The driving rhythm of a dozen djembes echoed from swing sets to waterfront in Schenectady’s Central Park on Sunday evening.
As the sun slipped behind the trees, pedestrians were drawn in by the sound, some right up onto the Music Haven stage to smack a drum themselves.
“Sometimes drums are like medicine,” said Zorkie Nelson, who led the open drum circle kicking off Music Haven’s summer concert series. “Unhappiness can be like a disease. The drums will make you smile, laugh. They’ll give you energy. Take you far away.”
Nelson specializes in teaching the rhythms he learned in Ghana from the age of 7 to non-drummers, which is exactly what he did for those brave enough to join him onstage.
“It was very meditative,” said Wiatt Waterman, of Schenectady. “I didn’t even know I was onstage.”
But the joyous rhythm didn’t stop when Nelson wiped the sweat from his forehead and left the stage.
He was just the opening act for Diblo Dibala, a guitar player from the Congo, and his band.
The four-man group plays a type of music called soukous, meaning “shake” which Mona Golub, Music Haven artistic director, calls “joyous and effervescent.”
The crowd that overflowed from rows of garden chairs to lawn chairs and picnic blankets on the grass grooved in unison when Dibala picked the first song to life.
“You can dance any way you want to this music,” said Alex Boicel, the band manager. “Watch, by the end of the night, everyone here will be up there dancing.”
Even as he spoke, several women felt the need to move more than their chairs allowed and made their way forward.
According to Boicel, African dance music of Dibala’s style was popular in the U.S. in the decades before Sept. 11, 2001, when the cost of flights and border problems made it harder for bands to travel.
They’re coming back now, the Music Haven stop part of an 18-gig tour through the U.S. and Canada.
Dibala has played all over the world, with African pop legend Kanda Bongo Man. They even played the Haven stage 20 years ago.
“They were the first band I booked who came all the way from Africa,” Golub said. “That was 1992, when bands from other states, much less other countries, playing free concerts was unheard of.”
Sunday’s concert marked the beginning of Music Haven’s 23rd consecutive year of hosting free music Sunday nights in Schenectady’s Central Park.
“Our goal has always been to make people feel as if they’ve traveled the world in a few hours,” Golub said.
Many in the crowd, like Niskayuna resident Charles Frank, have enjoyed a majority of the two decades of free music.
“I like Afro-pop, reggae, that kind of music,” he said, adding that he planned on dancing eventually.
Another longtime attendee, Mike Coffin, drove from Gloversville with his son Mike Jr., 18 months, and daughter Olivia, 10, to experience the music as he has every Sunday night over the summer for years.
“This is the stuff I remember,” he said, “I came here all the time as a kid. I’m carrying it on with my kids. I love this place. I love the music.”
For more information on Music Haven concerts and schedules, visit musichavenstage.org.
For more information on Zorkie Nelson and the percussion workshops he teaches at the First Reform Church of Schenectady, email email@example.com.