Scottish and Senegalese aren’t a musical combination you hear every day.
It’s not often that the sound of bagpipes joins with that of the sabar, a traditional drum typically played with a hand and a stick.
But it works, says Elias Alexander, lead singer and bagpipe player for Afro-Celtic funk band Soulsha.
“I became sort of fascinated with West African music when I was in college, and I did a course on it,” he said. “I was listening to a lot of Afrofunk and Afrobeat, and … I kept getting struck by how similar some of the rhythms were to the rhythms that exist in traditional Scottish music. I started just sort of singing Scottish tunes over this music that I was listening to. There’s a lot that can sort of fit together in terms of rhythms that exist in both traditions.”
The more he’s worked with Lamine Touré, who offers percussion and vocals for the band, the more he’s learned about Touré’s native Senegal and its music.
Local kids will also get a learning experience as Soulsha arrives later this month for the Icicle Creek Center for the Arts’ Visiting Artist Series.
The band will drop by Vale Elementary in Cashmere on Feb. 26, Lewis & Clark Elementary in Wenatchee on Feb. 27 and Peshastin-Dryden Elementary on Feb. 28. Band members will work with and perform for the students leading up to a Feb. 28 concert at the Snowy Owl Theater.
Alexander and other band members are educators in addition to musicians, leading classes, camps and workshops throughout the country.
“Music is an incredible transformational tool for kids, and for anyone,” Alexander said. “But when you’re a young person struggling with all of the challenges that young people face, music can really make a huge difference — in some cases, a life or death difference. … When you’re practicing and when you’re playing with other people, you’re creating a space that’s yours, that you’re safe in where you can express yourself. That’s so, so, so important.”
Alexander’s mother used to live in Scotland, took him for a visit and introduced him to the music, culture and history. He immersed himself in it, ultimately learning the bagpipes from a teacher in Oregon.
A move to Boston later followed, and Soulsha arose gradually as the band members met over a number of years. Key to the formation was a meeting of Alexander and Touré at the Wake Up the Earth Festival, which they were both playing.
“We connected there, and from there we started getting together and working on music and learning about each other’s musical styles and traditions,” Alexander said.
The diversity in the band and its music often extends to its audience. At a Soulsha show, Alexander said, people can expect a lot of dancing, improvisation, spontaneity and a variety of sounds.
“That’s one thing that makes our shows really fun: We attract a wide variety of people who come for different reasons,” he said. “Some people come because they love bagpipes; some people come because they love West African music. So we get these different people in a room together that may not often find themselves in the same room in our society. … It’s really fun to introduce people to new things and new cultures and then watch them fall in love.”