Boomshaka Rocks!

BoomshakaOut of the darkness comes the beat, a rhythmic tapping of body against surface. Then the lights go up and figures emerge from the fog. Guys, dressed in black and seated in a row, strum hard on plastic buckets. A row of girls in white tank tops and black pants move in to fill in the stage. Their ponytails flick as their tap shoes submit to the beat. The crowd roars as more than 20 figures become perfectly synchronized to form one, pulsating unit: Boomshaka.

Boomshaka is a Northwestern University-based performance group that uses ordinary objects -- everything from garbage cans, water jugs, and wooden poles to their own bodies -- to create rhythm. Some reviewers compare it to "Stomp," a professional show that also uses everyday objects as alternatives to percussive instruments. Others see similarities to "Blue Man Group" because of they both incorporate unique -- sometimes bordering on bizarre -- interpretive pieces.

But Boomshaka's members say there aren't any clear parallels. "We try to redefine every year," says Lauren Nagel-Werd, Boomshaka's 20-year-old director. "It's a reflection of its members."

BoomshakaBoomshaka was started in 1998 at Northwestern's Evanston, Illinois campus by Josh Berner and Jade Smalls, both of whom were undergraduate students and members in the school marching band at the time. When a student variety show requested a "Stomp"-like piece, Berner and Smalls were quick to respond. Their performance, featuring cafeteria trays as instruments, became one of the most popular acts. Berner and Smalls had so much fun with the production that they created an independent group that now sells out shows and travels across America. But fun was not all there was to it. In the years since it began, the mission behind Boomshaka has evolved to include community involvement, the promotion of diversity and an educational component, as well.

The beat goes on: Boomshaka 2003

Today's Boomshaka boasts 21 cast members, four directors and a slew of production and crew teams. The students couldn't be more different, save for their common love of rhythm. With academic majors ranging from psychology to speech pathology and hometowns as distant as Dallas and New York City, each member brings a unique perspective to the group. Together they raise money, find their own venues and write all of their own material.

Second-year Boomshaka member Nicole Pellegrino says that when she and her fellow performers develop pieces, they try to involve many cultures and lifestyles. She says it's important for them to be inclusive of all people, despite the reputation Northwestern sometimes gets as a school for upper-class, Caucasian students.

"We've had African-based pieces, tangos and belly-dancing," says Pellegrino, 20, of Munster, Indiana, "We try to integrate everything and show how it's part of our everyday lives." Their latest show, "It's Time to Get Up," featured pieces set in everyday locations such as bars, classrooms and laundromats.

BoomshakaPellegrino believes that much of the group's strength comes from the relationships behind the group. Boomshaka members are close and have had to work together under a number of circumstances. When her directors tell her to be prepared for constant flux (one commonly repeated phrase is "we can tell you what [Boomshaka]'s been, but we can't tell you what it is now,") she says they're not kidding. Pellegrino says she never knows what to expect from Boomshaka shows, recalling one specific Evanston show:

"We were off-campus at a YMCA. We performed with a broken table and the building flooded. Down the street, we heard someone had gotten shot. But performing was incredible."

Infusing Kids with Rhythm

Acting on the message that rhythm is part of everyone's lives, Boomshaka performs in a number of off-campus venues, including Chicago-area elementary schools. Performing in schools allows Boomshaka to fill a void that may not have been present a decade ago: lack of music education in schools.

Despite academic studies that prove that music programs lead to better grades and social behavior, many public schools have been phasing out their music programs in recent years. Partnerships like those between Boomshaka and area elementary schools allow kids to experience music without depleting education budgets. And Boomshaka members say young audiences embrace their performances and respond enthusiastically to their blasting sounds and hip-hop dance moves.

Second-year Boomshaka member David Skidmore, of Dallas, says he thinks younger kids might be better able to appreciate Boomshaka than more refined artists. "If you bring a kid to a symphony, they only care about where it's loud or fast. Same with ballet," says Skidmore, 20. "But with us, they're really into it and love to dance around."

He adds that when they first started performing in schools, they had to tweak their performances to make them age-appropriate. To relate to college students, Boomshaka often uses mature themes dealing with violence and relationships. With kids, the performers realized they would have to focus on different messages.

"Sex and aggression don't really sell in elementary schools," says Skidmore. He says Boomshaka's main message to the younger crowd is "make the best of what you've got." The group believe their raw sound and objects send a powerful message about being resourceful and creative about what you have at hand. He and his fellow group members say they've also noticed that the positive attitude of their members is picked up by the kids, who see their energy and are captivated by it.

This year, Boomshaka also did a workshop at Kids Can Dance, an Evanston-based non-profit organization that provides free dance instruction to students ranging from 11 to 17 years old. Nagel-Werd says they wanted the teens to acknowledge their potential as musicians, an innate potential that all people possess but might not recognize. "You don't have to be a 'drummer or a 'dancer,'" says Nagel-Werd. "If you walk you can dance and you can create music from anything."

Tapping into the Airwaves

While active in the Evanston community, Boomshaka also embraces opportunities to perform in other parts of the country and achieve national recognition. During Boomshaka's spring break tour of the East Coast, the group stopped at a little television program called "Total Request Live." The group camped outside MTV's Manhattan studio with all their instruments, hoping for some on-air action. When the New York Police Department misinterpreted their eagerness to be on television for political protesting, Boomshaka members responded by whipping out their instruments and giving the cops an impromptu performance. "We had to perform for them to prove we weren't creating a political stir," says Pellegrino. Fortunately, their performance succeeded and they were allowed to stay in Times Square.

When it came time for "TRL" to air, MTV producers saw their energy and directed the cameras on the group, most of whom were clad in Boomshaka apparel. The quick beating of young girls' hearts pining for 'N Sync was replaced by the beats of Boomshaka as they performed for 30 seconds in front of a nationwide audience. Following the performance, MTV's VJ Hillarie came down for a brief interview.

Adding to Boomshaka's television success, one member, Raymond Lee, recently appeared as a finalist on NBC's "Fame." Similar to Fox's "American Idol," contestants on the show sing and dance in front of a panel of judges. Each week, viewers call a hotline to keep their favorite performers on the show. During the weeks that Lee performed, the rest of Boomshaka excitedly watched his progress and phoned-in to keep him in the contest.

Lee's Boomshaka peers are quick to sing his praises, calling him "sincere," "the best person ever," and "so talented." They say he knows all the choreography to Britney Spears songs and is willing to perform anywhere. While Lee did not win "Fame," he beat hundreds of wannabes to become a finalist. Despite his loss, Pellegrino says confidently, "He's going to be someone important."

Future Grooves

Director Nagel-Werd will be graduating next year but says she hopes that won't be the end of her time with Boomshaka. She and one of her co-directors, Dan Truog, say they're thinking seriously about going professional as a group.

"A lot of our alums seem interested," she says, "and this would allow us to do a lot of the shows we can't do as students because of the time commitment," she says. Nagel-Werd adds that Berner and Smalls, Boomshaka's founders, have also shown interest in performing in a professional version of the group.

Like Boomshaka, "Stomp" and "Blue Man Group" also started out small. "Stomp" now fills theaters across the world, but it took a ten-year collaboration between its creators before it first hit the British stage in 1991. Meanwhile "Blue Man Group" performed in front of millions for the Grammy awards in 2001, but it started in the obscure underground art scene in New York more than eight years earlier. Whether or not Boomshaka becomes professional, its members will continue to use their youthful energy in positive and innovative ways, proving that amateur music can stretch beyond pop and punk.

Video clips, pictures and information about Boomshaka's upcoming projects can be found at

Maren Dougherty, 19, is a sophomore in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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