Rittenhouse Soundworks’s first annual Philadelphia Rhythm Festival

Philly's got rhythm

When it comes to rhythm, apparently, I have none.  Clapping in time is a challenge. Which is why I was drawn to the first annual Philadelphia Rhythm Festival at Rittenhouse Soundworks, a recording studio and performance venue in Germantown.

Glen Velez plays the frame drum at the Philadelphia Rhythm Festival. (Photo via GlenVelez.com)

Rittenhouse Soundsworks co-founder and festival organizer, James Hamilton, welcomed the audience by reminding them that the human body is the original percussive instrument. First came jazz and tap dance. Then came the jazz drum kit.   If it weren’t for tap, there’d be no Gene Krupa.

This introduction segued nicely into Hamilton’s introduction of Emmy award-winning dancer, choreographer, and director Jason Samuels-Smith. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Samuels-Smith is to the world of tap what Einstein is to physics. Casually attired, Samuels-Smith shuffled, glided and strutted on the stage, engaging the audience in a hypnotic conversation with his feet.

The festival’s second evening took me further down the rhythmic road with body percussionist Max Pollak, who blended a multiplicity of cultures into his performance. He started off by singing and tapping an Afro-Cuban welcome to a Yoruba deity. 

How did a kid from Vienna end up grooving to an Afro-Cuban beat? Pollak explained to the audience that his ah-ha moment came when he studied classical music and composition at the New School in New York City, where he was exposed to Afro-Cuban music. Subsequent trips to Havana resulted in his becoming the only non-Cuban member of the Afro-Cuban Rumba ensemble Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and the creator of Rumba Tap, a totally new dance form which merged American Rhythm Tap with Afro-Cuban music and dance. Eventually, Pollak had the audience tapping out a time step from their seats.

By the third night of the Philadelphia Rhythm Festival, which also included daytime workshops, I felt like I had been on a gourmet luxury cruise. The performances were so rich and juicy in content, I wasn’t sure I could stand another slice of cultural cheesecake. (Said no one, ever.)

I had no idea what to expect from closing night vocalist Loire Cotler and four-time Grammy winner, percussionist/vocalist/composer Glen Velez. In a language that duplicated the sounds of Velez’s frame drums, Cotler turned her voice into a percussive instrument. “Ta Ka Di Mi Doon” she scatted at speeds ranging from incredibly slow to what has been described as beatboxing on steroids.

When she wasn’t engaged in vocal dialogue with Velez’s drums, Cotler showed off her range by belting out a jazzed-up version of the 1930’s standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Clearly, she has the pipes to do whatever she desires, which includes mastery of seemingly disparate elements, such as Jewish prayer melodies and Konnakol, South Indian drum language. Meanwhile, Velez displayed the technique and talent that has made him the grandmaster of split-tone singing and frame drumming, one of the most ancient musical forms. A frame drum looks like an ordinary tambourine, but in Velez’s hands there’s nothing ordinary about it. (Case in point: avant garde composer John Cage wrote music specifically for Velez to perform.) Like Cotler, Velez integrated into his performance a wide range of musical traditions, including Indian, Arabic, African, and Brazilian.

By the end of the first annual Philadelphia Rhythm Festival, I felt I had witnessed a seismic change in the city’s performance space.  World class music and dance is no longer limited to Annenberg or the Kimmel Center. If you build it in Germantown, they will come. As for my own sense of rhythm, let’s just say I’m still working on it.

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