BOKSBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - South Africa hosted the world's largest marimba and steelpan festival July 27 and 28, with nearly 2,000 musicians from around Africa, including Botswana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
The festival — now in its eighth year — mixes traditional African, classical and even rap music.
"As Africans, we encourage our students also to be dancing and singing and playing at the same time, because that's when you get the full benefit of the music," said Joan Lithgow of the Education Africa International Marimba and Steelpan Festival.
The festival prides itself on including disadvantaged and disabled musicians, who compete on an equal footing with other musicians.
"I feel very good because people can see that deaf people can do anything," marimba player Boitumelo Lekaka said through sign language. Rose Moloi, her teacher at South Africa's Dominican School for the Deaf in Hammanskraal, translated.
"Same as the hearing people in the world, [we] can do anything. Anything. Playing marimba, all different instruments, kinds of instruments. They can do the same as the hearing people and all other people," Lekaka said.
Five-time Grammy Ballot Award nominee and American vibraphone artist Jason "Malletman" Taylor helped judge the competitions.
"And that was my first time ever judging a group that was deaf! I'm like, how are you playing these notes and you can't hear the notes? And I know that that was a gift from up above. So, if you can't hear it, they probably feel it. And I think it's incredible!" Taylor said.
St. Jude's Private Schools of Nigeria is one of the festival's past winners of the trophy for the best steelpan performance. The leader of the Steelpan Ensemble, Femi Obadina, says the standard of competition is extremely high.
"This one is actually more competitive, because you have, you know, different schools from different countries," Obadina said.
The competition runs alongside 90 music workshops. Award-winning composer and steelpan player Dave Reynolds feels marimba and steelpan music is like therapy.
"It's very emotionally engaging," he said. "There's a small amount of technical and musical knowledge that they use, but a lot of it is just coming from the heart."