To the Beat

African-inspired drumming educates and inspires in Newport County

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Connecting the Beats, an initiative from the Middletown-based concert destination Common Fence Music, has been working to educate local youth on African-inspired drumming for 10 years. Led by Tom Perrotti, the program brings teachers and performers of West African and Caribbean dance and drumming traditions to Newport County schools for educational workshops and performances.

To give the public a taste of their mission, Connecting the Beats invited frequent collaborator the Lafia Ensemble to perform at the Broadway Street Fair. On one sun-soaked Saturday afternoon in October, the Lafia Ensemble – the brainchild of Malian Master Drummer Issa Coulibaly, dancer and troupe leader Tara Murphy, Chris Keniley, and Matt Maloney – drew crowds and pulled them onto the stage. Scores of curious fair attendees gathered around the performers at the historic Foley’s Garage, spilling out from the sidewalk and onto the street. Many danced and sang with the band, and others played the drums alongside the professionals. The joy from dancer Tara Murphy as she executed each song was immediately palpable and infectious: it’s no wonder so many people in the audience joined her onstage.

Perrotti, who was previously the Concert Director for Common Fence Music, credits the founding of Connecting the Beats to his own background in teaching at Portsmouth High School, participation in West African-inspired drumming workshops over the years (which became “a big part” of his life), and involvement with the Newport chapter of the Boys and Girls Club. At the latter, he noticed many children would spend their afternoons creating music on the computer and he decided that he wanted to expose them to the traditional music that has inspired much of today’s rhythms. That led to workshops at the Martin Luther King Center, the Claiborne Pell Elementary School, Thompson Middle, the Boys and Girls Club, and many others. As for his role, Perrotti describes himself as “the mover of chairs,” facilitating music education.

For Perrotti, music is a way of connecting communities: “People don’t often get to hear live music, especially drumming.” In his view, there is something therapeutic about music, particularly West African-inspired percussion, where people can form a circle of drummers and “play freely.”