It takes a lot of courage to walk away from the dream of a lifetime. But after years of playing Seattle's bar scene, which led to a fat major-label record contract, Martin Klabunde eventually understood that making it big in the music biz wasn't really what he wanted. And so he walked away.
"After seven years of playing in bars, I realized I was sick of the lifestyle. And I wasn't willing to sacrifice healthy relationships to stay in music." Six months later, Klabunde showed up in Tucson with his African drums--djembe and dunun--and he's been playing them ever since, even fostering a new vision through them.
Sensing he had something to offer Tucson's vast drumming community, Klabunde started forming the idea for what would eventually become the Dambe Project in the most unlikely of places--the Sunnyside Unified School District.
"It all kind of started when I moved here and began teaching classes. Back then (in the schools), it was called 'interactive performance.' I'd bring in a couple of my students and a couple of extra drums and get (kids) involved in teaching them some pretty basic rhythms. Everybody loved it."
It was then only a matter of time before he would put his own ensemble together. In 1998 and '99, his group Seouroube opened for Baaba Maal and Cubanismo, both at the Rialto. The Baaba Maal show in particular was significant because of the way it merged African dance with the drumming.
"(Baaba Maal) had some dancers from Guinea, and they were with the national ballet," says Klabunde. "They came out and danced with us, and it was awesome!"
Klabunde realized if he wanted to continue with public performances, he needed a name that was a bit more accessible. "If you can't pronounce it, it shouldn't be the name," he jokes. "I wanted to pick a name that meant something, and encapsulated what I wanted to do and what the mission of this was. I picked Dambe ... it's a very old word from southern Mali that is bestowed on somebody who has a lot of integrity ... to have integrity in the light of God or the Great Spirit."
As idealistic or grandiose as this may sound, Klabunde quietly goes about orchestrating the many facets of his business and his passion--playing drums, teaching drums and sponsoring classes with visiting teachers in drumming and African dance.
Embracing the greater notion of "dambe," Klabunde incorporated the Dambe Project as a nonprofit to serve as an umbrella organization for his many activities. Dambe's work currently has three major components: to work with kids in the schools through various artist-in-residence programs; to offer adult drumming and dance classes in the community; and to engage the general public through performance, primarily via the Dambe Drum Ensemble.
The ensemble, playing an assortment of African drums and percussion instruments, generally ranges from three to seven players. Although they regularly play behind African dance classes, their most visible and exciting performances are with Dambe's monthly "Let's Dance" events. This open dance, with no instruction, particular style or agenda, was inspired by a similarly named event in Seattle where drummers and percussionists would play, and people would dance.
"Back then, we weren't really a part of the club scene, and we weren't at a level where I could book a night at the Rialto," he remembers. "So I thought: Let's create an event where we can perform. In the beginning, this was just an outlet for us to play. Then I'd bring my students in, and it became a way for them to look forward to showing what they had been learning."
Equally important "was to show the community that anybody can do this stuff, that no one was aspiring to be a professional musician, and yet what they do is awesome."
While Klabunde understood "Let's Dance" would be a good way to promote the classes sponsored by Dambe, he did not anticipate what the events would become. After the first few months, as people got over the fear of dancing to nonmelodic percussion, "I started realizing a lot more was happening at these events. People were beginning to really open up and were letting themselves be free. Now it's gotten to the point where the energy is so high, there's nobody sitting down."
"Let's Dance" has grown so that Klabunde now invites other percussion ensembles to share the bill. These groups have included a kalimba group, an Afro-Cuban band and a West African drumming ensemble from Phoenix. Although the ensemble has been graced by many players, Tom Iaci and Robert "Swami" Peizer are essential to its core. They are often joined by Jim Metz, Lendo, Masato Kubota, Greg Gerdeman and Steve Kemble.
Several of them were on hand for Dambe's breakout performance at this year's Tucson Folk Festival. Closing the Old Town Artisan Stage with an electrifying set on Saturday night, Dambe gave festival goers a concentrated dose of the "Let's Dance" experience. With six drummers and two animated dancers crowded onto a postage-stamp stage, Dambe served up a performance that showed just why their events are so moving and inspired.
The next "Let's Dance" will be on July 28. It will be the culmination of an entire day of drumming, music and dance that will also introduce Dambe's newest find, Mabiba Baegne, to Tucson. Originally from the Congo but raised in Guinea, she will be leading two African dance classes as well as one additional class focusing on traditional African songs. Klabunde says she is moving to Tucson to specifically work with Dambe. These will be her first in a series of classes and workshops.
As for the ever-expanding vision of Dambe, Klabunde hopes to eventually have a building where the many teachers and styles of drumming and dance can all come together and be served, and where many people's visions and dreams can take shape and come true.