Drum Power, a drum and dance experience for young people in the Madison area where students are actively encouraged to develop valuable social-emotional skills through the exploration of African cultural traditions, will host its 10th annual Africa Night Student Showcase on Friday, May 12, 6 p.m. in the Starlight Theater at Madison Youth Arts Center on Madison’s east side.
Yorel Lashley is the longtime director and founder of Drum Power, a youth leadership program in which young people learn traditional West African, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian drumming and their cultural and historical significance.
“Africa Night is going to be 60-70 students across the district ranging from third grade through sophomores in high school,” Lashley says. “The event focuses on really connecting students to this African lineage of music. It is a cultural connector for students of color but also a general historical connector to something that’s bigger than them. I think students actually derive quite a bit of power from that whether it’s their culture or not, because what they’re being connected to is focusing on the arts at a high level, but also understanding how you build technique and personally develop yourself and set your own goals around the work and then follow through.”
Drum Power is an opportunity for the students to practice using those skills.
“We choose music to do that — West African traditional and Afro Brazilian music and Senegalese, too, but really, it’s a larger mechanism for developing these skills which these days we call social-emotional learning,” Lashley says.
Lashley is an educator, percussionist, and developmental psychologist. He is the director of programs in the Office of Professional Learning and Community Education at UW–Madison’s School of Education, and director of student empowerment for the Center for Arts Education and Social and Emotional Learning. He started Drum Power in 2001 in Harlem and has worked with young people throughout the years in New York City, Denver and Madison. He estimates that he has supported over 4,000 students over the years.
The students performing at Africa Night will be from Madison schools that include Lowell Elementary School, O’Keeffe Middle School and Madison East and Madison La Follette high schools.
“The one thing that you’ll see on display is that it has become more and more youth-driven,” Lashley says. “I used to have to direct and play solo and do everything and you’ll see this year that more of my advanced group now are just running things themselves and students have kind of taken it over. That’s all about our motto which is trying to build towards self-sufficiency.”
There is a suggested donation of $10 for adults and $5 for youth for Africa Night Student Showcase. Donations will support scholarships to the Drum Power Summer Drum and Dance Camp held July 17 to 28.
“So we run the Drum Power Summer Drum and Dance Camp, which focuses on giving students who have no background an opportunity to learn,” Lashley says. “We used to be on campus [at the UW-Madison School of Music] for three weeks for half days and last year I restarted it after the pandemic at the Madison Youth Arts Center for two weeks of full days because parents were always saying they wanted a full-day program. So we tried that out, and it has taken.
“We actually have a lot of scholarship applicants, but camp is more or less full already. The Africa Night event allows us to try to recoup some of those costs of having 10 or 11 different instructors teaching maybe 15 different things,” he adds.
Youth at the Drum Power camps also build self-esteem and life skills, focusing on discipline, community and leadership.
“We added visual arts last year, too … which has always been my dream,” Lashley says. “All students will have three art classes a week for two weeks. So we got performing arts and visual arts.”
Lashley mentions that there will also be an Intergenerational Community Arts Celebration on Saturday, July 29, with drum and dance classes taught by master artists that are open to all ages and abilities.
At Friday’s Africa Night, the youth performers and master drummers from all around Madison will demonstrate the full scope and power of the traditions they are learning and sharing in Madison. Lashley says that the cultural depth, musical power and intricacy of West African djembe and sabar drums and dance and Brazilian samba traditions will be on display for all to enjoy. and that the performance will also feature professional guest artists from Limanya Drum and Dance Ensemble.
“It’s lively. It is an opportunity to see students doing it at a very high level,” he says. “At Drum Power, we don’t dumb down or simplify the art for students. We find ways for them to connect to it. They’re doing the traditional stuff in a way that it’s being conducted over a long period of time. They are also able to contribute their own creativity to it in the continued evolution of the art.”
Africa Night will be held Friday, May 12, 6 p.m. in the Starlight Theater at Madison Youth Arts Center, 1055 E. Mifflin St. The suggested donation is $10 for adults and $5 for youths. For more information, click here.