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Making a global sound

Adam Snow, left, and Michael Williams are getting ready for Friday's night concert featuring BataMbira.
Adam Snow, left, and Michael Williams are getting ready for Friday's night concert featuring BataMbira.

The mbira and the bata drums are percussion instruments with a musical tradition from different parts of the globe. Performed together, "it's like nothing you've ever heard," said percussion artist Michael Williams.

Williams, a Winthrop University music professor, has for years been playing the mbira, a thumb piano that's mounted inside a large gourd, and its edges are ringed with bottle caps. It's an African instrument of the Shona people from Zimbabwe.

Williams has teamed up with San Francisco percussionist Michael Spiro, who plays the bata drums, and other performers to create a CD of their original sound.

Their percussion ensemble, BataMbira, will give its first live performance Friday night at Winthrop's Byrnes Auditorium, where the musicians will be meeting for the first time.

"We've played music together, but not in real time," said Williams, 52, who explained that the CD was recorded in layers by different artists at different times and places.

"A record was fun to make, but it's not anything like a live performance, where anything can happen and everybody plays off each other," he said.

The sound, he said, "is kind of a collage -- a mass of extremely tight interlocked rhythms and harmonies and melodies," Williams said. "It's very energetic, very moving."

Bata drums are a family of three double-headed, hourglass-shaped drums of different sizes. They were brought by the Yoruba people of Nigeria to Cuba during the 19th-century slave trade.

Williams and Spiro met in 1999, when Spiro came to Winthrop to present a seminar on the bata drums. That's when the idea for their collaboration was born.

"He immediately recognized that these two instruments would fit together," Williams said of Spiro. "He said we really ought to try to make a record together."

The CD, produced in 2005 with the support of a grant from the Winthrop research council, includes layers of vocal sounds, bells and shakers and an African flute played by New York musician Sylvain Leroux.

The six-member ensemble that will perform Friday includes Adam Snow, 29, another Winthrop University faculty member who was a student of Williams.

The two remaining performers are Jesus Diaz, a colleague of Spiro, and Colin Douglas, a student of Spiro. Both play the bata drums.

Snow learned to play the mbira under Williams' tutelage. "It's pretty unique compared to the other percussion instruments I've learned to play," he said. "It intrigued me."

The instrument is different, Snow said, because it can perform both rhythm and melody. "It's a tonal instrument, like an acoustic guitar, sort of," he said.

Said Williams: "That's what attracts us drummers. But you're also able to do the melody and harmony that we don't normally get to do as drummers. You can dance to it; it's got a danceable rhythm. And we also sing to it."

The vocals are done in both Shona, the language in Zimbabwe, and in Lucumi, a combination of Spanish and Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria.

Williams said the performance will include the mbira and bata drums performed both individually and together, to introduce the sound to the audience.

He also said BataMbira has been invited to perform in November at the Percussive Arts Society international convention in Columbus, Ohio, where they have the honor of being one of five showcased concerts worldwide.

"It's truly unique," he said of the sound. "There's nothing like it on the planet."

Want to go?

What: BataMbira, a percussion ensemble featuring the mbira and bata drums.

Who: Michael Spiro and B. Michael Williams, with Jesus Diaz, Sylvain Leroux, Colin Douglas and Adam Snow

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Byrnes Auditorium, Winthrop University

Admission: $15 general admission and $5 for Winthrop students.

Details: Call 323-2255 or e-mail williamsm@winthrop.edu.

WANT TO GO?

What: BataMbira, a percussion ensemble featuring the mbira and bata drums.

Who: Michael Spiro and Michael Williams, with Jesus Diaz, Sylvain Leroux, Colin Douglas and Adam Snow.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Where: Byrnes Auditorium, Winthrop University.

Admission: $15 general admission and $5 for Winthrop students.

Details: Call 323-2255 or e-mail williamsm@winthrop.edu.

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