Mountain Mali 

Missoula’s Drum Brothers keep the beat alive

Around these parts, the term “Drum Brothers” means many things. There are the brothers proper, Michael and Matthew Marsolek. And there’s their father, Drum Brother Dave. And there is the band, Drum Brothers, a manifestation of West African musical seedspawn that rooted here in Montana, flourishing as it commingled with other worldly grooves that found their way here to the headwaters of the mountain kingdom.

The band consists of the siblings, as well as two other players, Nathan Zavalney and Lawrence Duncan. Together they create music on four different sizes of djun-djun, a Malian drum played with mallets. These drums form a melodic baseline of sorts, over which is laid the higher notes of djembe, chekare and bells. There is a certain je ne sais quoi to this Malian music that Matthew describes as an “inner swing, a rhythm that can’t be metronomically divided.” Listen to their music and feel the inner swing as it wraps around the 4/4 or 6/8 rhythmic scaffold.

The Drum Brothers have performed all over the Northwest, including the main stage of the Seattle World Rhythm Festival. They opened for the Crash Test Dummies in Whitefish and have headlined Missoula’s First Night celebration for years. They have also toured the East Coast, performing and giving workshops at schools and centers for troubled youth. And they have performed internationally—Canada, that is.

Charmingly, many of their warmest receptions have been here in Montana, in such unlikely places as Lewistown and Billings, where one would expect less than throngs of drum circle patchouli dervish types. The fact that these towns turn out for the Drum Brothers (500 in Lewistown, 800 in Billings) is testament to the universal appeal of drums and rhythm. Even the redneck heart echoes to the beat of the drum.

In terms of fans per capita, the Drum Brothers are perhaps most popular in Choteau, where at a recent workshop they helped the community build 12 drums, which were then branded by local cattle rancher Ralph Paulus. Since then, the Rocky Mountain Front has echoed with the sound of harmonized djun-djuns, and Paulus is talking about having the Brothers back for a residency in November, along with a drum master from Mali.

Matthew leads another band, Mandir (the Sanskrit word for temple), which also includes Michael and Lawrence. Mandir’s music is more focused on melodic interplay, with lots of winds, vocals, violin, guitar, didgeridoo, and percussion.

Both groups are soon to release new albums. Grooves, Mandir’s second album (their first was Out Beyond Ideas), is due out in July. Remember, the second Drum Brothers CD, will follow (their first was called Power of Rhythm). Remember stays rooted in the West African rhythms that have driven the Drum Brothers’ music for the last 10 years, while incorporating new elements such as four-part harmony vocals, Pygmy vocals, and South African vocals on top of West African rhythms. There are some new instruments as well: riqq, a Middle Eastern drum that looks like a tambourine, and the udu, a Nigerian clay pot with low, deep, watery sound.

Although popular in small towns and enthusiastically received in big cities along the performing arts circuit, the Drum Brothers’ exposure here in Missoula is relatively low, considering the fact that they live here. In an effort to address this local paucity of profile—while staying clear of the club scene—the Drum Brothers are kicking off a monthly dance party here in town, in places where people of all ages can come and dance in a smoke-free environment. While their performances usually consist of a set list of rehearsed numbers, these dance parties will mix it up with longer, sweatier, customized grooves to meet the vibrational demands of the crowd.

The Drum Brothers host a second dance party this Friday from 8 to 11, backstage in UM Montana Theatre (in the PAR/TV Building). Tickets for this all-ages event are $5, with children 12 and under admitted FREE. For more information on Drum Brothers, log on to www.drumbrothers.com.

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