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Monday, May 20, 2024

Dancing to the drum beat at the Afro Roots Fest

Traditional African music enjoyed by all ages in downtown Gainesville

​​The UF Pazeni Sauti Africa Choir performs at Afro Roots Fest at Bo Diddley Plaza on Friday, April 8.
​​The UF Pazeni Sauti Africa Choir performs at Afro Roots Fest at Bo Diddley Plaza on Friday, April 8.

Bo Diddley Plaza teemed with festival-goers of all ages, from the elderly lounging in lawn chairs to children dancing in hula hoops in front of the stage. Above, colorful lights casted patterns of violet, red, blue and green onto a brick backdrop and performers below. 

A musician stepped up to the microphone. His strong voice boomed out a call-and-response scat melody, beckoning to the audience. More than 100 people eagerly participated in the dancing crowd, echoing back the improvised syllables. 

The 24th annual Afro Roots Fest was held at Bo Diddley Plaza in downtown Gainesville from April 8 to April 9 — marking the first year the festival has visited Gainesville. The festival celebrates Pan-African culture and music. 

Free workshops for all ages, held on April 7 to April 9, were held in addition to the concerts. Workshops taught participants about a broad variety of topics, including Afropop technology, Brazilian drumming and West African dance. 

Kicking off the concert on April 8, the festival featured three groups: Jomion and the Uklos, the UF African Popular Music Ensemble and the UF Pazeni Sauti Africa Choir. 

On the right side of the stage, a brunette woman energetically played the trombone during the performance of the UF African Popular Music Ensemble. 

Sarah Politz is a 37-year-old assistant ethnomusicology professor and director of the UF African Popular Music Ensemble. Alongside assistant director Kenneth Metzker, Politz founded the ensemble at the beginning of last Fall semester. The ensemble had been Politz’ dream since coming to UF three years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic put that dream on hold. 

“It wasn’t really possible to do rehearsals in person for a while, and I also wanted to get to know the resources and students at UF and see what might be possible,” Politz said. “The Fall semester was the right time, because most of the musicians were back rehearsing in person.”

In most African music ensembles at universities, only traditional drumming and dancing are showcased. The goal of Politz and Metzker’s newly founded ensemble is to feature a variety of popular music from the African continent.

“We do Afrobeat, we do highlife, we do some soukous, and we really have a lot of different parts of the continent represented, from Kenya, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, to Benin,” Politz said. 

About 15 students, African guest guitarists and Gainesville musicians play in the ensemble. 

Two of the guest artists, Gainesville residents Amo Soumah and Aboubacar Camara, come from Guinea in West Africa. Soumah and Camara played their respective instruments, the djembe and the balafon, at the Afro Roots Festival.  

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The Afro Roots Festival presented a great opportunity for the ensemble to play in a community environment. The ensemble has previously done a show in December at the School of Music, so the festival was an opportunity to expand their presence at an even larger event.

During the ensemble’s performance, concert attendees moved along to the rhythm — a sure sign that the ensemble was putting on a great performance.

“The best feeling is when the audience is reacting to what we’re doing and they understand what we’re doing,” Politz said. “The best part is to feel like we’ve had an impact, somebody heard us, somebody felt seen when they saw us, and they connected with what we were doing.”

The UF Pazeni Sauti Africa Choir drummer plays at Afro Roots Fest at Bo Diddley Plaza on Friday, April 8.

Another one of the performing acts on Friday night was UF's Africa Choir Pazeni Sauti, meaning “project your voices” in Swahili. The choir was founded in 2009 and focuses on vocal performances in different African languages. Led by music directors with expertise in African music education, the choir’s mission is to spread awareness and appreciation of African culture through song and music.

This year’s director, Eric Koome Murianki, is a 31-year-old graduate research assistant in music education at the UF Center for Arts Migration and Entrepreneurship. Murianki is also a member of the UF African Popular Music Ensemble.

Growing up in Kenya, Murianki has learned and performed African music since he was a child. 

“African music forms part of my DNA, so it forms 90% of my musical preferences,” Murianki said. “Every aspect of it is unique. The melodies, rhythms, harmonies and even the contexts in which it is performed. It cannot be compared to any other.”

Murianki believes performing African music in Gainesville is important because it offers people a chance to interact and learn from diverse cultures of Africa. 

“My favorite thing about performing African music is the freedom of expression,” Murianki said. “The fact that you are free to improvise and express your ideas while maintaining the style. Also, little or no knowledge of western music theory is required to be an expert in African music.”

For Murianki, performing at the Afro Roots Fest was an exhilarating experience that he will cherish for years to come. 

“The feeling was indescribably amazing, to say the least,” Murianki said. “Looking at the audience, I could feel the joy and the energy all over the place. It was one of my best events since I came to Florida.”

In the crowd, a bearded man admired the musicians lighting up the stage and offered an easygoing smile to passing festival-goers. For the evening, 47-year-old Jose Elias wore the hat of Community Arts & Culture executive and artistic director, but he is also a professional musician in his own right. 

In 2006, Elias received a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album for his work with Miami band Conjunto Progreso on their album “Masters of Cuban Son.” The guitarist and composer started the Afro Roots Fest in Miami in 1999. 

“The Afro Roots Fest is special because it celebrates the evolution of African culture in our communities,” Elias said. “The music is what we use as a vehicle for that celebration.“

The festival’s nonprofit, CAC, focuses on presenting the arts as a tool for education. With the help of grants, most of CAC’s events are free to the public. Through the Afro Roots Fest, Elias hopes to accomplish CAC’s mission. 

“We educate people about the diversity in our world, help break down barriers and dissolve fears,” Elias said. “Like you see tonight, everyone is so happy and engaged. For this little period of time, we get to give people a healing experience through music.” 

With its 20th anniversary, the Afro Roots Fest first expanded into Monroe County and Palm Beach County. After the festival was a hit in the new locations, further expansion looked promising. 

“A good friend of mine, Kenneth Metzker, moved up here about four years ago to work with UF,” Elias said. “He’s always known about the festival from living in Miami for many years and we talked about how eventually we had to do this in Gainesville. Lo and behold, here we are!”

The Afro Roots Fest will travel to seven more cities in Florida in the next month. The next location will be Jupiter on April 16. The festival will conclude in Islamorada on May 29. 

Contact Eileen at Follow her at @EileenCalub.

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