My girlfriend, Gabriella, and I pulled up to Burton Hall in Easton, NY, on what was a sunny Mother’s Day (it’s a teeny-tiny town about 30 minutes from Saratoga Springs). We’d been asked to attend a Mother’s Day Dance and Drum event hosted by Chelsie Henderson, a friend and the owner of Rural Soul Music Studio in Schuylerville, just a few miles up the road from Saratoga. However, my girlfriend and I weren’t there to dance with our mothers as you might think (they both live far away, and we’d already wished them a happy Mother’s Day). As soon as I stepped out of my car, I could hear drumming pouring out of the old hall, but it wasn’t the kind of music you’d expect from a little agricultural town just a stone’s throw from the Vermont border. It was West African drumming, djembes it sounded like (tuned, goblet-shaped drums played with the hands). I approached the open doors of the hall, and inside, more than 20 people were dancing in front of two drummers and a slender black man in colorful pants, M’bemba Bangoura, the instructor of the day’s Dance and Drum class. Chelsie saw my girlfriend and I from across the room and waved for us to join in. Gabriella pulled me into the group of dancers, and I stumbled through the steps as I prayed M’bemba didn’t pick me out for messing everything up (don’t let anybody tell you African dancing is easy).
Bangoura is the genuine article. Born in Conakry, Guinea, in West Africa, he first learned how to play the djembe and other drums at age seven. Bangoura played with the Ballet Djoliba, the National Ensemble of Guinea, and other groups there for 13 years before immigrating to New York City in 1992. “One of the first things [I noticed] when I moved to New York were that the people were very interested in African culture,” he told me. Since then, he’s recorded three albums, served as choreographer for dozens of dance companies in New York City and abroad and traveled the world giving concerts and teaching drum and dance classes to people of all ages. He was in Shenzhen, China, just the day before, giving a similar class to the one I’d clumsily stomped and sweated through (thankfully, Bangoura never called me out).
How’d someone like M’bemba Bangoura wind up in Easton? The answer is Chelsie. “My main intention is, always, building a world community,” says the 32-year-old Easton native. “I was tired of hearing ‘there’s nothing to do in this town,’ and decided to light things up.” And boy has she ever done so. Last year during the Philadelphia Orchestra season, Rural Soul offered free, pre-show workshops for visitors to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (they’re returning again this summer). The studio also hosts about four to five special events every year with master instructors from West Africa and other parts of the globe. In March alone, Rural Soul brought in two big world music acts: Irish musician Tim O’ Shea, who gave a workshop on the Bodhrán (a traditional Irish Drum), and master drummer Bolokada Conde who was featured in the IMAX movie PULSE: a Stomp Odyssey. On top of this, Rural Soul regularly offers drum and ukulele workshops/meet ups to students of all levels and ages. Private and group lessons are available in nontraditional instruments such as the djembe, doundouns and ukulele (as well as the Western standards like piano, violin, voice and guitar). Rural Soul’s located right in Downtown Schuylerville, and is housed in the Bullard Block, a large High Victorian Gothic structure built in 1881 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
Henderson was born in Easton, but was first introduced to West African music as a Music Education major at the University of Burlington. There, she was exposed to the djembe and other drums through a professional performance and teaching troupe in Vermont called Jeh Kulu. After she returned home, Chelsie, along with a grant from the Easton Library, was able to bring Jeh Kulu to perform at Burton Hall (the very hall my girlfriend and I danced at). “The place was packed with people from all over the Capital Region, and I met a lot of important area drummers and dancers that evening,” Chelsie says. That included local drummer and instructor Wayne White, who had been teaching djembe and doundouns in Albany, Troy and even at Henderson’s old studio in Greenwich, NY. Chelsie invited him to teach some classes at Rural Soul. “It turned out we had a lot more in common than an interest in West African music…and now he’s my husband,” she says. White introduced Chelsie to a network of incredible drummers and dancers, including a company down in NYC where White had once studied called Wula Drum.
There are two sides to this unique drum company. The first is production. “We don’t just go over there and buy instruments,” says Michael Markus, President of Wula Drum. The company has around 30 people working for it in Guinea, West Africa, designing and crafting djembes, doundouns and other traditional African instruments. The other side of Wula Drum is programming. The drum-makers offer all kinds of events and concerts, everything from educational classes and retreats for drum teachers to corporate team-building exercises. “It’s all based on a mission of bringing people together,” says Markus. “When we come together, we communicate, we learn about each other and that breaks down the barriers of classism or racism or any type of prejudice.” The company even does some school programs and teen outreach. Bangoura, who taught the class in Burton Hall that I attended, serves as Wula Drum’s artistic director (in addition to the 100-plus concerts and classes he gives a year).
After the Mother’s Day Dance and Drum, my girlfriend and I were covered in sweat (think of a Zumba class but with loud drums instead of big speakers). We walked over to a table where there were free refreshments and filled ourselves a couple of cups of water. Then we walked outside and sat on the steps in the sun, still panting but impressed with what we’d just seen. It’s incredible that West Africa and New York (and Alabama, if you count my home state) were able to come together here in this little hall just up the road from a dairy farm.
Rural Soul is only six years old, but it’s already brought dozens of events like this one to the Capital Region. And its future looks bright: The local studio plans to offer regular classes in Body Percussion Stepping (and possibly Irish Stepping) and a special dance from West Africa called dundun (dancers play on a large bass drum while moving with live drumming). A women’s world-music singing group is currently being planned, and the next Young Women’s Retreat will be on Friday, June 22. These retreats, open to students ages 11-16, have been quite popular, because they include a little bit of everything: yoga and meditation, body percussion stepping, classes on homemade body-care products, painting, tea harvesting, drying and tasting, singing and ukulele playing and much more.
It’s an ambitious schedule the studio has ahead of it, but Henderson’s looking forward to it. “So much of the music that we know—bluegrass, blues, reggae, rock and roll—is rooted in West African rhythm and song,” she told me as she waited for the next class to arrive. “It’s important to me that we understand this and pay homage to the original rock and rollers.” Chelsie only had about a half an hour before people started arriving for the next event, an adult and teen African drumming class. She’d been dancing and drumming already for two hours, and she was nowhere near the end of her day. But she isn’t slowing down yet because she’s doing what she loves: bringing a little soul to the Saratoga countryside.