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‘Skins & Songs’ brings many cultural traditions to life

The one thing that’s certain about this weekend’s world premiere of Skins & Songs, a collaboration between Philadelphia’s Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra and New Yorker Philip Hamilton’s a cappella vocal ensemble Voices, is that the stage at the Painted Bride will be crowded. With 22 percussionists and vocalists fusing a musical hybrid out of more than 30 cultural traditions, there’s little else regarding the piece that’s predictable.

The one thing that's certain about this weekend's world premiere of Skins & Songs, a collaboration between Philadelphia's Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra and New Yorker Philip Hamilton's a cappella vocal ensemble Voices, is that the stage at the Painted Bride will be crowded.

With 22 percussionists and vocalists fusing a musical hybrid out of more than 30 cultural traditions, there's little else regarding the piece that's predictable.

"What we've created is something exciting, energetic, and unique," promises Hamilton. "You've never seen anything like it."

The meeting of these inventive ensembles might seem like something of a culture clash, but both groups have proven themselves adept at incorporating clashing cultures on their own. The 14-piece Spoken Hand consists of four distinct percussion batteries: North Indian tabla, Brazilian samba, West African djembe, and Afro-Cuban batá.

Inspired by the way that performance groups like Stomp and Blue Man Group explored rhythm in eccentric, theatrical fashion, Hamilton founded Voices to take a similar approach to singing. The ensemble performs pieces that range from Gregorian chant to barbershop quartet, Tuvan throat-singing to South African miners' songs, Congolese mouth-clicking to hip-hop beat-boxing.

Melding two such eclectic congregations could easily lead to a multicultural cacophony. It's hard to conceive of Andrews Sisters-style swing coexisting with Afro-Cuban rhythms, old-school gospel harmonizing with Indian table, or Meredith Monk-inspired vocalizations making peace with Cuban batá. According to Spoken Hand cofounder Lenny Seidman, however, they've found a natural fit.

"Voices and drums are probably the first, most basic musical expressions," Seidman says. "So there's a lot of history in this music, a lot of cultural identity."

Seidman and Hamilton met when both were touring with Philly hip-hop dance choreographer Rennie Harris' show Facing Mekka in 2003. Voices was as yet an unrealized concept in Hamilton's mind, while Spoken Hand had existed for seven years, but the two immediately saw the potential in a merger. Each is intimately familiar with the other's language: Hamilton is a percussionist as well as vocalist and has performed with artists such as Pat Metheny, Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, John Cage, and Spyro Gyra. Seidman has incorporated vocals and recitation into his work with Spoken Hand, as well as chanting learned from his father, a cantor.

Fast-forward seven years, to Painted Bride executive director Laurel Raczka's approaching Seidman, who also serves as the Bride's music curator, with the suggestion of a Spoken Hand/Voices collaboration. A $70,000 grant from the Philadelphia Music Project then made the idea a reality.

Skins & Songs has been developed over a 10-month period by the two ensembles batting ideas back and forth – and was still a work in progress at the end of last week. "We're still creating material," Seidman said Friday. "Ideas come up and we're like little kids; we can't contain ourselves."

Spoken Hand cofounder Daryl "Kwasi" Burgee says audiences can expect "a wonderful mix of tremendous melodies with flavors and textures and feelings that they've never heard together."

The program, Burgee continues, reaches back into the deep roots of intertwined musical and spiritual traditions, but is thoroughly modern in its realization. "The element of so many cultures and diversities blended together is really representative of what we have access to today. At the push of a button, you can go anyplace in the world and study or hear any type of music. So I think what we're expressing in this is the fact that the world has come so much closer together and become so much smaller."

Fans of Spoken Hand who have followed the ensemble's regular Painted Bride performances over the years may be surprised to see a more theatrical approach for this piece, with plenty of movement and elaborate lighting cues. Both groups anticipate a long life for the project after this weekend's performance; Hamilton is even gazing past the horizon to Broadway.

For now, all involved are excited simply to bring their work to audiences after such a long and fruitful gestation. "What people will see is two very unique ensembles coming together to create something new for both of us," says Hamilton. "It's a very unique mix of folks on stage, a lot of different colors and hues and theatrical styles."

"I think it's going to be powerful, passionate, uplifting, and inspirational," Seidman enthuses. "I think people are going to come away saying, among other things, 'Wow. What is this?' I know I've been experiencing goose pimples."