When drummer Brent Lewis brings the intricacies of African drum rhythms to Orange Coast College tonight, he will be beating out not just complex musical patterns, but telling ancient stories in an evocative language still understood today.
"Africans had no way of telephoning, so their (drum) rhythms had to communicate, like Morse code," Lewis said in a recent interview. "It's a very beautiful language--literally."
Lewis gave some examples, beating out intricate rhythms and translating what they meant:
--" 'Where is God . . . ?' "
--" 'He is coming . . . ' "
"An African hears the words," Lewis said. Yet not all rhythms mean words. "Some come from the beginning of time," he said.
A professional drummer and composer who has appeared in rock shows and night clubs in Las Vegas, Lewis' interest in African tribal drumming was sparked several years ago at a Watts Festival in Los Angeles.
"I didn't hear anything interesting going on inside," the 45-year-old Lewis said. "Then I heard some major drumming in the parking lot. Up till then, I thought I knew something about drumming."
The dazzling tribal drumming that attracted him was being performed by Kwasi Ba Du, a master from Ghana whose name, according to Lewis, means "10th Baby Born on Sunday."
The two began working together "eight hours a day for three or four months" in Lewis' West Hollywood apartment. "He didn't really understand much English," Lewis said. "So he would teach me which hand went first by holding my hands and showing me.
"When the master touches you, you learn."
Lewis became his assistant drummer, playing the equivalent of "oompah, oompah" background.
"Then one day, when we were going to perform (in a local high school), he walked out and left me on my own. That's how they do it to show you're ready."
During a recent gig that took him to Africa for three months ("I had to live in South Africa, but I didn't play in South Africa"), he stayed among Zulu tribesmen for three days.
"We were treated as equals there," he said of his experience as a white musician among black Africans. "In fact, I never experienced negative feelings from anyone--except in Johannesburg, which is understandable because blacks (there) were treated so badly. In the old days, blacks had to walk in the gutters. They were not even allowed on the sidewalks."
However, since his return to this country, Lewis says, he has encountered hostility from some blacks who feel he is ripping off African music.
"I do get resentment," Lewis said. "But it doesn't bother me. I'm doing what I believe in. . . .
"Africans have a beautiful theory: All the people of the world belong to two tribes--yours and the world's. So all rhythms in the world join as one. So it's hard to figure out why we're fighting. It's all the same beat, (just with a) different accent."