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At NIU, Old Instrument Bows With New Music

Next Thursday evening, April 24, the NIU School of Musichosts a program featuring the berimbau.  An original cycle of music for the Afro-Brazilian instrument ranging from solos to sextets will be performed.

Greg Beyer is the director of the NIU Percussion program. Beyer is also director the ensemble Projeto Arcomusical.  The group's six members all play the berimbau, which resembles a long bow with a round gourd in the middle.  

Beyer is excited about the concert, and by member Alexis Lamb’s part in it.  Beyer says the name of the program, "MeiaMeia,” comes from the Brazilian Portuguese word for ‘half a dozen ’ and refers to the fact that half of the twelve compositions were written by Beyer and half by Lamb.  Beyer says work began two-and-a-half years ago under the auspices of the undergraduate artistry and research program sponsored by the dean’s office of the College of Visual and Performing Arts.  

“We began simply writing duos for each other, and it was such a success that Alexis actually won a really big prize in her division at the Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day back in the spring of 2013.  So we began writing in each semester a new piece. We started with duos, and then the next semester it was trios, then quartets, then quintets, and now the sextets which we’re premiering.”

Lamb says it’s been exhilarating, and enlightening experience.  

“I came to NIU because of the strong world music program that were already there.  Being able to work with a professor on a world instrument was very appealing to me, and that’s what drew me in initially.  I since then have completely fallen in love with the instrument.  It’s become very much a part of me and taken me to place I couldn’t have imagined, and I’m very grateful for that.”

Beyer knows what she’s talking about.  For him the concert is the culmination of a decades-long exploration that started with his discovery of the instrument while studying in New York City. He first heard a recording by Brazilian percussionist named Naná Vasconcelos playing the berimbau. When a friend later gave him one as a gift, he was hooked.  He sought out a berimbau master in New York City to be his teacher.

Beyer says that teacher confronted him at his second lesson with an important, and for him, life changing question.

I took to him a transcription of Naná Vasconcelos and I played it for him. And he was impressed, and he smiled and he said, oh, Greg you’ve learned a lot about the berimbau in very quickly. But tell me something. You are not Naná Vasconcelos, and you will never be Naná Vasconcelos, so what is it that you are going to do with the berimbau that will be different, that will give something different to the world?”

At first Beyer says, he was crestfallen. But then he realized he was being challenged to do something special.  He decided that meant combining his work in contemporary music with his love of the instrument.  One doctoral dissertation, and many travels, performances and collaborations later, Beyer says that effort has blossomed into the concert program that will be presented the 24th.

But while the concert is an important marker, Beyer says it’s just one of a number of exciting things that have been happening of late for the ensemble, with much more to come. They’ve recorded a soundtrack, played at festivals, and will be recording the music on the program for release on a contemporary music label. The summer looks busy, too.  He’s taking the group to Brazil in July for multiple performances and further training in the traditions of the berimbau.  In August, Beyer takes advantage of a Fulbright Scholarship he was recently awarded, and returns to Brazil to work with graduate students there.

Beyer says he owes a lot to the students in the ensemble, as well as others at Northern Illinois University and elsewhere, who have made all this possible.   

It’s been a wonderful journey for all of us.  And I’m really proud of all the students and humbled to work along alongside them and to play this music with them.” 

Beyer says he looks forward to sharing what he and the ensemble have learned about the berimbau with a wider audience.  This year, that audience will include the people of Brazil.  Beyer says he hopes one day to do the same in the lands where the instrument originated, in Africa.

The Arcomusical ensemble performs on Thursday, April 24, at 6:30 P.M. in the NIU Music Building Recital Hall.

Guy Stephens produces news stories for the station, and coordinates our online events calendar, PSAs and Arts Calendar announcements. In each of these ways, Guy helps keep our listening community informed about what's going on, whether on a national or local level. Guy's degrees are in music, and he spent a number of years as a classical host on WNIU. In fact, after nearly 20 years with Northern Public Radio, the best description of his job may be "other duties as required."