Friday, February 13, 2009

Our Deep Roots

I was fortunate enough to spend a few hours last week with Balikoowa Centurio, a fantastic teacher, artist, and musician from Uganda, Africa. Centurio is a widely respected musician in Uganda and is working with Vanderbilt University to record (for the first time ever in many cases) and archive the music of a long list of tribes and villages in his home country, and make them available on the internet. He came to visit the states for 3 weeks and has spent the past week in Nashville where I met him, heard his stories, heard him play, and even got to play along.

The stories about his culture were fascinating to me. The drums in Uganda are much more than entertainment or hobby, they are a way of life and even a necessity. In years in the not so distant past (Centurio was speaking of his parents and grandparents) his village was surrounded by the bush and as a matter of security each and every home had, and still has 2 things: A spear and a drum. If there was a problem in one of their homes, such as a large threatening animal approaching, they would play a specific rhythm on the drum and the neighbors would show up with their spears to defend them. Different rhythms meant different things including calls for help and the start of a church service. The drum is held in high regard and is always placed with the head facing up. If the drum is placed on the ground with the head facing down it is a symbol of grief and indicates death.

That's not to say that the drum is not used for entertainment or hobby, very much the opposite. Entire villages gather on a daily basis to play together. The rhythmic and musical traditions are passed down from generation to generation and everybody plays. They dig trenches around 3 feet deep and reportedly quite long, lay banana stalk from end to end, and set up tuned planks to form giant multi-player marimbas. The stalks are soft and allow resonance and the trenches act as a giant resonant chamber. Evidently you can feel the bass through the ground if you're anywhere near these pits. They fill-in and re-dig these pits on a regular basis and play drums, marimbas, and a few stringed instruments until all hours of the night. This is what they do with their free time, this is what they love.

These stories gave me a strange sense of pride in, and respect for my instrument. It helped me realize the importance of the drum and the vast and long standing history behind it. I loved Centurio's explanation of his relationship to music: "The drum is there, you are there, so play the drum! How can you feel stress when you play the drum?". I loved that at times we struggled to understand each other, but when he played a rhythm on the drum and nodded at me to join in, we understood each other and communicated fluently.

You can hear Centurio and many others playing from the Global Music Archive web page here:
The song 'Aba Africa Tuboineboine' is a good start and includes drums and xylophone (each tune lists the instruments that were used) and the performance venue is listed as 'Under a Mango tree'! I did an advanced search for Performers: Balikoowa (under 'collections and resources', 'search the digital collection') and found 63 songs that he played on, all of which stream through Real Player free of charge. 'Gurira Omwana Amayombera' is on of my favorites from that list thus far. I encourage you to dig into the history of the drum, the culture of the drum, and the power of the drum and take pride in what you do!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Studio Preperation

A few weeks ago I was handed a cd with 9 new songs on it (mostly just guitar, piano and vocals) and was told to 'dream big' for an upcoming studio project. This is an exciting and overwhelming task, a blank canvas so to speak, and I've put a lot of thought into what I'm going to fill it with. I thought this was a great opportunity to share how I've been working and to take some of your ideas if you'd like to share. This isn't a band setting where we've been writing and practicing together for months in preparation for the studio, but many of the same principles apply.

Naturally, my first step was to listen. Not to listen and tap along with the first thing that crossed my mind, but just to absorb the songs and hear what they have to say without the drums. That should undoubtedly affect what I do with my instrument and I think as drummers we often want to skip this step. I was lucky enough on this project to have been given a second disc of fully produced and released tunes by other artists that are in the same sonic realm of the vision for this record. My second step was to listen to and play through these tunes. I learned some of the rhythms and studied a few of the tunes that I liked and that I wasn't up to speed with. This got me in the right mode and mindset to play through the new tunes for the first time and was an incredibly helpful step.

From here I picked up the new tunes and played through them. I tried not to over think and to just play what I heard and keep in touch with the vibe I picked up from the 'example' tunes. I was surprised at some of the stuff I played. Some of it was exciting and some of it didn't work and at this point that's fine. I rolled through them a couple times and tried not to repeat much. I wanted to try out several different things and take in what happened with the tunes with the different parts I was playing, and make some mental notes about those observations.

Another important step was to go back through a couple previous records by the artist I'm playing for. Some of my friends and guys I really respect have played on them and I want to achieve some degree of consistency across records. I'll undoubtedly put my fingerprints on this thing, but channeling some momentum is rarely a bad thing. I also took the time out to put up a mic and record myself playing with the tunes. When I listen back I always hear things that I love and want to hang onto and, conversely, things that don't work that I didn't realize I was doing. It's much better to notice those things on a cheap one take recording than on the finished album!

The last thing, and perhaps this is the most important of them all, is to come up with several different parts for the tunes and understand where they take the song. The feel will undoubtedly change with the different players in the studio so if I go in to practice with the rest of the band with my parts all figured out, something is not going to work. It's not about me and the coolest drum parts, it's about songs and it's about working together to make something great.