Philly drummers travel to Cuba to enrich work in city schools

Drummer Andrés Cisneros and students. Photo by Melissa B. Skolnick.

“The language we use to describe our craft is totally violent,” said percussionist Andrés Cisneros, who listed off many works to evoke playing drums: bang, hit, smack, strike, slam. Those words do not characterize drumming, but actually indicate how drums are played, and TIMBALONA — Cisneros’s Afro-Latin-Caribbean percussion collective he founded with Christian Noguera in 2010 — highlights the contrast between the negativity of those words and the positivity of drumming. The name of the collective itself evokes a celebratory atmosphere created by drums.

Connection through music

Since TIMBALONA’s formation in 2010, the two friends have been performing music and teaching drumming at various cultural organizations, like Artístas y Músicos Latino Americanos; in schools and universities; and through private lessons, focusing on technique, folklore, and history to put styles of drumming into context. In all things, TIMBALONA aims to empower and connect people through music. For Cisneros, who is originally from Venezuela, and Noguera, from Argentina, their work is all about community, keeping in mind the philosophy that you need to know where you’re from in order to know where you’re going.

This mindset has pushed TIMBALONA to design classes and after-school programs, such as Cisneros’s Global Arts elective at Independence Charter School, in response to the dearth of vibrant arts education in Philly public schools. In these culturally relevant classes, not only do students learn how to play the drum and understand how their present is reflected in history, but they also receive training for life.

Learning how to listen

“Drums are tools for self-growth,” said Cisneros. “It’s about learning how to listen. A drum circle or drum ensemble uses all the elements of what it is to become a member of society.”

Through drumming lessons and performances, TIMBALONA has been able to bring different types of people together. Cisneros and Noguera see the drum as a way to facilitate meaningful exchanges across difference. In one story, the predominantly Puerto Rican students of One Bright Ray Community High School where Cisneros was teaching were rumored to be in conflict with the students at predominantly Dominican Edison High School where Noguera was teaching, but all the students came together to perform each other’s music.

TIMBALONA also uses percussion to show students their shared histories, in spite of perhaps living in segregated communities. For example, although students might think of West African percussion as quite different from Afro-Caribbean percussion — and similarly, a Latino student might not think she’s culturally connected to her African peer — they’re related, linked through diaspora, among other factors.

Cuban roots

“When we teach, we learn at the same time,” said Noguera. According to him, TIMBALONA is about investigation as much as it is about music. He and Cisneros are able to incorporate every drop of information learned into their classes and performances, as they did on a research trip to Puerto Rico, and as they hope to do on an upcoming trip to Cuba in June. There, they will take classes, study with masters in the field, and network.

“If you are a musician and you want to learn to play Latin music, you go to Cuba,” said Noguera. “Every country is good to go to, but Cuba is the mecca because it was one of the first ports of the new world, and it mixed with everything.” The jazz you know from New Orleans, for example, was made possible by the relationship between that city and the port of Havana.

Going to Cuba is an opportunity for professional development in both their musical and teaching careers, and it has the potential for a wide impact as they will pass on the knowledge gained to communities in Philadelphia in their efforts to fill the gaps in arts education and enrich lives through percussion. TIMBALONA has much to offer, and those willing to support the mission can contribute to the Indiegogo fundraiser for the trip through December 15, 2015.

At right: TIMBALONA members play outside City Hall. Image by Momentos by Luz Photography.