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Arts & Culture

Drummer Gary Mumford Brings African Rhythm To Charlotte's Juneteenth Festival

Gary Mumford.jpg
Nick de la Canal
Charlotte drummer Gary Mumford leads a drum circle at a Juneteenth kids culture camp at the House of Africa in Plaza Midwood on Thursday, June 16, 2021.

Juneteenth celebrations are expected to draw newly energized crowds around the country this weekend following the surge in activism around police brutality last year, and the recent federal designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

That includes here in Charlotte, where the 24th annual Junteenth Festival of the Carolinas will fill the streets of Plaza Midwood through Sunday.

Local drummer Gary Mumford has been with the festival since its inception in 1997, and has seen it change and grow over the years. He joined WFAE's Nick de la Canal at Charlotte's House of Africa to share some of his music and his hopes for the holiday weekend.

Nick de la Canal: Can you talk a little bit about how the Djembe (west African drum) has been used through history, because I understand it's had several different purposes.

Gary Mumford: This drum right here is what we call the heartbeat. Before we even (were) using all the technology that we use now, like cell phones and telephones, the Djembe (taps drum) did all that through the drums of rhythm.

And by the way, the Djembe means in Kiswahili "messenger." That's the thing. Messenger. That's what it does. It delivers messages.

De la Canal: And I also understand throughout history it's kind of been used to build and foster community?

Mumford: Yes. The Djembe is always like the communicator of whatever is going on. It can, through rhythm, transmit a baby being born, a wedding happening, war, unrest, celebration of course, and just over all, keeping the body in tune with nature.

Because when you step onto the Mother Earth every morning, the earth has a heartbeat (plays rhythmic heartbeat). So when you step out of your bed onto the surface, if you don't step into the rhythm, your whole day is off.

De la Canal: What purpose do you see your drumming serving today, or even this weekend? Because I know a lot of people are just now reentering society after this past year with the pandemic. Do you think that part of this is about rebuilding community, or something else?

Mumford: Well, yes, and see, this moment now for Charlotte and for the African American community, it's a very powerful time for us to now learn. Learn and embrace our culture. And not only that, understand it. Because there's still a lot of people who don't understand Juneteenth, and they might come. But to understand what it's all about, and what it magnifies, and the significance that it plays in the part of their lives and their family, that's the real thing.

So I'm hoping this weekend will be hopefully a time that everybody will come out — I want y'all to hear me again: everybody will come out — and learn and embrace, for the whole Charlotte community, you know?

De la Canal: So, the drums this weekend will be about community and education?

Mumford: Yes, definitely. Definitely. When the drums speak, they're always speaking about community and education, because the one thing about rhythm: it brings everybody together. See, just through your ears, through your body — when you start hearing them drums you want to nod your head and move your shoulders and tap your feet and whatever else you can do.

De la Canal: So you've been participating in this festival for 24 years?

Mumford: Twenty-four-plus years, yes sir.

De la Canal: And I assume you've been drumming and teaching the drums for longer than that?

Mumford: Oh, sir, I've been out here a long time.

De la Canal: What keeps you coming back every year, and keeps you going?

Mumford: Man, it's like that spiritual energy. You know, like I said again it's (taps drum) — it keeps me going because it gives me that desire to see people at a certain time of the year now start to really embrace their culture and get to wanting to eat African food and wear African clothing and buy African jewelry — because it's just a part of who we are.

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