Picture yourself in the dense rainforest of southeast Nigeria, home of the Igbo people. Rivers and streams cross the gently rolling forest land en route to the sea, 60 miles distant. Imagine being in one of the region’s many villages, amid cool, thatch-roofed houses. It’s celebration time: Listen!
First, there’s the melodic conversation of the talking drums. Then the beat quickens, and a gourd shaker enters. The primal cadence of a spirit chant and the soul-stirring tones of the primitive African flute thrill the air.
This is the home of drummer, dancer and spiritual teacher Onye Onyemaechi.
The world-renowned performer and recording artist will bring the musical alchemy of his tribal roots to Asheville’s Diana Wortham Theatre, in collaboration with members of hot Afro-Caribbean jazz ensemble Con Clave and other regional percussionists. Con Clave members Byron Hedgepeth (drums), Ozzie Orengo (congas), Stuart Reinhardt (saxophone) and Grammy Award-winning bassist Eliot Wadopian will add their scintillating sounds, and the djembes of Asheville-based Candace Freeland and Joe Roberts will round out the festivities.
This sensually energizing music will be not merely heard, but experienced. A master of improvisation, Onyemaechi inspires freedom of expression, drawing the audience in — and sometimes even onstage — as collaborators in making musical magic.
He blends Western and traditional African music with what he describes as “sound calling him from the spirit world.”
“I go to my roots for the sound and bring it to the people of the world,” he explains. “Music is universal. People bring their fortunes to the celebration and meet unconditional love.”
As Onyemaechi shares his exuberance and energy, the celebration is meant to awaken body and soul. Accordingly, he calls the stage “a place of worship.”
And both audiences and fellow musicians comprise Onyemaechi’s “tribe.”
“I have a huge tribe, which comes with me and meets me wherever I go,” he says about the many musicians with whom he’s performed around the world. “People are people,” he states simply. “When Moses, Gandhi and Christ walked the earth, they loved all people and delivered their message of peace. World music is a way to celebrate each other, to promote humanity through a community of sound. I welcome whoever comes to play with me.”
Onyemaechi grew up among his Igbo people, experiencing the rituals, rites of passage and healing traditions of his village. He was raised in the African Christian tradition, deeply influenced by Judaism. His musical training, he says, began in his mother’s womb. In Africa, when a woman is pregnant, the spirit in the womb is an integral part of village life, participating in rituals and family events. When the child arrives, the training continues.
In the village, the community is infused with a sense of sound and rhythm, understood in relationship to God. And that music, permeated with the rhythms of nature, is an ever-present part of life — dancing, drumming, percussion, singing and chanting.
As a child, Onyemaechi developed a passion for sound, and when he creates music, he plays from memory. “I don’t write music,” he explains: “I remember. The essence of sound is spiritual, magnetic and powerful. It calls people to prayer and to celebration with each other.
“I am called to serve humanity, using my gifts of healing, prophecy and music,” the drummer continues. Part of his mission is bringing people together through shared joy and rhythm, as he integrates joyful glimpses of the village experience into Western society.
“Spirit will call people together,” Onyemaechi says. “They will feel, ‘This is where I need to be this evening.’ The evening will awaken their own spiritual roots, bring healing, allow peacemaking with God, and love and kindness with each other.”
Onyemaechi admits that he never knows how his music will influence people, though he does try to provide some direction. “I encourage people to respond as in the village, not to sit or stand still,” he explains. In an African village celebration, people move their bodies, clap their hands. This music calls for action and involves everyone.
“The way of celebration with God opens the heart and gives joy,” Onyemaechi muses. “When hearts are open they are playful, spontaneous and kind. The African village celebrates these qualities and entertains people who are not used to being accepted as they are. The experience evolves in a core of joy, which allows people to get loose and move.”
Inspired by a vision, Onyemaechi came to the United States in 1970. He now lives in northern California’s Sonoma County, where he teaches African perspectives in dance, music and spirituality at Sonoma State University. He also counsels people seeking spiritual guidance, directs the Igbote Center for Music, Spiritual Healing Arts, Education and Culture, and has taught at the Institute for Creation Spirituality, the Esalen Institute and the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
But for all his journeying, Onyemaechi says his exact geographic location is not of great importance. “It doesn’t matter where on the planet I’m called to go,” he observes. “I was spiritually trained in Nigeria, so I’d be ready to go into the world and do what’s needed. I was given strength, the gifts and talents to teach, and the joy to be with people.”
Africa In Asheville
Earthsong Productions of Asheville presents an African village celebration with Onye Onyemaechi and friends at the Diana Wortham Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 1, starting at 8 p.m. Tickets ($12 adults, $6 children) are available at Malaprop’s (55 Haywood St.) or the theater box office (257-4530). Everyone is invited to wear festive clothing and bring their own percussion instruments for this evening of celebrating life’s joys through rhythm, dance and song. Call 236-0299 for more info.
Onyemaechi will also lead an African Village Retreat at the Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 2-4. The cost is $270 (including two nights’ lodging and six meals) or $190 (including lunch and dinner each day). Call 236-0299 or 236-0118 for more info.