Body percussionist Keith Terry treats the human frame as though it were a trap set with a large battery of drums. He knows that pounding your right chest produces a slightly different sound than pounding your left chest, and that a hand has myriad possibilities on its own — depending on whether you rub your palms together, tap your fingertips, or bang your knuckles against each other. And that's just one appendage: In his solo act, Terry claps, jumps, slaps his butt cheeks, shuffles his feet, patty-cakes his thighs, scuffs his shoes, clicks his tongue, and glides across the floor, switching up tempos and altering rhythms with the dexterity of a skilled jazz drummer. He's phenomenal to watch.
Terry played drums professionally for most of his life, and used to eke out a living keeping time for an older generation of tap dancers, like Chuck Green, Eddie Brown, Charles "Honi" Coles, and Charles "Cookie" Cook. About thirty years ago he joined a group called the Jazz Tap Ensemble and created his first body piece, which quickly got inserted into the company's repertoire. When he demonstrated some of the movements for Coles and Cook, they compared it to the hambone dances they were doing in vaudeville. But rhythmically, Terry was onto something else, they said. Terry liked the idea of harking back to an older tradition, while adding innovations of his own. He soon set off on his own. Three decades and thousands of performances later, he's become a veritable James Brown of body percussion. Terry recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and plans to launch an International Body Music Festival in San Francisco and Oakland this December.
These days Terry can have four groups going at any given moment, though his main act right now is the Slammin All-Body Band. Founded four years ago, Slammin features four vocalists — one of whom mimics the sound of an electric bassline — and a beatboxer, in addition to Terry's body percussion. A lot of the group's pieces are free-form, generating when one member improvises a lick or melody line, and the others layer parts on top. The process spawned a lot of material for Slammin's forthcoming CD. Terry is a big fan of the freestyle approach, since it gives Slammin a loose, primal quality that accords with the whole body-percussion vibe. Plus, it's funky — and Keith Terry is really in touch with his funk.
Slammin All-Body Band performs as part of "Dancin' with Slammin," on Saturday, May 3, at the Oakland Museum's James Moore Theater (1000 Oak St., Oakland), along with tap dancer Mark Mendonca and modern dancer Melecio Estrella, plus hyphy dancers Dream Team. 8 p.m., $20 for adults, $15 for students, and $10 for kids. CrossPulse.com
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