Asheville-based drummer Jessie Lehmann loves West African music. Over 20 years, the Warren Wilson College graduate has visited Guinea and Ivory Coast three times and made connections with different master drummers to best represent and teach its nuances.
She enjoys West African music’s physical nature and precision, the deeper understandings that come through learning French and certain African languages and the cultural contexts of specific rhythms. Also appealing is its focus on polyrhythms, memorization and being group-oriented, plus the ways it pairs with dancing and its status as the source of other indigenous forms of drumming throughout the world, including samba, Afro-Cuban and Haitian styles. One aspect she’s not crazy about, however, is the scarcity of women djembe players, which remained the case on her most recent trip to Africa in 2017.
There’s the nature of how athletic it is, “and it hurts your hands. You get calluses. You have to try hard. Not as many women want to have callus-rough hands that are gross, or build up your upper body and have all these muscles that you wouldn’t normally form,” Lehmann says. “And then just the sheer act of having to push through the machismo [is challenging] — because there is that as part of the ‘Look at me. I’m the best, fastest, loudest drummer’ and that’s a lot of the culture, the way it feels when you play with guys. I’ve been in tons of performance ensembles where I’m the only woman, and that’s usually how it is.”
One of many professional women percussionists who have to fight to be seen within the industry, Lehmann is thrilled that the theme of the 2018 Asheville Percussion Festival is “Celebrating Women in Rhythm.” Intended to honor powerful female artists brought to Asheville from around the globe, the seventh annual gathering takes place Monday, June 25, to Sunday, July 1, mainly at Odyssey Community School.
In planning the festival at the start of the year, director River Guerguerian was on the verge of getting his usual mix of genders and cultures under the banner of a different theme. But on Jan. 20, the father of three daughters, ages from 11 to 21, attended his second consecutive Asheville Women’s March and had an epiphany.
“I kept seeing these [handheld] signs everywhere that said, ‘The Future is Female’ and ‘empower this’ and ‘empower that.’ And I was like, ‘No, man. That’s actually not true. The female is now.’ And then I said to myself, ‘This really is the year of the woman,’ with all the things going down on many different levels — political and not political,” Guerguerian says. “So I decided that all the headliners were going to be women or people who see themselves that way.”
Guerguerian is the lone male residency artist for 2018. Throughout the week, he and others in that role will collaborate and create original compositions and help teach an intensive program. On Saturday, June 30, they’ll give free workshops and demonstrations for the public and hold a ticketed, informal evening of solo performances and jams, and close out the week by facilitating a ticketed sound meditation on Sunday, July 1. Guerguerian and his Free Planet Radio bandmates Chris Rosser and Eliot Wadopian will also be male exceptions at the Masters Concert, held this year on Friday, June 29, at Diana Wortham Theatre (instead of the usual Saturday night slot). Spoken-word artist (and Xpress arts editor) Alli Marshall will also perform at the Masters Concert.
Other local residency artists include cellist/multi-instrumentalist Isabel Castellvi, Abby the Spoon Lady and Bharatanatyam dancer Aparna Keshaviah. Headlining the festival and making the trek from Nairobi, Kenya, is percussionist Kasiva Mutua. She’ll be joined by Brooklyn-based Latin percussionist Lisette Santiago; experimental percussionist and Seattle resident Bonnie Whiting; Iranian-born Persian percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, who now lives in Canada; and Turkish-based, Middle Eastern dumbek expert Raquy Danziger. Also visiting for the week from California is Monette Marino, whom Lehmann considers one of her percussion heroes.
“I love supporting her. She’s amazing and was on the forefront of Americans learning West African drumming,” Lehmann says. “She even went to study in Belgium with Mamady Keita, which was before anyone did that stuff. When I came around in the late ’90s, already people had sort of started going to West Africa, but she was the generation prior, when it was very rare.”
A veteran of multiple Asheville Percussion Festivals, Lehmann was initially brought in to play backup on dundun bass drums for West African artists like Bolokada Conde and Adama Dembele in their classes and performances. In 2017, she got to teach her first festival class — also on dunduns — and will do so again this year. She’ll also get to set a piece for the Masters Concert, a year after a mechanical malfunction caused her drums to drop while walking onstage to play with Conde before a sold-out auditorium. Lehmann says she “had to put [the drums] all back together and play in a weird, awkward way,” all of which was captured in a video that went viral on YouTube — and which, with the aid of hindsight, she’s able to joke about today.
WHAT: Asheville Percussion Festival
WHERE: Odyssey Community School, 90 Zillicoa St.; and Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave.
WHEN: Monday, June 25, to Sunday, July 1. Ticket prices vary. Full schedule of workshops and concerts at ashevillepercussionfestival.com