Ethnic Drumming for Fun and Profit
by Don Skoog
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Hunting Your Heritage
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,
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
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
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
Mining the Heritage of Others
I feel a strong, familial connection to some ethnicities, others
are more exotic. I feel an attraction
to the strange and
foreign. The underlying
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
So the only practical strategy if you get invited into an ethnic band,
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.
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
And to use.
New Drumset Patterns from Traditional Rhythms
countries have older, traditional musics that are evolving into younger,
styles. The drumset is often added to older
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
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
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
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
to the library, intent on doing real research for the first
time. It leads others back to school, where they can develop
to do their new
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
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
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
You begin by seeking knowledge for yourself, but you end up finding
empathy for others. Kinda nice, huh?