Gimme that Old-Time Rhythm

The Death and Resurrection of Rhythm Bones


At first, as I was coming to love oldtime music as an adult, I found it curious that percussion and rhythm instruments seemed to play such a minor role. Having played the drums while growing up in California in the 1970s, banging away to rock music heavy on the back beat, I was struck by this apparent absence. 

Of course, this genre we revere is known for its rhythmic drive; that’s part of what attracted me. There’s plenty of rhythmic intensity in a crooked tune or in the complexity of the accents of, say, a Tommy Jarrell on fiddle or Fred Cockerham on banjo. And while the banjo helps keep rhythm moving (some even call it a drum on a stick with strings), as does the bass, as does what is sometimes called rhythm guitar, none of these are percussion instruments. Likewise with flatfooting and clogging: the sole of a shoe on a platform or stage is percussive, and while hamboning (slapping hand and thigh and chest) [1] or an occasional appearance of spoons can lace a tune or song with definition and motion, I wasn’t seeing the role in the music that drums and other percussion had in rock, jazz, country, or even classical. The impression was clear: oldtime was one of the few kinds of music without a place for rhythm instruments. 

[1]  Also known as “patting juba.”

Or so I thought. 

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The first cracks in this impression emerged while attending a bluegrass festival featuring the Carolina Chocolate Drops. While the bands playing in the lineup before them were consummate musicians, when the Drops appeared toward the end of the evening, playing their unique blend of oldtime and blues, an electric intensity spread through the crowd, compelling people to their feet to sway and dance. The crowd could not stay still. Nor could I. I concluded that the driving snap of rhythm bones for some of the songs had something to do with the ignited excitement. I’m not sure I would have articulated this then, but I suspected that the bones, especially when played with the flourish and energy I was witnessing on the stage, had something to do with the jolting change in atmosphere. 

I decided I had to find out more. I sought out Drops’ member Dom Flemons by the stage after the concert. He hinted at what I would later discover was a long story behind the bones that he had played with such abandon that evening, and I saw a potential connection to my earlier interest in drums. I also would also come to see a complex, even dark and troubling, side to the story that accounted in part, perhaps, for why something as simple and powerful as the bones might have seemingly vanished.

I also began to remember that, while not exactly common at oldtime jams, in some settings someone might pull a pair out of a pocket and accompany an occasional tune with the accented or tripleted clacking. When they were held in pairs between fingers with a snapping wrist and sweep of the forearm, their presence imbued a song or tune with a catchy rhythmic pulse. Bones made a driving, haunting, and certainly ancient sound.

Dom had just begun to point me to discoveries he and later still others would help me make: how enslaved African Americans used found objects of all sorts to make rhythm, with sticks, with hide-covered, hollowed-out tree trunks, and with animal rib bones. A story of how a modest instrument that can fit (or hide) in a pocket, that can be made from the simplest, at-hand materials helped inject new excitement, energy, and syncopation with roots in African and Afro-Carribean rhythms. 

In some ways the story seems simple enough: How bones have popped up every now and then, as with the minstrel shows popular in the 1800s, or in the early twentieth century in bands that accompanied folk dances, or during the jug band revival a few decades ago. I learned how contemporary oldtime performers, notably David Holt, brandish them in their concerts. I discovered just how often Dom Flemons, even now while concentrating on solo performing and recording, pulls out bones on stage or in the studio.

While I was curious, the history seemed obscure in places. Did enslaved people bring bones along with them on the ships that brought them to America? Some make the case for that, but the more likely narrative had them brought here by Irish settlers, perhaps other European immigrants, too, then adopted with creativity and affinity by African Americans wherever music was being made in the New World. 

And a complicated, even disturbing story emerged. If the African-American backdrop intrigued me, the roots of racism in minstrelsy troubled me. Their percussive presence was more than an historical sidelight, but also a vision both of how vital and formative African-American rhythmic influences were. But then again how an ugly racist streak in black-face comedy would cast a shadow over that music. And I would learn how catchy polyrhythms would get woven into popular music across America, from mountain music to early blues and even more contemporary forms. Particularly in the hills and hollers of southern Appalachia, there is a fascinating story of traded, cross-pollinating influences with rhythms rooted in Africa intermingling in a syncretic creation of new and evolving music. 

The bones themselves, like many melodies and ballads common to American music, have centuries-old roots. Researcher Beth Alice Lenz, writing in a master’s thesis on bones, explains, “Documentation does exist that substantiates the existence of the bones in Western Europe since the Middle Ages.” But how did they get to the New World? Lenz concludes, “What is of particular interest is the use of the bones in Great Britain, particularly among members of the lower classes. It is these people who in all probability brought the bones to America.” [2]

[2] Beth Alice Lenz, “The Bones in the United States: History and Performance Practice,” A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts (Ethnomusicology) at The University of Michigan, 1989,, page 6.

It’s not hard to picture Celtic music and rhythms brought to North American shores from Northwestern Europe. Sue Ellen Barber, student of ethnomusicology, likewise suggests that the bones “have been played there in pub bands and at dances and festivals for centuries. (They still are.)” [3] If there is strong evidence, writes Lenz, that “the bones reached the U.S. through British Isles immigrants,” the record also shows how they “later reached Africa through touring minstrel troupes from America and Great Britain.” 

[3] Sue Ellen Barber, How to Play the Bones (in collaboration with Percy Danforth), Voorhesville, NY: Front Hall Records, 1979), page 1.

If there’s not much evidence for the African origin of bones in a direct line, there is clear evidence that the bones were quickly adopted and adapted by enslaved African Americans. I found it fascinating that the roots of bones in what we now call oldtime or folk music go back at least to the first mentions of music played by African Americans. 

For from very early on, African-American life included music: certainly the banjo, often fashioned from gourds and animal gut strings, but also percussion. Like other instruments played by enslaved people, bones were made from what was at hand, and sheep and cattle ribs not only were easily at hand, they also had a resonant clack that made them appealing. 

So while, as folklorist and professor Cecelia Conway notes, “Drumming was the earliest instrumental accompaniment recorded for the banjo in all of North America, as well as Africa and the West Indies,” [4] that accompanying rhythm included all manner of percussion, including bones. In reading accounts of plantation life (and the reliability of some of the accounts may be questioned), sticks and bones, whistling and dancing formed much of the entertainment.

[4] Cecile Conway, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), page 70. 

A likely reason for bones’s popularity had to do with the oppressive restrictions placed on drums. Slave owners feared that drums would be used as a form of communication, and could be used to signal insurrection. Drumming, writes Cece Conway, was at first prohibited by slaveholders, then by legislation. [5] So at dances, writes librarian, musicologist, and pioneer researcher Dena Epstein, or in their quarters, enslaved musicians had to resort to, “other percussive devices (sticks, bones, tambourines, and clapping) … to take their place.” [6]

[5] Conway, page 71.
[6] Dena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977, 2003), page 144.

Bones seem to have a special appeal in those formative decades of music’s creation in the New World. The references, in first-hand accounts, in folk and fine art, even in early depictions of dance are tantalizing. They were “hollow bones, clicked together like castanets, but five times as large,” as one observer, Joseph Holt Ingraham, wrote in the mid-1800s. [7] Elizabeth Allen Coxe, who wrote Memories of a South Carolina Plantation During the War, recalls, “Every day of Christmas week, in the afternoon, the negroes [sic] danced in the broad piazza until late at night, the orchestra consisting of two fiddlers, one man with bones and another had sticks with which he kept time on the floor, and sometimes singing.” [8]

[7] Joseph Holt Ingraham, The Sunny South; or, The Southerner at Home, Embracing Five Years’ Experience of a Northern Governess in the Land of Sugar and Cotton (Philadelphia: G. Ge. Evans, 1860) quoted in Epstein, page 156.
[8] Coxe, privately printed, 1912, in the collection at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

And while banjo was key in that flowering of African American music and dance, bones had a place, too. Duke University professor Laurent Dubois tells of how “Ex-slave Fanny Randolph remembered occasions when people got together in one of the log cabins, warmed by a ‘big log fire,’ and danced to the music of fiddle, banjo, and bones.” [9] Such sightings suggest that it was not uncommon for bones to accompany banjo.

[9] Laurent Dubois, The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), page 239.

And those glimpses suggest how much popular entertainment owed to the driving and resonant clack of a small but powerfully noticeable hand instrument. “Every plantation,” wrote African-American poet and essayist James Weldon Johnson in his 1930 survey of African-American culture, Black Manhattan, “had its talented band that could crack … jokes, and sing and dance to the accompaniment of the banjo and bones, the bones being the actual ribs of a sheep or some other small animal, cut to the proper length, scraped clean and bleached in the sun.” 

Such musical and rhythmic entertainment attracted attention beyond the quarters of the enslaved. African musical idioms were catchy and spread. The synthesizing of musical elements had to do also with the ethnic and cultural diversity concentrated in sometimes remote areas of the nation. When Irish immigrants in particular came to American shores from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, they came escaping poverty and famine, and these arrivals might well have gravitated to “remote areas considered undesirable by other people, areas as far removed as possible from urban centers where one faced problems similar to those experienced in Great Britain.” [10] That would matter, as I would later learn, in the ways Anglo and Irish music would intermingle with African influences and rhythms.

[10] Lenz, pages 8-9.

Cecile Conway, known best for her book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia, uses an interesting phrase in some of her speaking and other writing when she mentions an “extensive African-Irish exchange” with an early predominance of African influence. [11] Such combinations spawned paired fiddles and banjos joined by other instruments, including bones. I can easily see how such ensembles resulted in something melodic, but also in a sound that was driving, accented, and irresistible.

[11] Cecelia Conway, “Black banjo songsters in Appalachia” (African-American Music of Appalachia, Critical Essay),” Black Music Research Journal, March 22, 2003.

Southern states were not, stereotypes notwithstanding, uniformly backcountry poor, says folklorist and folk dancer Phil Jamison. The region was, rather, a “fertile ‘cultural contact zone.’” He sketches a scene with “a diverse mix of Europeans, African Americans, and indigenous Native Americans.” Jamison describes how “Charles Woodmason, an itinerant Anglican preacher based in the piedmont of South Carolina between 1766 and 1772, characterized it as a ‘mixed multitude of all Classes and Complexions.’” [12] The region included prosperous merchants and sharecroppers, landowners and subsistence farmers, free and enslaved. 

[12] Phil Jamison, Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2015), page 9-10.

And it wasn’t just isolated backwoods where the music and rhythms from cultures intermingled. Along rivers and shorelines and even centers of commerce, experimenting with traded musical rhythms ignored ethnic boundaries. Researcher and historian Christopher Smith shows how, far from being limited to rural Appalachia, this kind of interchange took place in an urban center like New York, and indeed, across North America. In fact, Smith makes compelling arguments suggesting the syncretization of what became American music owes as much to cities, docks, and waterways as it does to rural, agricultural settings. [13]

[13] Christopher J Smith, The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy (Music in American Life), (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2013, 2014). 

And the melding of cultural genius had to do with more than musical performance, but bled also into dance styles and the music that accompanied dances, where rhythm would be especially important. Smith notes how “an Afro-Caribbean repertoire mixed and mingled” with tunes with roots as diverse as German, Scottish, English, and Irish, meaning that by the early 1800s (well before the rise of the nation’s nineteenth-century minstrel craze), “U.S. melodic vocabularies had become richer, larger, more diverse, and far more rhythmically polyglot than ever before.” [14] That rhythmic diversifying is hard to picture without the special contribution of African American percussive patterns. In such an atmosphere, bones would have been hard to miss when they showed up.

[14] Smith, Kindle location 3511.

The eventual mutual interculturation (also called creolization) is well-described by Jamison. He writes, “While the Appalachian fiddle repertoire does include a number of Scots-Irish reels that can be traced back to the British Isles, it also includes many breakdowns, blues, rags, and other musical pieces that are native to America.” [15]

[15] Jamison, page 5.

On possible Exhibit A for such creolization is the song “Old Molly Hare” composed by the Scottish fiddler Nathaniel Gow, who lived in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The tune itself was titled “Largo’s Fairy Dance.” But the lyrics attached to the version known in oldtime circles sprung up on this side of the Atlantic. As described by Smith:

“As a song, the title and text seem to be indigenous to the United States; in fact, the relatively swift transformation of the earlier tune illustrates the speedy dispersal and popular ubiquity that prototypical minstrel tunes enjoyed as they were carried along the waterways by players, singers, and dancers. Like the tune itself … the simplicity of the text supports a percussive, syllabic, declamatory—and participatory—singing style: “Old Molly Hare, what you doin’ there, Running down the road as hard as I can tear. Old Molly Hare, what you doin’ there? Running through the briarpatch as hard as I can tear. …” [T]he tune’s scansion, contour, and dance character are fundamentally transformed by our hypothesized addition of Afro-Caribbean polyrhythmic accent: this cross-accent is a common strategy among Anglo-Celtic dance players as well as African American ones.” [16]

[16] Smith, Kindle location 3767.

And the influences extended in other ways. At least one of the bands of African-American musicians formed in and around plantation life was able to take their show “on the road” to other cities, even to Canada and eventual freedom. Those rhythms held a fascination well beyond African American circles. There are several instances in the record where white settlers exuberantly learned from African Americans. As Sue Ellen Barber notes, although the Virginia Minstrels, one of the first blackface minstrel shows, “claimed to have originated the combination of instruments typical of the minstrel band, black street bands had in actuality been using similar combinations for some time.” 

In other words, it is Itinerant African American street bands that most likely warrant credit as the primary innovators and creators. All of which serves as a background for the emergence in the early 1800s for minstrelsy. Dom Flemons notes in a fine video on bones and the banjo that it could be argued that the first entertainment that would be later called minstrelsy began in the 1830s with bones players and dancers: African American bones players and dancers. [17] The whole story, then, is more multi-layered than it might appear. Might it be argued that the most visible and popular manifestation of the minstrel show represents a parody and counterfeiting of the prototypical beginnings? That seems to matter when considering minstrelsy’s repugnant aspects. The story of minstrelsy, it turns out, is hazy and complicated.

[17] “Carolina Chocolate Drops – Instrument Interview: Bones & Banjo,” (Sleepover Shows),

Frank Brower (b. 1823) was a significant part of the offending developments. His own approach to music and dance entailed creative appropriation, a common thread in American music then as today. Hailing from Baltimore, the renowned blackface song-and-dance performer claimed to have learned to dance from African Americans. One might surmise he learned to play bones from them as well, because he soon brought bones made from the ribs of a horse into his act. Did he employ the flourishing movement and use the bones with respect for African-American culture or because of commercial interests? It’s hard to say. But his name, along with banjo innovator Joel Sweeney (who also acknowledged his debt to African American players), is associated with the creation of the full blackface minstrel shows. 

That happened, one story goes, when In Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early 1840s, Brower made connection with Dan Emmett, a songwriter and entertainer. Brower, writes Laurent Dubois, “had helped pioneer the use of bones to add percussion to minstrel performances. In their performances, Emmett and Brower brought together banjo and bones, a combination that would become central to minstrelsy.” [18]

[18] Dubois, pages 196-197.

The minstrels took over stages across the country to sing, dance, tell jokes, and play their instruments. It was not only music, it was social theater. Minstrel performers during the heyday were almost always white, using burnt cork to “black” their faces (thus the term blackface). The common set-up had them in a semi-circle, with bones player “Brudder Bones” on one end and “Brudder Tambo” (on tamborine) on the other, flanking the banjo player and fiddler. The comedic elements fell especially to Tambo and Bones, and the portrait of African Americans in their repartee was not only inaccurate, it glossed over slavery’s cruelty. It’s hard to see it as other than dehumanizing and offensive.

It is that degradation masking as comedy that gives minstrelsy its repugnant reputation. And while black characters were portrayed as musically gifted, they were also caricatured as buffoons. The stereotypes confirmed white audiences’ sense of supremacy. The bones and minstrelsy’s other instruments therefore put entertainment alongside a culturally sanctioned celebration of racism. The shows masked the truer issues and made light of massive injustice. During our protests and conversations about race in the western world, it’s all the more urgent to dismiss the parodying and ridicule.

And here may lie a partial answer to the absence of percussion in later iterations of American music. Might this mocking representation of the life of enslaved people in nineteenth century minstrel shows—including the stock character of “Brudder Bones”–explain in part the disappearance? Something so noxious was something decisively to put behind. Paul Brown, the great oldtime banjo player and commentator, wonders if this past explains why even traditionally-minded musicians might have wanted decades ago to abandon something that reminded them of that awful history. [19]

[19] In informal conversation with the author at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, North Carolina, at the Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week in 2015.

But this rank racism (that would send a town or city into rightful outrage now), isn’t the whole picture in the unfolding musical score. For a larger part of the story concerns the brilliant, sometimes messy, often behind-the-scenes intermingling of influences to create new music. This is a sordid, polyvalent, and dizzying story that, as Dubois puts it, includes “appropriation, derogation, emulation, exploitation, greed, theft, and inspiration. It makes clear that, over the history of U.S. culture, the creole synthesis, while unquestionably engaging all these dynamics both positive and negative, has also been a source of empowerment, enrichment, engagement, and positive cultural change.” [20]

[20] Smith, Kindle location 160.

That may not satisfy everyone. Some things are too corrupt to try to redeem. But as I explored more, I discovered something intriguing. Minstrel stage shows’ murky realities got reclaimed and overturned. Not only were African Americans the inspiration at the beginning, African Americans toward the end of ministrelsy’s dominance began to replace the white blackface performers. They played their parts in a way that gave a truer picture of plantation life. They took back what had been, in a way, stolen and used against them.

And the long historical view matters here, too. Steve Wixson of the Rhythm Bones Society argues, “Rhythm bones are likely a prehistoric musical instrument that went through China and Egypt thousands of years ago, then Greece and Rome, Europe, and England before crossing the pond to wind up in the States.”

Wixson mentions that “the Library of Congress has a broadside that announces a public performance (could it be the first?) of rhythm bones by a German on a New York stage in 1710. … So, from an historical perspective the minstrel era covers only a small part of its history.”

I think another development in that story also warrants attention: the more wholesome approach of contemporary pioneers in the revival of bones playing. Percy Danforth is a key example. He seems to me to bridge the minstrel tradition’s use of bones to more modern times. 

While Danforth spent his adult life in Ann Arbor, when he was eight, in 1908, he began attending a new school in Washington, D.C. At recess, he was intrigued when his African American classmates pulled out dried rib bones from their pockets and began “rattling” them. He watched them under street lamplight in the evenings and noticed not only their bones playing, but the accompanying sweeping motions. While the minstrel show was on the wane, Danforth came to believe that his young friends had gotten their inspiration from minstrelsy. 

Danforth’s dad knew enough musical history to give context to what Danforth saw and encourage him. Danforth went on from what his dad showed him and from what he imitated of his young friends to carry bones into coffee houses, American folk festival stages, and even classical symphony performances. Until his death in 1992, his workshops and instructional recordings, a DVD still available today, helped many recapture or rekindle the old fascination with accented rhythms and the flourish of a performer. [21]

[21] “How to Play the Bones” booklet and CD. See

Others carried the work further. While David Holt, the widely known North Carolina performer of folk and oldtime music is best known for his mastery of clawhammer banjo and guitar and harmonica, he has said more than once that the bones represented the first instrument he learned to play. 

The set he learned on were hand carved from walnut and oak by his great-great-grandfather from Alamance County, North Carolina during the time of the Civil War. “My father and grandfather,” David explains, “taught me. They were not musicians. [Bones playing] was just something handed down through the family. In fact, we have five generations of bones players in my family.” David Holt makes frequent use of rhythm instruments: washboard, spoons, and especially bones. In his concerts, Holt often references, along with cued photographs, his oldtime sources, mentors that include African Americans. (See his Homespun Music Instruction DVD: Folk Rhythms.)

David Holt’s father, William J. holt, playing the oak rhythm bones made by David’s great-great-grandfather, John Oscar Holt, from Alamance County, NC

Dom Flemons has also done much to bring bones playing before contemporary audiences. Flemons, as an African American, is frank in his appraisal of blackface minstrelsy’s racism. But he has appropriated the instrument in what he calls a “musical repatriation.” In concert, he plays them with a performer’s flourish. “They are an amazing rhythmic instrument,” he once said in an email conversation with me, “as well as being extremely appealing to see. When you see a person playing a set of bones well you can’t help but be fixated on them.” As he explains in his own article that will appear in next week’s OTC, “rhythm bones, with its distinctive percussion and its visceral method of playing, make it the most requested instrument in my musical repertoire.” Given his mastery of guitar, banjo, and other instruments, I find that fascinating. D.C.-based Rowan Corbett also uses bones, among his many instruments, showing a fascinating intermingling of styles and rhythms in, to name one example, the Irish-oldtime band he co-founded, Tinsmith.

Bones players who focus on the instrument, as opposed to simply dabbling, have formed a significant community online and through annual “Bones Fest” gatherings. The Rhythm Bones Society, formed in 1999, helps host the gatherings, publishes a newsletter, and serves as a kind of clearing house for news, history, instructional resources, places to buy bones, and noted players. [22] Online/print RBS newsletter editor Steve Wixson says, “When we were founded in 1999, we found about 100 rhythm bones pages on the Internet, and when I just now checked there are over 13,000.” Even allowing for the growth of Internet web sites in general, that points to notable interest.

[22] It was on this site that I found the historical resources of Sue Ellen Barber’s and Beth Alice Lenz’s work. 

Scott Miller, proprietor of a website dedicated to rhythm bones resources,, notes, “In the right hands, their percussive quality can tighten the band and ‘lift’ a tune. And with the right tune played the right way, the bones can really shine. But their narrow tonal scope limits the use of bones in a musical set.” 

A little goes a long way, in other words. For Dom, “the trick is to always play in a way that musicians will not ask you to stop.” I smile when I consider that. (For a great introduction to how to play the bones, see Dom’s short video at While I believe they deserve a larger place in oldtime settings, they serve best as an occasional leavening, not a monotonous and overdone (and too-loud) presence. Notes Steve Brown, RBS’s executive director, “The problem with bones players is that they can go on for quite some time.” For all the good they can add, says Dom in the accompanying article, they can be “too intense” and in the wrong hands, off-rhythm and, I’d add, off-putting.

Tintype photo by Timothy Duffy

Still, their presence can help us recover an important historical oldtime tributary. With the right touch, and with repentance for the hurtful sides of a racist past, they add, not detract. And for the increasing number of oldtime musicians who take music beyond the community jam to a stage or recording studio, bones can make an enlivening difference. Dom again: “I find the bones to be a wonderful complement to many ensemble settings, because they can evoke a sense of dancing, a sense of motion that doesn’t always exist when dancers aren’t present.” 

When I asked Dom Flemons about what may lie ahead for the revived interest in bones, he alluded to their ancient pedigree: “I think the bones are just as interesting now as they have been for hundreds and even thousands of years.” And the interest may be growing again, even if only among a niche of oldtime and eclectic musicians.

For those who want to consider fresh recovery of old sounds and rhythms, already there, in our oldtime tradition, bones seem to provide a natural place to look. The African American connection adds authenticity and historical heft. 

And maybe the bones will again become more common, as musicians such as Dom Flemons or David Holt play them and tell the story, or as bones players more readily take them out of their pockets or purses at oldtime jams. While at the Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week in Mars Hill, North Carolina, not long ago, for two years in a row a bones workshop I led generated enough interest both times to attract almost two-dozen curious and enthusiastic attenders. 

Tim Jones leading a bone workshop at Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week at Mars Hill College, Mars Hill, NC, 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Brown

I’m intrigued by Dom’s answer when I ask about the current scene: “I see,” he says, “more bones playing in general as I’m traveling but it’s always hard to tell if there is more interest or if it’s just the same that’s always been there since the beginning. One thing to keep in mind is that the bones can hide in plain sight very easily.” As they see more of the light of day, their percussive clap not only can make music hop and lift, their story deserves retelling, too.


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