Melissa Demple Photography/
Members of the "Finding Rhythm" team include Sylvia Soumah, Koto Maesaka, Dante' Pope and Jessica Phillips-Silver.
Melissa Demple Photography/
Go-go music permeates D.C. Its signature beats thump out of car speakers and fill music venues with dancing bodies (in pre-COVID times, that is). The homegrown music genre is an offshoot of funk, with heavy Afro-Latin influences and distinct, complex rhythms.
The creators of a new children's musical want to bring go-go to the theater stage. Their project, "Finding Rhythm! A Journey Through The Musical Brain," traces the roots of rhythmic music through Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, ultimately showing how they all fused together in D.C.'s go-go scene. A scientist character explains how this music spurs activity in young brains, which can have a range of benefits later in life.
"Finding Rhythm" is the brainchild of Dr. Jessica Phillips-Silver, a music neuroscience researcher with a passion for exploring how rhythm spurs brain development in babies and children. Scientific research shows listening to complex rhythms, called polyrhythms, can accelerate brain development and even improve long-term memory.
"Rhythm is an extremely important stimulus to the human animal," says Phillips-Silver, who for years taught a course on music and the brain at Georgetown University.
Last year, Phillips-Silver decided she wanted to share her message directly with kids in D.C., the city she's called home for the past decade. "So here I am in D.C. wanting to write a show about the musical brain, and I need to represent polyrhythms. So what music am I gonna choose? I'm gonna choose go-go," she says.
Courtesy of IsItModern?/
Jessica Phillips-Silver dances during rehearsals for "Finding Rhythm" with Ruth Benson, daughter of cast member Rochelle Rice, and Elle Zubiller.
Courtesy of IsItModern?/
As natural as that decision felt, it also came with what Philips-Silver felt was a potential complication: she is a white D.C. transplant, and go-go was developed and popularized by Black Washingtonians. "Go-go is not my story to tell," Phillips-Silver says.
The genre has become a symbol of "old D.C." and the soundtrack of the anti-gentrification movement, best exemplified by #DontMuteDC campaign that grew out of a 2019 incident where a store owner in Shaw was directed to stop cranking go-go music out of his sidewalk stereo speakers. Protesters took to the streets and the music was eventually restored.
So Philips-Silver and her partners on the project decided they'd expand their subject matter to include different types of world music that represented each of their backgrounds and influences. "This is not a show about go-go per se," Phillips-Silver says. "It is a show about rhythm and the brain — in particular, it teaches children about polyrhythms in music — and go-go is the musical culture that inspired this first iteration of the show." She says they plan to write future versions of the show with different focus genres, such as flamenco.
Early on in the process, Phillips-Silver reached out to her friend Dante' Pope, who she describes as both a talented musician and a skilled communicator with young people. Pope taught music classes at the Columbia Heights arts organization Bloom Bars that Phillips-Silver's daughter frequently attended. Since he moved from Chicago to D.C. more than a decade ago he's performed with some of the Washington region's best known artists, including a multi-year stint with the go-go group Black Alley Band. Phillips-Silver also called Sylvia Soumah, the founder of D.C.'s Coyaba Dance Theater, who signed on as another early partner.
After receiving a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the team started recruiting locally based musicians with a broad range of expertise. They brought on vocalist Rochelle Rice, Amadou Kouyate on kora, djembe and koutiro drums, Uasuf Gueye on balafon and Kinard Cherry on bass.
Pope says the team's diversity of musical backgrounds was appropriate for a show about rhythm. "While go-go is a sound, it's a sound that's an amalgamation of different cultures," he says. "It's literally bringing what you get from the church, that spirit. It's bringing a little bit of hip-hop where you have some rhyming. And so it's bigger than just a feel-good party."
In the musical, Mother Dance, played by Soumah, and Father Rhythm, played by Pope, trace the development of musical rhythms around the globe. In the role of the "curious scientist," Phillips-Silver asks the musicians questions and talks about how rhythms affect brain development.
Of course, this being COVID times, Washingtonians can't take their kids to see the show on a local stage. Instead, they can livestream the premiere for free on Saturday and stick around to chat with the cast after the show. Eventually the group plans to perform it at Dance Place and host workshops in partnership with the Music Center at Strathmore.
"Having to do it virtually, it stinks," Phillips-Silver says. "[Go-go] has always been a conversation, a dialogue across time and space. It's a means for connection."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.