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D.C. is a rhythm town, both in terms of jazz and just about every other form of Black American music. (There’s some controversy over whether it’s really a “bass town” or a “drums town,” so let’s just cover the waterfront here.) Rhythm players here tend toward a particular and distinctive kind of sound—one that puts both muscle and dance into the music’s pulse. The best ones are those who absorb that style, but in the process come out sounding like no one else.
Exhibit A: 25-year-old drummer-percussionist Kweku Sumbry.
Those who follow the local jazz music scene can’t help but know that name. Recently, Sumbry has played a lot of gigs around town; he’s practically the house drummer at Takoma Station’s Saturday night jazz concerts, and plays drums regularly in bassist Corcoran Holt’s quartet. But he’s also a known and sought-after quantity in New York, where he holds the drum chair in the band led by alto saxophonist and Blue Note Records artist Immanuel Wilkins, among the most acclaimed jazz players and bandleaders of the contemporary era.
Wherever Sumbry plays, he brings to the kit an astonishing and virtuosic array of polyrhythms (i.e., contrasting rhythms played simultaneously) that are directly connected to West Africa. Sumbry has played the djembe, a hand drum that originated in Mali, since he was 2 years old; his cousin co-leads Farafina Kan, a West African drumming and dance ensemble based in Mount Rainier.
Though this artist has roots in West Africa, Sumbry was born and raised in the District.
“I went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts; and I have a great big family here in D.C.,” he says. While Sumbry’s family has been able to trace their ancestry to Ghana, Cape Verde, and Guinea, he adds: “My father and my uncle are from Trenton, New Jersey.”
Sumbry’s grandparents—on both sides, he stresses—were and are enthusiastic participants in the renewed Pan-Africanism that swept through Black America in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. His paternal grandmother actually established a Pan-African school in Trenton before moving her young family to Washington at the height of its status as Chocolate City.
“I was immersed into the culture at a very young age,” he notes. “Farafina Kan was passed down to us by my father and my uncle and aunts. My father and my uncle were percussionists; my aunts were all dancers. My first professional gig was at age 4 playing a festival at Wolf Trap.
“So that’s why you thought, ‘Oh, yeah, he must be West African’—’cause I know what I’m doing!” he concludes.
Of that, there can be no doubt. Playing behind Holt and special guest saxophonist Antonio Hart (a New York-based jazz star) at Takoma Station on April 22, Sumbry was key to reshaping Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” into a strident, relentless groover that was equal parts post-bop, Afrobeat, and dyed-in-the-wool funk. The listener’s ear was instinctively drawn to Sumbry’s pulse, rumbling across the snare rims and cymbals; try to count the time, though, and you’d be lost within seconds.
Still, it wouldn’t be accurate to locate everything Sumbry does directly in Africa. He plays the music of the entire diaspora. But he also grew up listening to soul and R&B, Afro-Latin, go-go, hip-hop, the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, and—he is keen to emphasize—a whole lot of reggae.
“I didn’t even like jazz until I was 14 years old,” Sumbry says. “But my [maternal] grandfather made me listen. He loved Thelonious Monk, he loved Freddie Hubbard, and he would quiz me on the music so it forced me to be an active listener.”
Clearly, the lessons took. Sumbry amassed the kind of musical knowledge and chops that could have forever provided a living in New York. However, in addition to his extended family, Sumbry has a 5-year-old daughter who lives here. Their gravitational pull proved too strong. And, as it turns out, Sumbry has had no trouble at all finding work in D.C. Or, for that matter, outside D.C. Farafina Kan has performed all over the world; so has Wilkins’ quartet. In May alone, Sumbry is traveling to New York, Boston, Atlanta, and New Orleans.
He’s not leaving local music lovers deprived, however. This Saturday, May 20, he’ll join Farafina Kan at Bruce Monroe Park on Georgia Avenue NW, part of the daylong Africa on the Avenue festival; on Tuesday, May 23, he’ll accompany French bassist and vocalist Sélène Saint-Aimé at La Maison Francaise. In June, he’ll perform at Takoma Station for the first time as a bandleader, helming a quartet.
Perhaps the true essence of his artistry, however, is to be found on Sunday, May 21, at Adinkra Cultural Arts Studio in Mount Rainier. Sumbry is performing the fifth in a monthly series of solo concerts that he calls the Solo Drum Exhibit.
Meanwhile, he’s still basking in the afterglow of a major accomplishment. Last month, with Wilkins, Sumbry played at New York’s Village Vanguard—jazz’s most hallowed hall—for the first time. “We sold out every set,” he says. “And I’ve been not coming down off that high but trying to roll it over to the next thing that I’m doing.”
Kweku Sumbry plays with Farafina Kan at 12:15 p.m. on May 20 at Africa on the Avenue, free; May 21 at Adinkra Cultural Arts Studio in Mount Rainier; at 7:30 p.m. with Sélène Saint-Aimé at La Maison Francaise on May 23 at the Embassy of France, $15–$25; and 7 p.m. on June 24 at Takoma Station, $15–$20.