Wednesday, February 21, 2007

an article about Brassroots

There are times when I wish I could transcribe an entire conversation word-for-word into this column. I have a limited amount of space to fill each issue, and this time it feels woefully inadequate.

The reason? I recently interviewed veteran percussionist Robert (Bob) Hughes about his upcoming performance with Brassroots, a local brass group. Expecting a pleasant but brief exchange, I was instead treated to an hour-long discourse on Hughes' multi-faceted career, the roots of African music, and speculation as to why percussion is so compelling to audiences.

For the record, Hughes was educated at the University of Toronto, and taught high school music before coming to London to teach percussion at the University of Western Ontario for the better part of three decades.

He officially retired in 1995. Along the way he's also carved out a performance career for himself in an incredibly broad range of styles, from big band, jazz, and orchestral music through to world music and fusion.

When asked why he loves percussion, Hughes said that one of the reasons is the sheer variety of performance styles available to a percussionist. The other reason? The never-ending challenge of "being able to play steadily."

Those rare moments when everything clicks and the musician finds his or her groove are like nirvana for Hughes.

The idea for Saturday night's concert - African Safari - was conceived a year ago when Brassroots conductor Bram Gregson decided to feature more of the fantastic talent available in this city.

Hughes, a specialist in African music who studied in Ghana in 1989 and 1993, and is currently writing some world music teaching materials for high school musicians, was approached by Gregson to program a concert of African music.

After realizing that it might be too difficult to acquire enough scores or arrangements to fill an entire evening, the decision was made to include New World music with African roots - effectively tracing the journey of African music through to the Americas.

The program features a North African sword dance, "talking drum" music, African bell music, West African funeral dances, and High Life (the pop music of Ghana), as well as New World examples of dances such as the cha cha, tango and samba, with a little bit of Duke Ellington and improvisation mixed in at the end.

Hughes is also bringing along several other guest musicians: percussionists Alfredo Caxaj, Rob Inch, Rob Larose and Greg Mainprize, guitarists Steve Litman and Oliver Whitehead and pianist Steve Holowitz.

All are keenly interested in world, jazz, and Latin music, and several are members of Caxaj's salsa band Herentia Latina. Caxaj himself is the director of Sunfest 99, a co-sponsor of this concert.

Many of the arrangements have been written by local composer Jeff Christmas, and Brassroots trumpeter Paul Stephenson will be a featured soloist.

I was most fascinated by Hughes' descriptions of the African music, and Saturday night's audience will get a taste of his passion for teaching. Hughes plans to do a little bit of show-and-tell during the first half of the program, describing how the percussion instruments are constructed, and pointing out what to listen for in the African music.

April 8, 1999
copyright 1999, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

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