Written By Brett Levine
Photography by Beau Gustafson
In the mid-1980s, KLM—an English electronic band—wrote a song with a mesmerizing refrain: “Swimming in the river of life, swimming in the river of life.” It coursed over pulsing rhythms that drove the song along, and you could almost imagine this being the soundtrack when you first meet Mitch Caponetto. You’ll have two realizations immediately: One, that he is definitely swimming in the river of life. And two, that beneath a humble exterior is someone who is literally on the edge of letting some incredible pulsing rhythms push you forward. Just give it a minute.
That minute will take you back to the Big Easy, where Caponetto began studying jazz drumming. “Let’s just say school wasn’t the best fit,” he says with a smile. While he loved drumming and performing, it was the structure that he felt didn’t necessarily fulfill his needs. Caponetto has an inherent feel for rhythm and a definitive love for jazz, but he learned very quickly that he would rather be in the milieu of New Orleans’s performing musicians than he would necessarily find fulfillment in a structured classroom.
Even more surprising was where he wanted to turn. “What I was finding really interesting,” he says with a pause, “was West African drumming.” There, in the heart of New Orleans, in a city marked by an incredibly competitive drumming culture, Caponetto wanted to turn an incredibly complex—but seemingly simple—instrument into his own. “My main instrument is the djembe, which is basically a hand drum. What’s important in playing West African music is how the musicians and dancers connect, and the djembe is one of the instruments that provides
The transition from kit to djembe, and to emphasizing West African music, was not without its challenges. “One of the biggest issues in a city like New Orleans is simply recognizing the sheer quality of the musicians,” Caponetto explains. “As someone who was passionate about the instrument and the music, and who had skills and a tradition as a drummer, learning was and is an ongoing process. But convincing people that I was serious about what I was doing, and [that] I was committed to furthering the ideas of African dance and African music was a little more difficult in the beginning.” Part of the challenge was simply proving to the community that he would honor the commitments he made to dance groups, and that he had the support of other drummers within the community. “I wanted to prove my passion through my playing,” he says quietly. “I’ve never been someone who particularly enjoys the spotlight. What I like to happen is simply to sit in the pocket and let the rhythms I help create and the music that I play help tell a story.”
It worked because in his time in New Orleans Caponetto joined the dance troupe N’fungola Sibo, which was deeply committed to him as its musical director. More importantly, however, were recognitions of his skills within the wider community, such as invitations to play as a member of Seguenon Kone’s Ivoire Spectacle at Jazz Fest 2012. What is even more interesting, as we sit outside Chez Lulu watching the video, is that Caponetto is thrilled with precisely where he is: just in the background at the beginning of the video, locked tight, in rhythm, and simply killing it. The performance, just under 15 minutes of YouTube spectacle, is a masterpiece of undulating sound and a visual delight. “He’s really incredible,” Caponetto remarks, deflecting comments from just how good he actually is.
Now that he has been back in Birmingham for almost three years, he is now exploring a range of options for pursuing the types of music that enthrall him. “It can be challenging at times,” he begins, “but in fact Birmingham is home to a small—but incredibly passionate—community interested in and committed to West African drumming. You probably didn’t know that though, right?” Right he is, because much of the communicative quality of creativity flies under the radar, enjoyed by audiences “in-the-know” but invisible to those outside it.
He would like to change that, if possible. “Birmingham has the potential for a thriving African dance scene,” he enthuses. “There are drummers ready to play, and now the challenge is simply finding a dance teacher with the same passion for bringing this art form to Birmingham audiences and students.” For now, Caponetto keeps practicing, keeps playing, and keeps learning. He is just back from several months out West, driving through some of America’s most beautiful landscapes. He always has an instrument with him so he can look, see, feel, and play. When you get the chance, Mitch Caponetto can let you hear and feel some the incredible rhythms that he explores every