Finding rhythm at Harvard

In his first semester, a student looks to the arts to find the rhythms that inspire his work and passions, and create community at Harvard. 

By Ian Askew ‘19

Harvard’s campus is full of people moving to their own rhythms. Passing footsteps create beats on the pavement. Phones constantly buzz with alerts. Bells chime steadily overhead. The pulse of campus is exciting. But as a first-year, it can be daunting.

In my first couple months on campus, it was easy to get lost in these rhythms. Everything was new,
PHOTO BY Jenny Edwardsand I couldn't tap into the pulse. I wasn’t sure what to do to get comfortable in my environment. So I looked to my passion of the last nine years: percussion.

I’ve learned from drumming that the best way to keep steady is to play to a metronome, to find a beat you can trust and play to it. And the best way to bring excitement and joy into your playing is to play with others, to enter a space where everyone is sharing a rhythm. So, weeks into my first year at Harvard, I went out looking for these connections. My search for rhythm took me across campus.

My first step was finding a place to practice. I got a tip that the basement of Memorial Hall has a practice room with a beautiful new drum kit. I went to the office, got access to the practice room, then reserved a weekly time to practice and play with friends. This has become my metronome. A weekly buzz on my phone tells me it’s time to practice, and I know I always have a place to make music.

Next, I came across a drum circle held by the Silk Road Ensemble, the world-renowned group of musicians in residence at Harvard. One of the ensemble’s percussionists, Shane Shanahan, led the circle in a series of basic rhythms, linking them together to create pulsing music that quickly drew a crowd. Sitting between percussionists with years of conservatory experience and people who had never touched a drum, I was reminded of the power of a simple one-two-three-four to link people together.

The most powerful event of my search for rhythm was a master class taught by Joh Camara at the Harvard Dance Center, which hosts free and open-to-the-public master classes throughout the year. I registered not as a dancer but as an observer for Camara’s class. Camara, who is from Mali, is a master drummer and dancer who teaches in the Boston Area. For this class, he brought his son, a child barely bigger than the drum he was playing. Watching the dancing was fantastic, but my eyes were glued to Camara’s son, his hands wailing masterfully on the djembe. The djembe was the first instrument I ever learned when I was not much older than Camara’s son. I realized that I had been missing the excitement that this boy was feeling, and that I had found it once again at Harvard.

By entering these rhythmic spaces, I’ve found a beat I can live by. I’ve tapped into the pulse of Harvard, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

In the words of Common, “To the beat y’all, and you don’t stop.”

Here’s where my rhythm is taking me next:
November 6: Expressions Dance Company Presents: EXhale
November 14: Harvard Jazz Bands with guest artist George Cables
November 16: Alicia Jo Rabins at the Woodberry Poetry Room