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Djembe Connects Cultures and Heals Hearts in The Visitor

Oscar nominated film, The Visitor, shared with viewers a turning point in life of an older economics professor working at a university in Connecticut. After traveling to his residence in New York City for a conference, he was shocked to find that a young couple, both illegal immigrants, were living in his condo under a fraudulent lease.

He had been trying to learn the piano in order to reconcile his grief with the passing of his wife, a concert pianist, but due to age and lack of skill, he had gotten nowhere. As occurs often in life, the stars aligned and Walter (played by Richard Jenkins who was nominated for an Oscar in this role) experienced a short, yet life-changing friendship with Tarek. Although they clashed in both age and culture, the djembe and the drum rhythms they played together awakened the passion in Walter and the human trust in Tarek.

Walter is a grieving man, reserved and ordinary. Tarek is alive, in the strongest sense of the world. By letting the couple stay in his apartment, Walter makes friends with impassioned, lively people, rather than staying in the shadow of his long-past wife. Through his new friendships and the drumming, Walter is born-again. The soundtrack was inspired by Fela Kuti, a Nigerian artist, and incorporates an African beat into jazz and funk.

The juxtaposition of instruments between the piano and the djembe demonstrates the biggest draw of the drum. Walter fails time and time again at learning the piano, in an attempt to bring his wife's memory closer to him. However, he easily picks up the djembe, and in no time, is joining drum circles in Central Park with men dressed in traditional African clothing, loosening his tie, and getting involved.

The unstructured and positive approach to teaching is the complete opposite of the style Walter's piano teachers used. Rather than discourage him with words, Tarek teaches Walter to relax, feel emotion and let it out because "thinking just screws it up." All of Walter's stress and frustration associated with making music vanishes and he discovers that at last he can play. This reeducation makes Walter free.

This is the most valuable message of The Visitor. The Visitor teaches us that djembe music is therapeutic, emotional, and without an accepted style. Djembe drumming is about expression, not about restraint. For older people trying to become more musical, the djembe is the perfect instrument, because it engages your emotions, not your skill.

The movie, in a unique way, shows how important it is to accept and encourage cultural expression.

Walter's willingness to learn about and engage in West African culture shows viewers that the djembe is a vehicle of globalization. The same effect could be carried by a cajon or a bongo, instruments that take little skill but lots of emotion to play. Drumming takes you into another time and another culture, where expression supersedes technical ability when it comes to playing.

The Visitor is now playing On Demand through Comcast. Watch the trailer:

8th Jul 2014

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