By Meg Schmitt
The name “Appalachian Strings and Zimbabwean Keys” alone promises a different kind of sound than the type Sebring-Lewis hall is accustomed to, and the description confirms it. “Zimbabwean” and “bluegrass” don’t usually mingle, but in the case of this Friday’s performance by Trans-Atlantic Steel, the blend is unexpectedly harmonious.
The group sparked the interest of the Music Department, who is sponsoring the performance this week.
“The group seemed too wild to pass up…it’s the type of music we, as Grinnell, should support,” said Jennifer Brown, Music.
The international group mixes culture and sound with its founding duo of Grinnell’s Tony Perman, Music, and his Pomona College colleague Joti Rockwell. The pair came together while teaching together at Pomona College, and has since shared their diverse musical stylings with several collegiate audiences around Pomona.
Perman, a new arrival to Grinnell, describes his area of study as “the anthropological aspect” of music, with a specialization in African music. His course load this semester reiterates this focus in African music with the Zimbabwean Mbira Ensemble, Black Atlantic Music and African Music courses.
Joti Rockwell, performing the Appalachian side to the group’s music, is a guest of the Music Department and will be sharing his expertise in a lecture entitled “Rhythm, Gesture and Syncopation in Appalachian Fiddling” this Friday at noon.
The inspiration for the group stems from Perman’s continuing fascination with the comingling of country music and African music. In his three-year immersion study of Zimbabwean musical culture and heritage, the ethnomusicologist has developed a particular affinity for the infusion of country music into native Zimbabwean music.
“Our music is based on how in the ’50s and ’60s, Zimbabwean musicians started playing mbira music on the guitar and later combining them,” Perman said.
The surprising popularity of country music in Zimbabwe during that era has deeply influenced his own areas of musical interest. In fact, this venture with Rockwell began with a simple request.
“There was one song in particular that I’ve always wanted to play, and I just asked Joti to play [it],” Perman said.
The performance in Grinnell will be the group’s third, extending the reach of their unique ethnic-cultural mixing music.
Both Perman and Brown attest to their curiosity of the potential impact the country-infused African music might have in the country haven of Iowa.
“Some of the songs have very obvious country influences, but not all,” Perman said.
Perman is excited to share his music with the school, particularly because of the new addition of his Mbira Ensemble to Grinnell’s musical ensembles.
This collision of musical cultures results less in a clash as in a communion of sorts, a give-and-take juxtaposition of the unfamiliar elements of African music and the readily recognizable style of Bluegrass Country music.
Trans-Atlantic Steel will be bringing the sounds of the wider world to Grinnell’s small-town stage, with a twist on that country music native to Iowa. And what better place to refresh the repertoire of country music than in a town rooted in the tradition of rural American music?
Trans-Atlantic Steel’s performance will take place this evening in Sebring-Lewis Hall at 7:30 p.m.