The Beat Goes On at the Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival
“ The sound seemed to exist outside of any the performers - it unified and enveloped everyone in its perimeter. ”
With a blend of music that incorporated the powerful rhythms of traditional Japanese taiko drums with non-traditional jazz and electronic styles, the On Ensemble was one of many high-caliber groups performing at the 24th Annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival on Saturday, September 24, 2005. Contrapunto, an ensemble dedicated to preserving its Afro-Peruvian roots, performed traditional instrumental and vocal music, accompanied by dancers in colorful Peruvian costumes. As the Locke High Saints Drumline performed, some of the festivalgoers wandered over to the "drum pavilion, surrounding the performers and swaying to the beat of the Universal Drum Circle.
The Day of the Drum Festival is a popular outdoor celebration held annually in September, that also includes the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival held on Sunday. Both events celebrate multiculturalism and bring people together from all walks of life in Southern California and from around the world. "Dedicated to percussion and the traditional role of drumming in human societies, the Drum Festival is held in the center of Watts, at the site of the Watts Towers. The historic Watts Towers are seventeen major sculptures that were created by Sabato "Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, out of steel that was covered with mortar and decorated with a variety of embedded mosaic tiles, shells, glass from broken bottles, ceramic pieces of broken plates, and rocks. The sculptures were a 33-year obsession, which the artist worked on from 1921 until 1955, calling his steel structures Nuestro Pueblo (Our Town). Tours of Rodia's Towers were held throughout the weekend, as the events brought together artisans, musicians, food vendors and music lovers. The diverse crowd fanned out into the various areas of the festival, which was free and open to the public. Some browsed the ethnic goods available at merchants' booths while many participants remained seated in front of the main stage area or converged in the area of the Drum Circle.
The On Ensemble (pronounced "ohn ) was coming to the end of a composition entitled "After Rain, as I arrived Saturday afternoon. A young performer hummed a throaty chant into the microphone, while two other musicians played a rhythmic beat on classic Japanese drums and a drum set that included cymbals, bass and snare drums. A vibrating sound that was reminiscent of bees swarming, or rain, faded away as the piece came to an end. Before they began the next number, one of the musicians, Shoji Kameda, explained that while the ensemble members were all Americans - he himself was fourth-generation Japanese-American - they had studied traditional music in Japan. He stated that their music was influenced by jazz, rock, electronic music, and contemporary urban music. Enthusiastically talking about the influence of hip-hop on their music, he said, "Nothing feels that good! Like nothing! Their work combines 21st century experimental sound with centuries-old Noh and Kabuki music. One of the pieces performed was "Turns, which started out with Kris Bergstrom scratching on a DJ's turntable. The Japanese drums played by Masato Baba and drum set played by Kelvin Underwood came in with a gentle pounding rhythm in the background, starting out softly and building in volume. The sound from the turntable at times resembled chirping, laughing, and chuckling until the constant beat in the background transformed the music into the chattering of animals in a forest or jungle. After swelling to a dull roar, the turntable took a turn and sounded out, "fu. . .fu. . .fu. . .fufun. . .fun-ky. . . and "ch. . .ch. . .chi. . .chek-it-out. With the combination of ancient drum rhythm and the scratching on a turntable, the piece was a mix of old and new that took one from a primeval place to a contemporary dance floor. The combination was a great mix, technically precise, and the unique sound was delightful to hear.