March 17, 2010



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News Assistant

tanding in the dim light coming through a window of his third-floor home studio in west Portland, world percussionist Shamou drums three congas with his bare hands. His 6-foot-7 frame undulates gently, an oblong-shaped earring swinging from his left ear.

Those listening find themselves taken by surprise when they realize they are unconsciously dancing in place to the rhythm.

Shamou isn't surprised. He's seen it before. An amazing thing happens when he invites people on stage to drum with him, he says. ''Every time people join me, they get big, huge smiles on their faces.''

They may not know each other or play musical instruments, but there they are, creating music together.

''That's a testimony to the universality of music, the power of music,'' Shamou said.

For Shamou, who will perform an interactive, all-ages world-music concert tonight in Brunswick, the call to music came at an early age and has brought him around the world.

Born in Tehran, Iran, he and his five siblings were encouraged by their mother to experience the arts, in particular music and dance. Shamou -- a stage name given to him by a friend which combines his first and last names -- picked up hand drums around age 5 and began dancing by age 10 in a school run by the Iranian National Ballet. He eventually became a regular dancer in the ballet company.

Although dance was a huge part of Shamou's life, it was music that was his passion. He developed a fascination with music from the West. ''I had been listening to world music from Bollywood movies, which were popular in Iran at the time,'' Shamou said.

His father loved classical Persian music and tried to encourage his children to appreciate it as well. But while Shamou and his brother begrudgingly put up with their father's efforts, they were hooked on James Brown. They'd play Brown's signature beats on the drums, recording their efforts and later laughing themselves silly when they watched the results on video.

Shamou yearned to go to the West to study music. He was barely a teenager when he left Iran for England to further his music studies. Too young to attend the Royal College of Music in London, he studied privately with professors from the school.

He eventually went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he got an education in world music, jazz and the music of the African diaspora, styles that inform the music he began to create and continues to create today.

It was also in Boston where he made a name for himself as a collaborator with dancers. Shamou has worked with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Bill T. Jones, among others. In 1997, just as he was moving to San Francisco, he made a connection with Laura Faure, director of the Bates Dance Festival. They kept in touch and are now married.

When Shamou moved to Maine in 2002, he became involved in both the music and dance scenes in the state. He has danced with the Portland Ballet, created music for and performed in Portland Stage Company's ''Yemaya's Belly,'' released three solo albums, performs on a number of other musicians' recordings and teaches percussion in a variety of settings.

In 2004, he formed the band Loopin' with four Maine College of Art students. Those students have moved on, some forming the Portland-based band Grupo Esperanza, but Shamou has kept Loopin' going. The current incarnation features percussionist Annegret Baier, who also performs with Inanna, Sisters in Rhythm and the Zulu Leprechauns; Gary Wittner, a jazz guitar instructor at the University of Southern Maine; Andy Chipman, who teaches music in the Portland school system; and Barbara Truex, who plays electric dulcimer, among other instruments.

The band released a live album in 2005 and is set to release its first studio recording later this year. Loopin' performs at Space in Portland on Saturday.

Whether he is performing or teaching, Shamou seems compelled to share his enthusiasm for music. He dives from instrument to instrument in his home studio to demonstrate the difference in timbres between a djembe (a West African drum, pronounced jem-bay) and a pair of djun-djuns (also West African drums, pronounced JOON-joon). He plunks out a tune on a small thumb piano called a kalimba and grins like a boy as he shows off a Japanese stringed instrument he calls a twang-a-tang.

Baier says Shamou's enthusiasm sometimes makes her a bit nervous. ''When he goes out there (into the audience during a performance) and gets enthusiastic and starts handing out instruments, I freak out,'' because he may be giving the instruments to people who don't know how to play them.

For Shamou, music is such a connecting force he thinks nothing of handing out pieces -- most often bells and various shakers -- that are easily accessible to people who may not play a musical instrument.

When Shamou leads percussion workshops, he tells his students that they are walking drummers. Your heart is beating a rhythm, he tells them.

''We all have this in common -- this beating heart that connects us,'' Shamou said. ''We're playing this drum across the planet, every one of us.''

News assistant Stephanie Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6455 or at:

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