West Africa, the entire group connects spiritually with the culture. Common Ground functions as a cooperative — members feel no need for a designated leader. Percussionist Teal Brown explains the benefits of this approach: “There is no permanent teacher. … We direct ourselves and have our own ideas. … Whoever has the freshest knowledge [of] Africa is the teacher. We are all equals.”

Simply put, the group’s name symbolizes the essence of its philosophy. Interestingly, the drummers will often exchange instruments throughout a performance. Common Ground features three different bass drums: The djundjun is the deepest-resonating, the sangba is in the middle range, and the kenkeni — the smallest bass drum — has the highest tone of the three. The djembe, meanwhile, is both the lead instrument and, as a solo drum, has the most freedom to improvise within mapped-out rhythms.

Madou Dembele, a master djembe drummer from West Africa, will return to Asheville to perform with Common Ground for two upcoming shows. Dembele was born in Mali — also where the djembe drum was born in the 12th century. As a young child, he learned the intricate West African rhythms from the old masters and now shares them as a performer and teacher.

Currently, Dembele lives in New York City and plays with a variety of groups, including Super Yankadi, the Mask Dance Company and Sahyini “Grandmama” Morningstar’s Speaking Shield Puppet Theater. This is Common Ground’s second experience working with their teacher and friend, who continues to be their greatest influence.

Brown speaks for the entire group when he says, “We are very excited for Madou’s visit. We understand that we don’t embody the music like someone who has it in their culture. [But] we still have an experience with this music, and we have made it our own.”

Adds Luke Quaranta, another of Common Ground’s percussionists: “He is the most open teacher I’ve ever had. He has the information [of the drum] in his body.”

Kelly Davis, who dances with Common Ground, has studied African dance for more than 10 years and is another of the group’s greatest mentors. (She also teaches the art form at Warren Wison College and at UNCA.) And, using proceeds from upcoming performances, Common Ground members hope to deepen their education with a trip to West Africa next summer, where they’ll study music and dance in Conakry, Guinea, with Koungbanan Conde (who has previously taught some members) and Buntu Suma, the lead dancer of Les Percussions de Guinee.

Reflecting on the goals of the group, Quaranta comments, “It is challenging and sometimes confusing to perform an art form that has historically been a part of [another culture’s] everyday life. [There is a] paradox of dancing learned ‘moves’ that hold significance to the people of West Africa.”

However, “the group sees the blending of cultures as very rich and life-giving,” he continues. “Common Ground sees itself as co-creators of an art form that is continually changing. The group also honors its own traditions and influences, and seeks to create music and dance that is meaningful to its own communities.”

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