October 9, 2004
The Chronicle Herald Halifax, Nova Scotia

WHEN JEREMIAH SPARKS saw a DVD of the television version of DRUM! he cried.

And not just because he wasn't in it, jokes the booming-voiced singer who was performing in the glittery musical version of The Lion King in Toronto when DRUM! was filmed in June 2003 for a CBC TV special to air this fall.

"I missed being part of that. It's a very powerful experience," says Sparks, taking a break from rehearsals for a new live version of DRUM! which opens for a limited run at Pier 20 on the Halifax waterfront on Friday, Oct. 15.

Mixing traditional music, dance and costume from Nova Scotia's four founding cultures - Acadian, aboriginal, black and Celtic - DRUM! also brings tears to the eyes of musical director Doris Mason.

"There's a number called Prayer, which mixes the Lord's Prayer and Mi'kmaq prayers that's very moving," says Mason, who selects and arranges the music for the cast of 20, who perform in the new, specially built theatre seating 300.

And the show's opening, when George Paul, blesses the theatre in Mi'kmaq gives Mason goosebumps "on every hair in my body," continues the Pictou County-born singer.

"It's a real ceremony that puts everyone in a different state of mind. The gathering chant brings everyone together, opens up the whole idea of sharing music and songs."

Paul, who wrote The Honour Song (the opening chant) while on a spiritual quest and fast says everyone is born with a song.

"The chants are a language the spirits understand. When we sing those chants, we allow them to be present and the ancestors of all those in the audience can join in with the spirits."

Paul, who goes to powwows as a member of the Thunder Eagles Drummers and is a key singer and songwriter with the Red Ochre Band of native and non-native players, accompanies the chant on an impressive 30-inch drum handpainted by well-known native artist Alan Syliboy.

From there, says Mason, the show flows into Acadian rhythms and Sparks sings the Sam Cook anthem A Change is Gonna Come.

"We develop each culture in its own right before we start combining them into more complicated rhythms and medleys. It's very organic."

Among the instruments the show includes are the Bodhran (a Celtic drum), the Djembe (an African drum), the spoons, military snares, the congos, a traditional drum kit, keyboards, fiddle and bagpipes, played by New Zealander Rowan Manson in an exchange with Citadel Hill piper Dave Danskin.

And the performers are incredible, continues Mason, who has been with DRUM! for five years through its various incarnations from a showcase for tourism industry operators, to the huge outdoor extravaganza during Tall Ships 2000, to the TV shoot.

"We had a cast of 200 for Tall Ships and this is a much more honed version. Everyone has to do more than one thing," says Mason who also sings, plays keyboards and percussion in addition to her musical director duties.

Sparks, renowned for his singing talents, is enjoying playing drums, something he began when he was part of the DRUM! cast for Tall Ships. "I did some quick intensive lessons with Mathieu Keijser, learned to play Djembe and I love doing it now. It's so much fun."

Shaunda Aucoin, who spent four years as a member of Acadian dance troupe La Baie En Joie, is now singing and playing the spoons in addition to dancing.

And it's not just the stepdancing she began at age three in her native Clare, she's incorporated some ballet - her favourite discipline - and is learning highland dance for the first time.

Aucoin has just returned from three years in Toronto at the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts. She joined DRUM! at the invitation of show producer Brookes Diamond.

"I left another show I was in because this is where my heart is. I think Brookes' call was a sign to come back. In Toronto, it was mostly Broadway-style dance and though it was fun, it's not my culture. From the first day of rehearsals, I knew this is where my heart is," she says.

Working with Tim French - who choreographed the musical The Producers in Toronto and is giving the show's five dancers a real workout - has been a highlight as is performing to a live band.

"Feeling the energy is amazing," Aucoin continues, noting she is also thrilled to be part of the drum choir for the gospel music portions of the show.

The choir backs up Sparks and Dutch Robinson on a medley of uplifting Negro spirituals, which starts with a slow ballad and adds energy and tempo until they raise the roof.

"Gospel is my home," agrees Sparks, a former director of the Nova Scotia Mass Choir.

"Gospel is what brought us out of slavery, helped us to persevere, enabled us to carry on and release our resentments and frustrations. It's a big part of my culture and is represented very well."

Paul, born in Red Bank, N.B., on the Miramichi, also believes DRUM! is an important showcase of his culture, which he fears is in danger of dying out.

This fear is acknowledged in one of the show's unique pieces, called Communication, which features video clips of Eskasoni poet Rita Joe reading her poem I Lost My Talk about the loss of culture, accompanied by computer sounds, typewriters and cell phones.

But Paul believes in the show's overall message.

"If people work together to understand each other's culture, if they join hands they can enjoy bring peace and harmony throughout the world. Greed and a quest for power can destroy it.

"The theme is four cultures, four rhythms, one heart."

"Anytime you allow yourself to be open to other cultures, to open yourself to new horizons, the world becomes a little bigger. If you stay in your own culture, you stay in the box," concludes Sparks. "This is about being able to accept everyone else and it goes beyond skin colour, to race, religion and sexual preference. We need to accept everyone for who they are."

The two-hour DRUM! show plays Friday and Saturday Oct. 15 and 16, Thursday to Saturday, Oct. 21 to 23 and Thursday, Oct. 28 and Saturday, Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $32.50. Call 451-1221 or visit the Halifax Metro Centre box office.

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