Ibeji Drum Ensemble

By Emily Wolfe 

September 2020 

Dressed in vibrant West African clothing and sitting at a pair of djembe drums, it’s easy to tell Anthony Mitchell, Jr. and his brother Dante are ibeji, twins. In the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, the word is more than a description of a pair of children born at the same time: it’s part of a long-standing cultural tradition that regards twins as mystical and sacred. In 1995, the Mitchell brothers and their parents chose ibeji for the name of their family drum ensemble, hoping to bring the personal connection they felt to West African music and culture to Western Pennsylvania. 

Dr. Anthony Mitchell, Sr., an instructor in African and African American Studies at Penn State Greater Allegheny, first found himself gravitating towards West African music and culture during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In interviews, he has referred to drumming as a “blessing” and a “calling,” one which soon spread to his wife, Beatrice. “Baba Tony” and “Iya Bea” wanted to ground their twin sons in African culture, and the family began taking lessons from Pittsburgh drummer Eric Rucker when Anthony, Jr. and Dante were five years old. Twenty-five years later, the Ibeji Drum Ensemble’s interactive performances are consistently popular at arts festivals, schools, and senior centers throughout the Pittsburgh area. The drum ensemble lives under the umbrella of the family’s company, KUUMBA, Inc., which also offers consulting services and other educational programs, often centered around African American history and mentorship. 

A pair of traditional carved wooden Yoruba ibeji statues.
“Standing Male Figure (Ere Ibeji),” Brooklyn Museum. A pair of traditional carved wooden Yoruba ibeji statues.

Members of the audience at these shows are not asked to sit and listen quietly. Rather, like traditional African drum ensembles, the Mitchells perform for a participatory crowd, not a stationary one. The drum ensemble leads its listeners through various dances and call and response routines at loud, lively performances. While the ibeji name is a specific nod to the Yoruba religious tradition, the music performed by the ensemble at these events incorporates a variety of African drumming traditions. As part of the effort to make their drumming as authentic as possible, members of the family have traveled to Senegal, Guinea, and Ghana to study and play with traditional West African drummers, and played with musicians in Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. 

Drums used by the Mitchells include the djembe and the dunun, two mainstays of West African drum ensembles, as well as the conga, which was created by Afro-Latin drummers in Cuba. Djembe drums—now popular all over the world because of the wide variety of sounds they can produce—have long played a part in West African marriage, birth, and funeral rites, as well as other seasonal ceremonies. Now, close to a thousand years after the rhythm of the djembe was first heard in Mali, its vibrant sounds can fill up a Pittsburgh gymnasium. 

Featured Image

“Djembe drums,” Wikimedia Commons. A group of djembe drums for sale in a Ghanaian village.

Further Reading 

“African drums.” Contemporary African Art. https://www.contemporary-african-art.com/african-drums.html. Accessed 13 Sept. 2020. 

“Ibeji Drum Ensemble.” KUUMBA, Inc. http://www.kuumbainc.com/performing-arts.html. Accessed 13 Sept. 2020. 

Thompson, Robert Farris. “Sons of Thunder: Twin Images among the Oyo and Other Yoruba Groups.” African Arts, vol. 4, no. 3, 1971, pp. 8–80. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3334422. Accessed 13 Sept. 2020. 

Worthy, Ariel. “Local Group Celebrates Kwanzaa With Music, Ritual.” 90.5 WESA, 27 Dec. 2018. https://www.wesa.fm/post/local-group-celebrates-kwanzaa-music-ritual. Accessed 13 Sept. 2020. 

How to Cite 

MLA: Wolfe, Emily. “Ibeji Drum Ensemble.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 22 September 2020, https://religyinz.pitt.edu/ibeji-drum-ensemble/.

APA: Wolfe, Emily. 22 September 2020. Ibeji Drum Ensemble. ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/ibeji-drum-ensemble/.

Chicago: Wolfe, Emily. “Ibeji Drum Ensemble.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 22 September 2020. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/ibeji-drum-ensemble/.