Members of the Sunset Drummers play a calypso beat. From left are Guinelle Koonce, Vivian Jack, Geoffrey Outlaw with Eleanor Jack hidden behind him, and Isaac Baker.
Members of the Sunset Drummers play a calypso beat. From left are Guinelle Koonce, Vivian Jack, Geoffrey Outlaw with Eleanor Jack hidden behind him, and Isaac Baker.

Feel the beat

Published 10:47pm Monday, January 20, 2014

Music and dancing — or at least the urge to do so — are a common combination for most people. Rare, though, is the music that vibrates the soul, pierces the heart, commands sweat and tears to flow and transports both musician and listener across oceans to other islands and continents.

But the kind of music that has built cultures, sustained them through the Diaspora and re-created them in a new location has a way of doing all those things.

The Sunset Drummers, a 12-person group of mostly Suffolk residents, has helped keep that music resounding throughout its adopted hometown.

“It’s in my blood,” says Vivian “Brother” Jack, a member at First Baptist Church on Mahan Street and leader of the Sunset Drummers. “(The music makes me) feel (the) dance, but a lot of things are against me now — age is one. But I can still feel the vibration in my soul.”

Jack’s first home was in Trinidad and Tobago, an island country just off the northeast coast of South America, where he was involved in musical groups advancing the craft of calypso music. He moved to England as a young man and got involved there with a group that practiced West African music, an ancestor of the calypso that developed on the islands of the Americas as slaves tried to keep their home cultures alive in the midst of brutal circumstances.

He brought along his knowledge and extensive collection of handmade, natural instruments — djun-djun, conga and djembe drums, cowbells and steel pans, tambourines and maracas — when he moved to America, first settling in New Jersey and then deciding he would prefer the more relaxed pace of the South.

Jack’s migrations almost mirror the transporting quality of the music he plays and teaches.

“When you feel that thump inside, it takes you to a place you’ve never been before,” member Shelly Boose said.

As hands and sticks beat and shake the instruments in a chaotic rhythm, most folks find it difficult not to dance.

“When you hear the drum, your body can’t sit still,” said Ophelia Russell.

Hearing the drums is almost a religious experience for some, including Isaac Baker.

“The spirit takes hold of me,” he said. “You’re going to feel the vibration inside of you.”

But for others, the drums have more of an intoxicating effect.

“It’s almost like I’m drinking alcohol,” said Geoffrey Outlaw, whose 10-year-old daughter Azaliyah is the youngest member of the group. “I get seduced. It’s better than any kind of medication or therapy.” ←

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