Ethnic Drumming for Fun and Profit

by Don Skoog

     One of the things I love about Americans is that we all came from someplace else. Millions of us speak with the accents of other countries, but even if we were born here, our ancestors weren’t. While there was, and still is, discrimination against immigrants, the tens of millions who came seeking a better life for their kids generally found it. In America today, no one cares if your background is German or Irish, Polish or Hungarian. The children of immigrants are Americans, working the system like natives, yet still retaining a connection to the old country.
     The American Melting Pot analogy has been criticized by revisionists who believe that it doesn’t represent the real process of societal change, and doesn’t reflect the cost of culture-loss to us, individually or as a nation. Although they raise interesting concerns, I think the critics are missing a more important point. While a Japanese man can, with effort, become an American, there is absolutely no chance for an American man to become Japanese. The nature of the two societies is fundamentally different––not better or worse––just different.
     Because American society is fluid, it has been able to absorb the contributions of, and retain connections to, the rest of the world. We are not special just because we are Americans. We are special because we are the recipients of the linguistic, religious, scientific, culinary, legal, and artistic treasures of all the people with whom we share the planet. But while anyone can, in theory, become an American, the revisionists are right about one thing. There is a price.
     The children of immigrants often straddle two worlds, giving up something from each to remain part of both, and their children's connection to the old is even more tenuous. Much to their grandparents’ dismay, second generation Americans identify with the old country through the buffer of a new identity. Something is lost.
     And something is gained. The children of immigrants often feel out of place, here and there. They are neither stereotypically American nor old-country native. (I know a Chicago-born, Mexican guy who was beaten up when his family moved into an Anglo neighborhood. And when they went on vacation to Mexico, he was beaten up again because he was an American.) Their relations with the old and the new are complicated because there is no preordained place for them in either society. They are something brand new. They are our future, defining themselves by redefining us.
     Why is this important to you? Because the strength of the new us is connected to how much of the old them we retain. What’s lost to you is lost to us, and we all become shallower, more rootless.
     As an American drummer you have the opportunity 1) to rediscover your musical heritage, deepening your understanding of your family and yourself, 2) to study other traditions, widening your perspective on your neighbors, spouses, and friends, and 3) to combine those disparate traditions into new art forms that more truly reflect who we have become in this imperfect Melting Pot.
     Art is not about technique or reputation. It’s about finding and creating meaning that illuminates who you are. It’s about finding and creating meaning that resonates with others. Art is not born in a vacuum. It is the end result of your search to identify yourself among the people with whom you live. You can share your heritage with those around you, and you can absorb theirs, but the process changes both. What was once foreign becomes native, and what was old becomes new through you. And you become new through it.

Treasure Hunting Your Heritage

     If you are lucky enough to have been born in, or have close ties to, another country, you can preserve your heritage by forming or joining a group that plays the music of your community. You’ll have a ready-made audience to help you maintain the tradition, and the opportunity to pass it on to younger drummers.
     Most kids would prefer to be poked in the eye with a stick than show any interest in their family’s ethnic roots (they’d rather go to McDonalds). But as they grow older, and their imagination embraces a larger world, many begin to do family research. Some study the old country’s language and go back for visits. Others explore its cultural and artistic traditions, like music.
     It’s natural for those of us with close ethnic ties to be familiar with the music of our heritage. Many of us learned it within our family circle, performing with older players who shared their knowledge. It’s when old-world teacher meets new-world student that the music is passed across.
     The Chicago neighborhood where I grew up was Polish and Italian so my very first band was a Polka group, and I’ve played with various Italian bands since I was in high school. Even though I’m neither Polish nor Italian, I feel part of them because I ate in their kitchens, played football with their sons, took their daughters to the prom, and grew up playing their music.
     As I became more interested in my own background, I began to collect Irish music and study the bodhrán. This led me to Chicago’s Irish community and eventually to a trip to the island, where I played in trad sessions, took lessons, and collected books. (As any musicologist will tell you, the researcher must seek out musicians in their native habitat, so I had to spend a lot of time in Irish pubs––work, work, work . . . )
     But my search for Irish music opened a portal in my mind. It gave me a stronger sense of who I am, and new skills to bring to the practice room and teaching studio. I now play and teach the bodhrán, and can apply those rhythms to the drumset as well, but more importantly, it gave me a key to exploring how I fit into the world, and a tool I can use to help my students learn to value their heritage and deepen their understanding of themselves. So if you want to learn from the connections between people and music, start with your own family first. You’ll gain a new appreciation for them, and for yourself

Strip Mining the Heritage of Others

     While I feel a strong, familial connection to some ethnicities, others are more exotic. I feel an attraction to the strange and foreign. The underlying structures of African, Indian, Arabic, and Chinese music are incomprehensible at first. So the need to know leads to obsession, and obsession leads to growth. And opportunity. If you have different ethnic communities where you live, start to familiarize yourself with their music. You might wind up in a Celtic Rock band or an Argentinean Tango group.
     But while it’s important to have a working knowledge of various musical traditions, it’s impossible to master all the styles and repertoire in the American musical mosaic. Greek drumming alone would keep you busy for years. Every country has hundreds of songs, scores of artists, and diverse regional variations, each with its own characteristics and musical conventions. So the only practical strategy if you get invited into an ethnic band, is to plead ignorance and ask for a list of recordings in that style. Let them teach you the music. Another good resource would be a compendium like The Rough Guide to World Music for style descriptions and an up-to-date discography.
     By getting personally involved in other people’s art, you will become a part of the richness of their world. I have seen Santería and Abakuá ceremonies in Havana, played a Polish/Mexican wedding in a church basement in Pilsen, taken a cajón lesson in Lima Peru, watched Chinese opera in Tai Pei, danced the Junkanoo in the Bahamas, and sung pub songs in Dublin. I’ve been yelled at by a Flamenco diva and tortured by an Arabic fem-fatál. I’ve been humbled, chased, seduced, and conquered by people who were determined that I would not leave by the same door I came in. And so I didn’t. But I did not leave empty-handed. The experience and knowledge are now mine to treasure. And to use.

Creating New Drumset Patterns from Traditional Rhythms

     Most countries have older, traditional musics that are evolving into younger, popular styles. The drumset is often added to older styles as musicians innovate to keep up. Sometimes, the drumset just plays a Rock beat while a percussionist plays more traditional instruments and rhythms, but other drummers are transferring these traditional patterns onto the kit. The addition of drumset to most types of Latin music is a good example. The flamenco rumba of The Gypsy Kings, Klezmer music, and the various Arabic, Turkish, Indian, and Greek Pop styles all apply traditional rhythms onto the drumset. The list is endless, so begin with the music of your ethnic background. Start to assemble a comprehensive CD collection. Go to concerts then introduce yourself to the musicians. Set up lessons. Learn about your heritage so you’ll have something to share with your kids.
     But while some drumset players draw inspiration from within their family traditions, others fall in love with the music of distant and exotic peoples. This is more than just a musical education. One needs to learn another language, different social customs, and a new way of living among others.
     To fall in love is to become obsessed. You want to know everything about your new sweetheart. And so it is with music. The quest for understanding leads some to the library, intent on doing real research for the first time. It leads others back to school, where they can develop the skills to do their new passion justice. Some must learn to read and write music, while others must learn to put their thoughts concisely onto paper. Both now have a reason to improve the way they present their beloved to the rest of the world. And a few go on to share their passion with their students, because teaching others is the best way to thank those who taught you.
     Today, many percussionists are studying batá, tabla, cajón, and bodhrán, to name a few, then applying the rhythms to drumset. Mastering the batá, for example, isn’t easy, and there are few guideposts for transferring that knowledge over to drumset. Finding ways to use your newly translated drumset rhythms will also involve a lot of creative thinking because you’re off the path––bushwacking through the jungle–– with no one in front of you. A student follows in his teacher’s footsteps, learning from another’s journey, trudging along until he gets to where he can leave his print in the untrodden soil. Only then can he make a contribution.

     As a second-generation American, the only musical tradition I will ever really know is the one I grew up with. I’ll never grasp the essence of Cuban music as instinctually as the Cubans do. But because I’ve had so much contact with the music of other countries, I’m able to combine my tradition with others, bringing new life to both. The critics of the Melting Pot are wrong, at least when it comes to music. The old can stand next to the new, and they can have children. To bring change to an art doesn’t weaken it if the roots are still revered and protected. In fact, change is needed if music is to grow. To demand that a music remain “pure” will petrify it, take it out of the artistic life-stream, and relegate it to the museum with all the other dead things.
     People make music, and since there are a lot of kinds of people, there are a lot of kinds of music. In the end, the study of other people’s music becomes the study of your own, because what you learn is that there is no us and them. There is only we. You can seek to learn more about who you are, or you can seek to learn more about total strangers, but the result is the same. All the knowledge you’ll ever retain is just a few snowflakes in a blizzard, but those few snowflakes will widen your universe and start you on a quest to collect more. You begin by seeking knowledge for yourself, but you end up finding empathy for others. Kinda nice, huh?