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Feeling the beat. Local djembe drum group enters NPR contest

The competition asks amateur artists to submit a video of them playing an original song.
The Djembe Orchestra of Colorado adapts popular songs to an African beat.

The Djembe Orchestra of Colorado is known for playing at ArtWalk, church functions and other places around Longmont. They hope, by entering the National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk competition that people across the country will hear their story.

Thirty years ago, Gregg Hansen decided he wanted to learn to play the djembe drums. He lived in Memphis, TN when he started playing the djembe drum. He sought out groups to learn from and to play with but couldn’t find one. So he decided to learn on his own and soon he was teaching others to play as well. 

“I learned a long time ago that you only have to be one rhythm ahead to begin teaching,” Hansen said.

He moved to Boulder in 2000 and later to Longmont in 2008, where he continued teaching anyone who wanted to learn. He began with classes for seniors and moved on to teaching at the Longmont Rec Center. The pandemic closed down his classes, but within six weeks he found outdoor venues, such as patios and parking lots, to teach. 

Around 40-50 people joined in the drum circles to learn from Hansen, he said. 

For several years, a mix of people has taken up the instrument and put in the time to practice pop and rock songs from artists such as The Grateful Dead, The Beetles and Stevie Wonder. 

Inspired by his love of world and African music, Douglas Hines had always wanted to learn to play the djembe drums. When he learned of Hansen’s classes he jumped right in, taking several a week, he said. Hines progressed quickly and now plays the dundun drums — a large closed double-headed cylindrical wooden drum — in the orchestra.

This year the djembe orchestra — whittled down to a 15-member ensemble —  is taking on a new challenge by entering into the National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk competition.

The competition asks amateur artists to submit a video of them playing an original song. The video must include a desk, any desk. 

In 1990, Hansen and Allen Estes of Massachusetts wrote a song titled “No More War.” Hansen said the orchestra will record this song in hopes of inspiring people to think about what they might do if war were not a part of their lives. 

If the group wins the contest, they — along with 99 other teams — will be invited to Washington D.C. to record in the NPR studio. Their songs will be shared among public radio stations across the country. 

While winning would be a new adventure for Hansen, he is most excited about bringing awareness to the community of Longmont and the djembe orchestra.

“Winning this contest is not our motivation … But we really want to get NPR’s attention about the incredible drumming community out here in Longmont and to draw attention to the Longmont community,” Hansen said. 

The orchestra will spend two weekends recording their video at Longmont Public Media, located at 457 Fourth Ave.