“Walk All Night”: Documentary follows Chicago “bucket boys” to Senegal

If you’ve spent a significant amount of time in a big city, you’ve likely seen musicians or dancers playing music on corners and in medians, busking for whatever a passerby can spare. In Chicago, one category of street performer, bucket drummers, are especially prevalent.

Chicago social worker Elita Tewelde saw them too, but instead of leaving them with a few bucks and moving on, she took inspiration. She saw in the drummers, mostly young African American men and boys, a cultural connection to Africa and an opportunity to empower them through connecting them with their past.

Through crowdfunding, she established Drum Beat Journey, a program to expose young, African American bucket boys to traditional drumming and drum culture in Senegal, an experience most of them could never dream of attaining on their own.

Walk All Night: A Drumbeat Journey” is a new film that documents the experiences four young men: Dontay, Demetrius, Damonte, and D’Quan, all bucket drummers on 47th and the Dan Ryan highway on Chicago’s South Side, and their journey to Senegal.

There, they find structure, inspiration, and hope – all things missing from their tumultuous lives back home.

The film does an excellent job of illustrating the plight of thousands of South Siders who have seen racially-driven disinvestment from their communities and the social consequences that come from it, namely violence.

Before the young men make their trip, Demetrius, only 19, recounts the story of being shot twice in an alley near his home. Each of the young men has known someone who has been shot or killed and they relate the information dispassionately. Even though their environments have made unspeakable violence commonplace, their good natures, senses of humor, and fish-out-of-water reactions to Senegalese life make them truly endearing subjects.

The relationship between the boys becomes the focus in the middle of the film. Tensions rise with the introduction of their mentors for the trip, Kevin McIntosh of Rhythm N Dance, a nonprofit with the mission of preserving African diasporic culture, and Senegalese Griot Percussionist Medoune Gueye (aka Papa Dame). The young men had been self-taught drummers up until their time in Senegal and being made to go back to the basics in a structured way caused interpersonal flare-ups and some resentment, but also produced some of the most emotionally effective moments.

The end of the film is a blank canvass, but not because the film’s arc remains unresolved. When the crew arrives back to the States, you get the impression that the young men have changed, but the home they arrived back to will make realizing that change a challenge.

The filmmakers chose not to candy coat the reality of the situation and by doing so tacitly indict the system that created that reality. Tewelde, the brain behind the program, lost her job to go to Senegal and moved in with family on the West Coast immediately after having suffered severe burnout. We got to see the young bucket boys shine and grow, but now they’re on their own to use that fleeting experience to change their own lives.

But not entirely on their own. The main players do their best to maintain contact and strong relationships after the trip and do so to this day.

The cinematography shows the realities of both Chicago and Senegal in vibrant hues and the music serves each scene’s emotional heft perfectly. Overall, the film is funny, poignant, and calls on the viewer to face our world and do what we can to change it.

You can read more about the film, see a list of upcoming screenings, as well as connect with those who made it here.

Photo: Dre, Monte, Quan, and Dontay – the four Chicago “bucket boys” whose experiences are the subject of the new documentary, “Walk All Night: A Drum Beat Journey” – in Dakar, Senegal. | Walk All Night


Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.