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Drummers bring beat to Arsht Center

Mirlanta Petit Homme speaks softly, but her cowbell doesn’t.

In rehearsal, the bell’s tinny tones rise above the drums, just enough to stand out but always on the beat.

“If I get an instrument, I’m going to make sure I’m heard,” she said.

This weekend, the 18-year-old will be heard when she performs with 34 other students in renowned drummer Willie Stewart’s Rhythms in Africa production.

The youth, all members of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami, were chosen from some of the lowest-performing schools in the county.

On Saturday, 10 weeks of hard work will culminate in a performance during Family Fest at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

Starting at 1:30 p.m., the young musicians, along with Stewart and a group of professional musicians, will perform a selection of African songs.

The idea of getting some kind of music program going started last year when Big Brothers Big Sisters officials were brainstorming program ideas for a group of older teenagers.

“This is a very difficult group to engage, and to serve,” said Marianne Weiss, director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami’s Mentoring and Resource Center. “They have to be cool.”

After hearing about Stewart’s Rhythms of Africa production with Fort Lauderdale children in 2011, she knew a music program would be a perfect fit.

Weiss called every kid in the program who she thought would be interested. In particular, she said, she reached out to those with behavioral problems or those who didn’t have anything to do after school. She ended up with 35, mostly high school students.

At the first rehearsal at Elizabeth Virrick Park in Coconut Grove, Stewart set up his drums and invited his new students to come forward.

He picked a few to lead by creating a drum beat. Everyone had to follow and learn the beat. It wasn’t long before they were all drumming in unison.

“At the end of the activity, they sound like an orchestra,” Weiss said. “It’s insane.”

The Grove neighborhood became accustomed to the Sunday drumming rehearsals. Passersby often stopped to listen, sometimes forming a crowd of up to 25 people.

Once, a jogger stopped to ask Weiss about the program and said she wanted to help. She jogged home, then came back with a check for $100 made out to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami.

The help is appreciated. Although Stewart received a $25,000 Knight Foundation grant for the program, there are still costs left over that Rhythms of Africa and Big Brothers Big Sisters had to raise funds for.

Weiss and Stewart would like to form an ongoing percussion ensemble, but again, its success would depend on funding.

This is the third year Stewart - who spent 23 years playing percussion with the internationally known reggae band Third World - has involved youth in the performance of Rhythms of Africa.

After sharing the stage with such illustrious acts as Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana, he established the Embrace Music Foundation to restore music to schools and communities.

Several years ago, Stewart used to present the music to the children, but he felt he needed to introduce them to a new way of learning.

He decided to bring them onstage. As well as learning about music and African culture, he said, the kids learn focus, discipline and self-esteem.

“It’s a journey that they never forget,” said Stewart, a past recipient of the NAACP Image Award and the United Nations Peace Medal.

Some of the children, like 16-year-old Adrian Person, were reluctant to join the program.

Adrian, a 10th-grader at Booker T. Washington Senior High, told his father he was too busy practicing to get on the football team in the spring.

But Adrian’s 17-year-old brother Zackary wanted to be part of the program, so Adrian went along with it. Now, he said, he enjoys hanging out with his new friends each Sunday and playing the bass drum.

He’s not nervous to perform, even though the 2,200-seat Knight Concert Hall is expected to fill up.

“I am absolutely excited,” Adrian said.

Mirlanta, who earns mostly A’s at Miami Edison Senior High, will be the first person in her family of four siblings to go to college when she heads to Miami Dade College next fall.

She’s one of the few teens who have a background in music. She started playing the clarinet in sixth grade at Miami Edison Middle School.

But she was hungry for more.

Her mom works, making it difficult for her to participate in activities after school she loves. She wasn’t able to get from her home in Little Haiti to the Sunday rehearsals in Coconut Grove, so Weiss picks her up, along with three others who need rides.

Mirlanta started out on the djembe, a West African drum that reaches hip height and is played with the hands.

After the first Rhythms of Africa rehearsal, she switched to the cowbell because nobody else volunteered to play it. Now, she wants to go back and learn the djembe, and any other instrument she can.

Along with the music, she loves the group’s unity. In 10 weeks, she said, they’ve made something amazing.

“It’s strangers coming together, cooperating,” she said.