By Suzy Kridner
NEW SMYRNA BEACH - Rappers and percussionists, with a trumpet, soprano sax and flute thrown in the mix may seem like cacophonous madness.
But it blended together for beautiful music during a recent rehearsal for the Sept. 21 OneBeat concert at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.
The 32 musicians spending two weeks at the center collaborating on new music are fulfilling the vision of Doris Leeper, an artist who also developed a social advocacy similar to that cultivated by OneBeat.
Helping the center fulfill her vision of collaboration and innovation, and celebrate its 35th anniversary this month, are musicians from around the world creating new music from various genres, such as hip hop, electronica, roots, jazz, rock and experimental.
They are part of OneBeat, a new international cultural exchange by the U.S. State Department that celebrates the transformative power of the arts through the creation of original, inventive music, and people-to-people diplomacy.
One member is Paul Pissety Sagna (aka PPS the Writah) an award-winning rapper, percussionist and M.C. who grew up in the working class neighborhood of Rufisque, Senegal, West Africa.
The 29-year-old gained notoriety there as a "politically conscientious rapper and banner-bearing graffiti artist who hustled his way into the spotlight."
PPS was happy to take a rehearsal break to talk about his awards for best revelation and best video.
"A friend sent me a link to OneBeat and I applied, sent my songs and videos from live performances in the Gambia and Mauritania," he said.
He raps in a mix of English and a Senegal language, Wolof.
Jeremy Thal, co-founder and artistic director of Found Sound Nation, a program of Bang on a Can, producers of OneBeat, suggested during the rehearsal that PPS rap more in his native Wolof.
The rapper says his ethos of "Guimi Guindi," to stay awake and conscientious, is his driving principle.
Setting the beat for the rehearsal was Johnbern Thomas, a OneBeat fellow from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and one of Haiti's leading jazz drummers.
His positive disposition was evident as he worked with his fellow musicians, and as he talked about his country following the devastating January 2010 earthquake.
"Everything is fine," he said, adding new homes are under construction.
This is the first time in the U.S. for Mr. Thomas, who has played drums since he was eight and professionally for five years.
He would make suggestions to the rappers and other musicians, when to come in with the vocals, and how many bars to play.
PPS was singing the rap song he created, "OneBeat," with the lyrics, "put your hands up if you feel that."
Adriel Luis, art and online media director for OneBeat, wrote on their website, "perhaps the cohesiveness we hear in the songs showcased is contextualized by our past five days together in these isolated mangroves. Grooves are being sought and found, and while the solo showcases that kicked off OneBeat were laced with the enchantment of strangers convening, it's time to hear the music with a critical ear."
Mr. Luis said, "Even without a singular genre - or a singular direction for that matter - there are stereotypes we must fight. Audiences will be tempted to dub this "world music," but for each individual player there's simply nothing closer to home."
OneBeat Fellows will perform with U.S.-based musicians, including a number of well-known artists with a long history of collaborative work. The artists include acclaimed jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, Bang on a Can guitarist (and Paul Simon's music director) Mark Stewart, seminal composer and deep-listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros, and legendary DJ Ali Shaheed Mohammed of Tribe Called Quest.
Taking a break from rehearsing, Mr. Douglas said, "What they are doing today is great. We start out with an intent to do one thing, then end up doing something completely different."
"We're bringing music from the world together to discover a new music," he said. "What's interesting is the music is such a hybrid of tradition."
He said the musicians bring such a richness of folklore, traditional music and their local culture and share it on a very deep level.
Beginning in New Smyrna Beach, OneBeat, a cultural diplomacy initiative, will connect international musicians with American musicians and audiences, especially underserved youth.
The program will tour to Charleston, S.C.; Asheville, N.C.; Floyd, Va.; Roanoke, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia and end with concerts in New York, to engage with local musicians, and conduct outreach workshops with local youth.
OneBeat builds on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's vision of "smart power" which embraces a full range of diplomatic tools, in this case music, to bring people, especially youth, together to foster greater understanding.
Partnering with Bang on a Can's Found Sound Nation and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, these musicians will perform in ensembles, reinvent traditional tunes, compose original work, record in the state-of-the-art OneBeat mobile studio, and prepare for performances and educational workshops. To learn more about the OneBeat musicians and tour dates, go to http://www.1beat.org/.
Free concerts are at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21, at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Joan James Harris Theater and artists' studios, 1414 Art Center Avenue, New Smyrna Beach. For more information, call 386-427-6975.
Also a free concert at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Timucua White House, 2000 S. Summerlin Avenue, Orlando. For more information, go to www.timucua.com.
For more information about the 35th Anniversary series of events, visit www.atlanticcenterforthearts.org or call 800-393-6975.