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Charlotte seniors gear up for Juneteenth Festival and performance on the symphony's mobile stage

The Senior African Drumming and Percussion Ensemble rehearse in west Charlotte ahead of their performance at the Juneteenth Festival and on the Charlotte Symphony’s mobile stage.
Elvis Menayese
The Senior African Drumming and Percussion Ensemble rehearse in west Charlotte ahead of their performance at the Juneteenth Festival and on the Charlotte Symphony’s mobile stage.

A group of older people in Charlotte are finding a new rhythm — one powered by African drums and other percussion instruments. The seniors are gearing up for two performances, one on Saturday as part of the Juneteenth Festival and another later this month in the city’s Corridors of Opportunity.

About a dozen seniors gathered in a circle on a recent morning in a building near Freedom Drive in west Charlotte. Drums between their legs, they played in sync while others shook tambourines.

Carolyn Dingle, 65, is a retired school social worker from Rock Hill. After retiring, she said she wanted to try something that had caught her attention.

“I would always go to festivals, and I would see the ladies playing the drums, and it’s just something about the drums that call the rhythm inside my body, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Dingle said.

Dingle has been part of The Senior African Drumming and Percussion Ensemble for two years. She said she was particularly interested in the Djembe drum, which originates from West Africa.

“I just like the way the drum sounds; I like the shape of the drum. I like the way that there are not very many notes,” Dingle said. “I had done a little bit of research on it, so I knew it was slap, slap, tone, tone. I knew those three things, and I just thought that would be something to start out with.”

After joining the class, Dingle quickly noticed that there was more to it. It’s knowing the order to hit the drum and where to place your hand to create certain sounds. Gary Mumford founded the ensemble and is Dingle’s teacher. Mumford said the Djembe was historically used for a specific purpose.

“The Djembe is mainly a drum that delivers the messages,” Mumford said. “That's the language of the drum, and it would tell you when to get up, when to eat, when a baby was born, when there was going to be a wedding, and when it was time for war.”

The seniors learn to play at least 20 different instruments, such as the balafon, maracas, and rain sticks. Most of the recent class focuses on preparing for their performance at The Juneteenth Festival on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the House of Africa on Thomas Avenue in east Charlotte.

The national Juneteenth holiday commemorates the formal abolition of slavery for the last enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865.

Gary Mumford is the founder and instructor of the Senior African Drumming and Percussion Ensemble.
Elvis Menayese
Gary Mumford is the founder and instructor of the Senior African Drumming and Percussion Ensemble.

Mumford has taught people to play the drum for more than 30 years. He’s a frequent performer at festivals that commemorate Juneteenth. He said he is pleased to know the seniors are interested in sharing the history of people who originate from Africa through their music.

“It gives me great pride and a great feeling in my heart to know that I'm reaching my people, and somebody is taking the culture and uplifting it,” Mumford said. “We often just hear the term of Africa, and all of that, and not really tuning in to what it really means to be from Africa. And to have African DNA running through your veins, you know, that's very powerful.”

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The seniors' live performances won’t end after this weekend’s festival — about a dozen are expected to perform on the Charlotte Symphony's mobile stage later this month. The stage is part of a symphony initiative with the city of Charlotte to bring live orchestral music to many underserved neighborhoods in the city’s designated low-income Corridors of Opportunity.

Part of the initiative focuses on playing music that reflects the background of the people in the community. Mumford said the event provides an opportunity for the seniors to reveal what they’ve learned and inspire others in the crowd.

“These are people in their 70s and some even in their 80s, and they get to show that simply because you have aged, it doesn’t mean you stop moving or even living,” Mumford said. “So, it’s just a chance for them, as you could say, 'to show off a little bit.’”

Shareefah Saleem-Rasheed is a member of the ensemble that plans to perform on Charlotte’s Symphony mobile stage.
Elvis Menayese
Shareefah Saleem-Rasheed is a part of the ensemble that will perform on Charlotte’s Symphony mobile stage.

Shareefah Saleem-Rasheed said she and the other seniors are not anxious about the upcoming performances but are embracing the moment.

“It's fun. It's really fun to see us beat the drum and look around the room. Everybody has a smile on their face,” Rasheed said. “It's just wonderful. It's just an amazing feeling.”

The Senior African Drumming and Percussion Ensemble plans to perform on the symphony’s mobile stage at the Ophelia Garmon-Brown Community Center on Friday, June 21, at 5:30 p.m., bringing the beats and culture of West African music to the Charlotte community.

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Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health.