Man behind the beats Man beats behind the

Man behind the beats Man beats behind the

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

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As a drummer of long-standing, Willie Stewart knows the importance of syncopated rhythms. He gets even more excited when those beats have roots in Africa.

On February 29, the former drummer for Third World presented the latest in his Rhythms of Africa (Music Around The World) series at Charles F Dodge City Center in Pembroke Pines, South Florida. The show drew a strong turnout that saw reggae artistes Richie Stephens, Etana, Pluto Shervington, and Wayne Armond, backed by “25 musical novices from Pembroke Pines Charter High School”.

Singer Junior Jazz and the Wakota Dance Theatre also performed at the event that has become a fixture on South Florida's lifestyle calendar. During the evening, mayor of Pembroke Pines Frank Ortiz, declared February 29 'Willie Stewart Day' and presented the 66-year-old drummer with a proclamation for mentoring youth in South Florida where he has lived for 20 years.

In his estimation, Stewart has privately tutored as many as 1200 aspiring musicians since 2000, and 750 middle and high school students from South Florida.

Many have played at Rhythms of Africa.

“We have grown tremendously over the years and now Rhythms of Africa is a known quality brand for an excellent show production, bringing families and communities together and giving students a once-in- a-lifetime opportunity to perform in a full musical production,” Stewart told the Jamaica Observer.

The event had its genesis in 2004 when Stewart and students he gave private drumming lessons performed African, Brazilian, Cuban, and Jamaican rhythms alongside professional musicians at Caleb Auditorium in Liberty City, Miami.

Six years later, it officially debuted as Rhythms of Africa at Miramar Cultural Center. According to Stewart, “Over a 1000 people were turned away. Over the years we have performed to sold-out crowds at Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center, Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse, and Broward's Bailey Hall.”

Last month's show was the biggest to date. Organised by Stewart's non-profit Embrace Music Foundation, it attracted an estimated 2,650 patrons including Oliver Mair, Jamaica's Consul General, who also did a cameo performance.

Stewart said the growth of Rhythms of Africa is evidence his foundation has “met our objectives and fine-tuned our programme, and it is ready to impact more schools and communities.”

Born in London, Stewart was a member of Third World's classic line-up of the 1970s and 1980s, playing on songs such as Now That we Found Love and Always Around.

In 1997, he and keyboardist Ibo Cooper abruptly left the band.

Though the region has always had a strong Jamaican and West Indian community, it lagged compared to New York and Southern California when it came to live reggae. That has transformed dramatically, noted Stewart.

“I think that the reggae scene has changed considerably in South Florida since 2000 to now. South Florida has such a mix of musicians from the Caribbean, which has developed its own unique live reggae signature sound,” he said. “We are seeing more reggae cultural events being promoted by more cities and counties in South Florida and a lot more collaborations of reggae and dancehall artistes with worldwide musicians and producers especially in pop, R&B, reggaeton and now Afro beats.”

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