Asheville Rhythm artistic director River Guerguerian is the Batman of world percussion. He’s got an underground lair — a spacious basement room beneath the Odyssey Community School, carpeted in Persian rugs — stocked with a bewildering array of musical gadgets, from Tibetan singing bowls to Indian tabla and Japanese gongs. As he leaps between instruments to show different drumming techniques, he demonstrates powers gained from a lifetime of rigorous training. And, when he speaks, he shares an unshakable passion for his chosen work.
“With music and drumming, there’s this synergy where one and one is more than two,” Guerguerian says. “I’m so into this stuff and still want to share it, and that’s what keeps me going.” That collaborative impulse underlies the Asheville Percussion Festival, now entering its sixth year, which returns to Odyssey Community School and the Diana Wortham Theatre from Monday, June 26, to Sunday, July 2.
Much more than a series of performances, the festival brings together professional artists and amateur drummers for a week of immersion into percussion traditions from around the world. Participants in the event’s intensive program at Odyssey form a community of practice over more than five hours of classes and rehearsals per day, then showcase their development in Saturday’s culminating masters concert at Diana Wortham Theatre.
Guerguerian explains that the festival’s tagline, “Mosaic of Rhythm,” refers to the diverse assemblage of artists who come together to share their perspectives on percussion. “When you box a tradition up, it just dies,” he says. “All of the teaching artists I pick, whether they’re from Senegal or India or Brazil, are willing to mix their stuff with other cultures and collaborate. I think that’s what will keep many of these subtle arts alive.”
In keeping with that goal, many of the festival’s participants come from places where the arts may be overshadowed by political controversy. This year’s lineup includes the Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek and his son Murat Tekbilek, the Iranian percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand and the Lebanese drummer Yousif Sheronick with his wife, violist Kathryn Lockwood. “With all the anti-immigrant, U.S.A.-first type of thing going on, I wanted to show that all these people could come together and make something of beauty,” says Guerguerian.
But artists with local backgrounds are also well-represented. Asheville drummer Jessie Lehmann leads workshops on the West African dundun, Greenville-based Bolokada Conde teaches djembe and former UNC Asheville visiting instructor Barakissa Coulibaly shares African dance techniques. Guerguerian’s bandmates in Free Planet Radio, Chris Rosser and Eliot Wadopian, will also join the festival for the final masters concert.
Sharing the gifts
New this year is the chance for Asheville residents to become part of the festival community, free of charge. Thanks to a grant from the Grassroots Arts Program of the N.C. Arts Council through the Asheville Area Arts Council, as well as support from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s Festivals and Cultural Events Funding Program, all of the festival’s Saturday workshops are open to the public. “We’ll probably get two to three times as many people during those workshops as last year,” says Guerguerian. “We’re really excited to bring these gifts and talents to the community in the way we can best share them.”
That community involvement helped draw Atlanta-based kalimba player and teaching artist Kevin Spears to the festival. “Asheville is very unique in that it has so much world music supported on a grassroots level,” Spears says. “There’s probably 70 percent more world music here than in the Atlanta area — and Atlanta has roughly 6 million people. [Asheville is] the world music capital of the South, if not further.”
At the festival itself, Spears explains, he absorbs as much from other participants as he teaches in his own classes. “Regardless of what instrument you play, when you get to the level where you can express your life and emotions through that instrument, beautiful things are spoken,” he says. The complex polyrhythms of West African drumming, the lyricism of Middle Eastern wind instruments and the ebullient energy of Brazilian Carnival marchers might all find their way into his fusion approach to kalimba.
But the sharing among participants also goes beyond the music. Spears, for example, sees his instrument as a vessel for communicating wider lessons about focus and discipline. He advocates careful musical practice at increasingly greater tempos as a way of harnessing what he calls “the speed of thought” in any activity. “When I slow it back down, I can allow my hands and physical actions to play as fast as I can think — I’m free both mentally and physically,” Spears says.
Similarly, Guerguerian views percussion as a path toward holistic wellness. “Something very tactile like this is vital because we’ve gone so heady in our culture, sitting in front of our computers so much,” he says as he dances his fingers across the skin of a frame drum. “When I watch my students as I’m showing them new techniques, I can feel their brains being activated in ways that they don’t use in their regular lives.”
The Asheville Percussion Festival concludes with a sound meditation on Sunday afternoon, where the teaching artists create a peaceful soundscape within the walls of the Odyssey gym. “It always sells out — people love to bring their yoga mats, lay down and bliss out,” says Guerguerian. The event is the perfect summary of what he feels percussion can accomplish: “If I’m feeling really dark and I pick up my drum, all of a sudden things will reset, and the world becomes a better place.”
WHAT: Sixth annual Asheville Percussion Festival
WHERE: Workshops and sound meditation at Odyssey Community School, 90 Zillicoa St.
Masters concert at Diana Wortham Theatre, 12 Biltmore Ave.
WHEN: Monday, June 26, to Sunday, July 2. Masters concert on Saturday at 8 p.m., $35 adult/$20 youth; sound meditation on Sunday at noon, $18. ashevillepercussionfestival.com/tickets