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Percussion instructor James Armstrong presents dynamic recital

Katie Pryor
Arts & Culture Editor

There’s an old saying that goes, “Two’s a company, three is a crowd, and four is a party.” In the case of Dr. James Armstrong, instructor of percussion for Millersvile University’s Department of Music, his faculty recital on Sunday, Oct. 5 in the Winter Visual and Performing Arts Center may as well have been a celebration of percussion music.

James Armstrong performed his faculty recital in the VPAC.
James Armstrong performed his faculty recital in the VPAC.

For his faculty recital, Dr. Armstrong collaborated with students, faculty, colleagues and friends alike to present a vast array of music featuring drums, xylophones, marimbas and other various percussion instruments. His first two pieces were traditional Afro-Cuban pieces, which he played on a bata, an hourglass-shaped Nigerian drum used at religious events in Nigeria, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The first was “Bata for Elegua,” a deity from the Yoruba religion that represents the beginning and end of life. The second was “Bata for Yemaya,” the keeper of the oceans and the mother of all living things. For the latter, Dr. Armstrong was accompanied by ’14 graduate of the Music Business Technology program and soprano Chelsea Snow.

Dr. Armstrong’s next arrangement was “A Night In Old San Juan,” which Armstrong wrote himself and was inspired by a vacation to Puerto Rico. He was accompanied by Emeritus Professor of Millersville University Dr. Daniel Heslink and Portal Percussion. Portal Percussion is made up of Millersville University Department of Music alums Matt Bracciante, Brian Doherty and Rich Klimowicz, and they have become a premier chamber music ensemble based in Lancaster, Pa.

Dr. James Armstrong and the members of Portal Percussion performed on drums while Mambo Vye Zo Komando LaMenfo sang traditional Afro Haitian songs.
Dr. James Armstrong and the members of Portal Percussion performed on drums while Mambo Vye Zo Komando LaMenfo sang traditional Afro Haitian songs.

The next piece, “Songs of Sickliness for Soprano Voice and Vibraphone,” was also written by Dr. Armstrong, but was based on poetry by Ogden Nash. He was accompanied by Jenice Riebe, a voice instructor who introduced Dr. Armstrong to Ogden Nash’s quirky style of poetry.

The song was split into three parts – “The Germ,” “The Sniffle” and “Common Cold” – which humorously depicted different stages of sickness, most specifically the common cold. Not only did Riebe sing the piece beautifully, but she performed each part with great comedic timing through her facial expressions and hand gestures.

Dr. Armstrong’s recital brought in several guest accompanists and musicians, including Portal Percussion.
Dr. Armstrong’s recital brought in several guest accompanists and musicians, including Portal Percussion.

The next two pieces were also pieces written by Dr. Armstrong. “Summer Evening Serenity” was accompanied by Erik Forst, assistant professor of percussion at Messiah College, on marimbas. The second was the premier performance of the lullaby “Not A Morning Has Passed.”

While “Not A Morning Has Passed” had a soft, soothing melody, his next piece, “RAUK!,” was dynamic and boisterous. This performance was once again accompanied by Portal Percussion.

The piece was composed by Anders Astrand, a Swedish percussionist and composer who founded the Global Percussion Network. For his next arrangement, the jazzy “Stolen Moments” by Oliver Nelson, Armstrong was accompanied by Stephen Goss, director of bands at Ephrata Area School District, on drums and Millersville University bass instructor Dr. Michael Vitale.

Before he started his final piece, Dr. Armstrong stated, “Things are about to get a little interesting.” He explained that apart from teaching at universities and colleges, he is also master tambor at Sosyete du Marche Inc., a 501c3 Vodou church in Blue Bell, Pa. According to Dr. Armstrong, “Religious and traditional Afro-Haitian music is something where you need to dig deeper in order to truly pay respect to the music because it is so deeply spiritual.”

Dr. James Armstrong, accompanied by Millersville University graduate Chelsea Snow on vocals, performed “Bata for Yemaya.”
Dr. James Armstrong, accompanied by Millersville University graduate Chelsea Snow on vocals, performed “Bata for Yemaya.”

The sosyete is also where he met Mambo Vye Zo Komando LaMenfo, a priestess of Haitian Vodou and the choir master at the sosyete. For his final piece of his recital, “Vodou Songs for Hounter and Ibo,” Dr. Armstrong and Portal Percussion performed on tambor while Mambo Vye Zo sang and danced to the beat of the drums. Together, they delivered an energetic and spiritual performance.

The Department of Music has several other concerts and recitals in store for the semester. The jazz ensemble will be performing with Rodney Mack and some of America’s top jazz musicians at the Rodney Mack Philadelphia Big Brass and the MU Jazz Festival Thursday, Oct. 16. The Millersville University Orchestra, Wind Ensemble and Concert Band will present Invitation to the Dance Sunday, Oct. 19. The next faculty recital will be Sunday, Nov. 2, where organ instructor Dr. Ross Ellison and Shawn Gingrich will present “Dualing Organists.”