Don Skoog

Choosing a Percussion Program. Part 1

Choosing a Percussion Program. Part 2

Five Ways to be a Bad Drummer

Music and Place

Time Limit

Six Ways to be a Bad Teacher

Ethnic Drumming for Fun and Profit

Old Politics, New Technologies, and the Price of Mac & Cheese

How to Pay for that Mac & Cheese

Teaching Lefty Drummers

Art, Politics, and an Education in Havana

ENA Update 2005

The Problem with Critics

Music and Change


The Music of, and in, Another Place:
Vizcaino in Mexico

Don Skoog

     The music of another place is more than just notes. But knowing this in your mind is different than seeing it with your eyes or feeling it in your heart. If a people’s soul can be found in their music, then a direct confrontation with such strange sounds says that these people are different from us. We are not one. This foreignness entering our ears is not comforting but disconcerting. It says I am no longer home. I am in the hands and at the mercy of strangers. It is only by assuming that others are, deep down, the same as us that we can muster the courage to stay and listen, searching for that which we have in common in all this uncommon sound.
     And that, of course, is exactly what draws us to it. The jolting realization that we are no longer, musically at least, in Kansas anymore (sorry Kurt) is what drives us to seek out musics which open windows into the worlds of others who we might have known of, but certainly didn’t know.
     This was my experience at the Latin Percussion Program with Cuban teacher, Roberto Vizcaino, this June in Mexico. Roberto had invited me to bring my students (with parents and significant others) to Morelia to further complicate the ongoing Cuban/Mexican interaction which has become his daly life there. The more I travel in Latin America, the more I realize how different each country is from the others, and from us. With each trip the region becomes less familiar as I become more aware of its size and complexity. This is what I wanted to share with my students––a direct interaction with the other side of the coin of American culture––not as points on a map or chapters in a book, but in the faces and through the hugs of the people who teach us, feed us, drive us, and give us a place to sleep in their lives.


     The music in another place is more than just notes. To understand how music is part of people’s lives, you must be invited into their world. You must learn their language, eat at their tables, travel their roads, and share their hardships. Music, or any art, is the key to a door that, once opened, leads to knowledge, empathy, and perhaps love. You become part of their music and their music becomes part of you. And because your world has changed, their world changes too, at least for you.
     Our hotel and studio is snuggled in the hills above the city. At night, we can look down on the lights of the cathedral. It is a college town where Latino-hippies and leftist intellectuals share the sidewalk cafés with Native Americans in traditional dress. The Vizcaino family is almost as foreign here as we are. They also share our curiosity to learn more about the complicated, contrasted people who are our hosts. The Mexicans seem guardedly interested in us as well, asking us questions about our world while trying to show us theirs. In truth, it’s one world, but we’re from different parts of it so the exchanges that happen everyday at breakfast or in the cathedral plaza begin timidly only to develop more confidently as we build understanding. Maybe, but sometimes I think that this initial lack of trust comes from the fact that we do know something about each other. We are not unknown.

      This is true in music too. When studying other people’s traditions, that which seems obvious at first may become more difficult as you go. You may need to relearn every concept you ever thought you knew, and the context––cultural, religious, and social––can be, in every sense of the word, foreign. This process can be painful. Many times in Cuba I’ve felt my mind and heart being stretched out of all recognizable shape, my internal landmarks obliterated. You can lose a lot more than just your perspective.
     When one has no firsthand knowledge of others there is no alternative but to see them in stereotypes. Discovering that your stereotypes are untrue is healthy if a bit shocking, but knowing that you must grow beyond them is easier than actually doing it. If you are feeling disoriented you are probably on the right path. Every year, I watch Americans bring their preconceptions to Cuba only to discover that they are completely irrelevant to the Cubans. This can be disheartening. While some cope by reconceiving their understanding, others refuse to let go. The prospect of starting over is just too disturbing for them. Rather than adding to their knowledge, they have to discard it then begin again, and some are unable. Understanding grows only slowly, so this discarding process is continuous. I came to realize that my early musical studies were flawed. Most had to be rewritten, and the process continues now. It’s hard to retrace your steps when there’s so much new stuff to explore.
     New music is rooted old history but shaped by daily life. To understand a music you must come to know the people who make it and how they came to be who they are. This seems straightforward but it can be a problem. As Americans, we are taught a certain perspective on Cuban history and we have stereotypes about its people. The Cubans have been told many things about us which can be a little surprising––their ideas don’t reflect our country as we see it.
     We must both transcend our preconceptions if we wish to know the other better. Yet our perspectives are real and must be understood for what they are. We need to see our shared history from the other’s point of view without prejudice. But to retain two completely antithetical perspectives requires that you suspend judgment and cease to criticize, because if you only see what you want to see you lose the opportunity to learn better. This sounds obvious when it’s written down, but the experience becomes personal and profound when you’re forced to confront it in real life.
     While the Mexicans around us aren’t directly affecting our percussion studies, they are the context within which the Cubans and Americans are interacting. They envelop us all. Mexicans and Cubans are not the same and each seems familiar to me in a different way. Each resonates in a different part of my mind and I can only guess that while they might feel a similar resonance with me, each would process it within their unique context and through their personal and national relations with the United States. How they view each other is a question I really can’t answer, but it is clear that they are bridging a gap there as well.


     The music of another place shows us that it is not a universal language, as many so wrongly believe. These differences become more apparent when considering specific issues. For example, notational traditions vary widely in different places. Even between countries that use the same musical conventions (western notation, for instance) the way they are used can be very different. When Cubans write music they usually notate it so the clave is written within one measure, and almost always three-side first. The two-three clave concept is not used and sometimes not well-understood. This is a shock to American drummers for whom two-three clave has become a musical crutch. Likewise, American horn players are accustomed to reading clave across two bars and are comfortable with the eighth- and sixteenth-note patterns that creates. Writing the clave in one bar creates different patterns and Americans can be confused by the long strings of thirty-second notes found in Cuban sheet music.
     Many Cuban conga drummers, including Vizcaino, have developed their own notational styles using different noteheads to indicate the various strokes. Although each is perfectly logical, they are all different so a student must relearn the symbols when changing teachers. Also, these odd noteheads don’t lend themselves well to computer transcription so they re difficult to publish. I use a more standard notation which indicates both strokes and hand patterns, and Vizcaino has chosen to rewrite all his materials for us using this notation. Because of this, I’m transcribing his exercises and rhythms on the computer so that next year’s students will have even better teaching materials, and we intend to publish his long-overdue conga method based on these transcriptions. Because he is willing to alter his concepts to help us access his knowledge we are able to make that knowledge more available to drummers around the world, and so the educational exchange flows both ways.
     Other traditions don’t read or write music at all. This can be a problem for those of us with bad memories. We try to adapt our notation to describe music that is difficult to capture within its limitations. Any attempt to notate batá drumming simplifies and distorts it because the many possibilities of the living music cannot be reduced to symbols that must be written in a specific order. While transcriptions are a useful tool as part of lessons with a knowledgeable teacher, the essence of this music can never be found on paper.
     Teaching styles vary widely in different places, so a student’s expectations of the lesson can be very different from the teacher’s. If you are conservatory trained, you may wonder why your Cuban teacher is still making you play the same pattern after twenty minutes. Unless you realize that he is teaching something completely different than you think you are learning, you may not see the point because you are looking for something else. Your college teacher may give you an assignment and send you home to learn it. A Cuban may make you play until he’s sure you’ve got it. This is a really good way to teach. You may learn fewer patterns but you will know them better. Nevertheless, this can be a problem for students who aren’t used to it.
     The Mexicans, perhaps, find both the Cubans and Americans a little strange. The girls at our hotel asked us to go dancing at a Banda bar. Perhaps they were worried that in our concentration on Cuban music we would miss the traditions of the people around us. This gave us the chance to see their music not as a cliché but as part of their daily lives. And while it was gratifying to see that they had almost as much trouble dancing to Salsa as we do, it was refreshing not to have to take six weeks of lessons just to take a pretty girl out on the dance floor, as I would need to in Cuba.

      The music in another place proves we are not cartoons. That they know more about us than we do about them is a given. That they are us is more of a surprise. Think of the Morelian cabby who used to work in the Loop, or the tour guide who owned a house in Berwyn, or the waitress whose sister lives in Pilsen. What am I to them? Another loud American who doesn’t understand how the decisions of my government affect their lives? Do they make allowances for my ignorance? Or am I proof that not all Americans are bullies? Have they already seen through these stereotypes to view me as a unique person? The answers, all unknowable for me, are probably different for each of them. Am I a symbol? If so, of what? Perhaps it’s less important for me to draw conclusions about them than it is for me to ask what conclusions they’ve drawn about me. Perhaps the bonds between us are there only as long as we choose to maintain them. Perhaps they are there whether we know it or not. Perhaps they are there even if we don’t want them to be. Perhaps when we expand the concept of us to include them “the other” disappears and we become family, bickering perhaps, but family nevertheless.
     Roberto speaks a little English and my students speak broken Spanish (if that), so when classes began I had to translate much of what was said. Yet as each week went on I needed to interpret less. Why? Because they grew to understand each other more. It was gratifying to watch them develop a relationship which didn’t need a mediator. And that is how it should be. On our journey we meet other travelers, people who share our love, and who understand our passion in ways that outsiders do not. And we share that experience with those who open up their homes, minds, and hearts to us, creating a bond that crosses borders, blends cultures, and changes us all in ways we could never have imagined before we reached out to the unknown other and found understanding reaching back

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Guest Articles

Al Payson's Response
to Choosing a Perc Program

Drumming and Spirituality
by Matt Meyer

My Life as a Musical Dog
by Bill Molenhof