Percussion group to continue Rhythms of Life Series at Penn State Behrend

Percussionist Tony Vacca traveled to West Africa 14 times to learn how to play the balafon, a wooden xylophone with 21 keys. The instrument once was believed to be sacred, and was played only at weddings, funerals and festivals. The Mali stored it in temples.

“I’m immersed in the possibilities of this extraordinary instrument and how it can be used in the confluence of traditions that makes jazz and world music so powerful,” Vacca said. “Part of every tradition is innovation, and as we practice our traditions and challenge ourselves, we change these traditions, and ourselves as well.”

Vacca and his band World Rhythms will perform at noon in McGarvey Commons at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, on Oct. 19. The concert, part of the Rhythms of Life Series, is free and open to the public.

Vacca has recorded and performed with Sting, trumpeter Don Cherry and the Senegalese Afro-pop star Baaba Maal. In addition to the balafon, his stage kit includes gongs, djembe, djun-djun and talking drums.

His core band – saxophone player Tim Moran, bassist Joe Sallins, percussionist Steve Leicach and violinist Derrik Jordan – bop from urban jazz and funk to fusion, with spoken-word poetry thrown on top. All of it is wrapped in an athletic thump of percussion.

“Even his sweat seems to fall off him in time,” Alan Green wrote in Music Revue.

The Rhythms of Life Series is an outreach program of Penn State Behrend’s Office of Educational Equity and Diversity Programs. The free lunchtime concerts introduce students and others in the Penn State Behrend community to a broad range of world influences and traditions in music, dance and storytelling. For more information, call 814-898-7101 or visit