Ngoki Showcases Primal Funk Music at the UCSB Music Bowl

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Photo by Richard Smith

Richard Smith
Contributing Writer

Santa Barbara-based musician Ngoki performed an extended drum solo on the djembe drum at the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Music Bowl as a continuation of the World Music Series, run by UCSB’s MultiCultural Center.

Ngoki himself had no accompaniment or band members, and although he did have a microphone, his djembe drum didn’t need it. Despite the name of the event and the style of the drum, Ngoki was sure to inform the audience that it was not actually a djembe because it was made out of recycled materials. 

Furthermore, one might assume that with both the type of instrument and the nature of the World Music Series, this was an African drumming performance. However, Ngoki let his audience know that this was not the case. He instead played his own original style of music which he calls “primal funk,” and has influences from “hip-hop, rhythm and blues, soul,” among other styles.

These influences may have been difficult to pick out for people not familiar with rhythm and percussion, but that wasn’t required to enjoy the show. The entire audience, music students, and casual listeners alike was infected by Ngoki’s rhythms. No one could resist tapping their feet or bobbing their head. Ngoki, who is used to playing on the street in Santa Barbara for money, also told the audience that if the drum didn’t work, he couldn’t eat that day, further authenticating his performance.

Ngoki started his set with a beat that was reminiscent of hip-hop or a rock and roll type of drum. It was steady and kept a basic rhythm, a simple style which he did not make a habit of as the show progressed. Ngoki played so many unnamed and improvisatory pieces that one could hardly keep count of them, and each one seemed to scorn the simplicity of the last. Even in the first piece, he quickly switched to a more complex and tribal sounding drumbeat. 

Ngoki had complete control of the sound of his drum, as he fluidly shifted his speed, power, volume, and rhythmic pattern to his whim. Each of his pieces was improvised, save for one request, Santana’s “Jingo,” that he indulged from the audience. 

Ngoki told the audience that during this type of performance he would play as he feels, as opposed to when he supports a band or a rapper in which he keeps things steady and reliable. He described it as “stream of consciousness” and would even follow a piece by asking a music student what time signature he was playing in.

Stream of consciousness is an accurate description, as Ngoki’s performance displayed a fluidity that doesn’t seem possible with a percussion instrument. He clearly cared more about playing what his heart wanted to rather than what his hands wanted to. He told the audience that in his earlier days he would sometimes bleed from playing so hard, so now he focuses mostly on technique so as to minimize the need for calluses. 

And it showed; his technique was astonishing, hitting sometimes with his palms, sometimes with his fingertips, sometimes in the center of the drum sometimes closer to the edge. This was all done in accordance with the rhythm deliberately.

The World Music Series has made a great habit of displaying excellence in all of its featured performers and this was far from an exception. Please be sure to check out future performances on Wednesdays at 12:00 p.m. in the Music Bowl!

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