Dutch composer and arranger Lucas Van Merwijk was on tour in Europe about 12 years ago with a band that featured vocalists from several continents. He and other band leaders hoped that by using singers from different countries, they would broaden their outfit's appeal and still retain authenticity, unlike, say, Cirque du Soleil, whose singers deliver in a non-language.
But Van Merwijk and his friends found that there was a problem. Even if audiences liked the singers, there were linguistic and other barriers to negotiate. To create an ensemble that could be understood by everyone, Van Merwijk decided to put together a global percussion group.
Thus was born Drums United.
"Drumming and percussion crosses every border," he said from Calgary last weekend, where his troupe was performing. "We all understand rhythm. We all have heartbeats. We all speak drum language."
Drums United, with percussionists from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, performs this weekend as part of the 12th annual Flint Hills International Children's Festival in St. Paul. The all-day festival, which takes place Saturday and Sunday on several stages and in gardens in Rice Park and around the Ordway Center, include dance, music and storytelling by over a dozen acts.
The international highlights include Montreal-based Théâtre des Petites Âmes (Little Souls), a puppet troupe that's doing a show called "BAM." The story takes place in a land called Tran Tran Troo, where the most famous person is the Great Lady La. She makes the water sing until the land dries up on a hot summer night.
"Zorro" is another mainstage attraction, this one presented by the Scottish troupe Visible Fictions. It retells the story of the 19th-century California swashbuckler.
At the last minute, the Ordway had to scramble to replace The Wolf and the Goat, an Italian outfit that could not enter the country because of visa issues. The Italian act was replaced by Guinean music-and-dance ensemble Fakoly, most of whose performers are alums of Les Ballets Africains.
The festival lineup also has local performers who originally hail from the Caribbean and Mexico, India and the United States. They include Cyril Paul and the Calypso Monarchs, Mariachi Estrella, Nadha Rasa and Nirmala Rajasekar and the Native Pride Dancers.
Storytellers on tap include Beverly Cottman, Brenda Bell Brown, Cochise Anderson and Greta Grotsch.
But it's Drums United that will probably be the loudest, and give people more bang than the five bucks they paid for admission.
"They do represent what the festival is all about," said Ordway President and CEO Patricia Mitchell. "It's artists from so many countries coming together to jam and have a good time. But this is not one of those events where you sit back and are entertained. It's interactive. We'll have a dance floor and urge our patrons to get up and dance."