As much as I love drums, I have never had a drum set in my adult life. I’ve played drums as an adult, had intended to play drums in school, and also had them as a child, and yet the beats have managed to pull me through life. When I put on the artist hat, there is always an emphasis on sampled drums and I state that I am “a drummer without a drum set”, as my sounds come from other sources.
It’s hard to say where that love of rhythm started, although as I stated, the beat of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” got me going before birth. In “the great outdoors” though, I was always attracted to it. I remember once instance where I was in a kitchen and played my mom’s pots and pans, I think every kid does this. In my case, I never stopped.
One of the things I loved was that even though it was part of the music, it did not make notes. Or at least, it wasn’t melodic as a piano or guitar. Or so I thought. At least if I got drums or had something to hit to make noise, I didn’t have to worry about anything else. Then I started to learn about what made the drums work and that it was more than just random pounding.
It was loud, it was noisy, and for a lot of music, without the drummer, the other musicians would be lost. I remember my dad playing <B?Santana‘s Abraxas album with incredible Latin rhythms, loved “Gypsy Queen”, loved the laid back vibe of “Oye Como Va”, but somehow always found myself flipping the record over to Side 2 and playing “El Nicoya”, a song in honor of their percussionist, Jose “Chepito” Areas. War always had their share of cool rhythms too, many of which were influenced from the sounds of Latin cultures. I loved the groove of “Slippin’ Into Darkness”, the feel of “Beetles In The Bog”, and really enjoyed “Leroy’s Latin Lament” from their Why Can’t We Be Friends album. With uncles that loved hard rock and heavy metal, I loved when I heard open drums in Aerosmith‘s “Walk This Way” and Led Zeppelin‘s “When The Levee Breaks”, and I guess along the way, as I was listening, looking at the records and seeing the grooves pulsate, I was creating a mental database.
I can look back at all the Hawaiian music I listened to, from the Hawaiian implements that opened Sunday Manoa‘s “Kawika”. That was the best part of the song, it was eerie as a kid, almost gloomy but as I got older I realized what kind of power those sounds had. Once I discovered The Beatles, I also found out about Indian classical music and fell in love with the tabla and pahkavaj.
As rap music evolved, I embraced the style of production where one could borrow sound from other sources and make these cool sonic (and funky) orchestrations. Often times, it was the drums that was dead center, the primary focus. It would always be that way and it has remained that way. It is the heart and soul, the song’s heartbeat, the song’s pulse.
Upon attention intermediate school in Honolulu, it was a chance to join the school band. I wanted to play the drums, but unfortunately Mr. Shimada took one look at me and saw nothing but a big kid, which to him meant “he’ll be perfect for the tuba”. I couldn’t fit the tuba on me, nor could I slide under. I told him I wanted to play the drums, but instead my instrument became the alto saxophone. I loved jazz, soul, and funk with horn sections, along with Chicago, so I didn’t mind it too much. For a limited time, I could read music notation and I played what was basic. Was I good? As good as a beginner in the 8th grade could be. When the band instructor was not in the building, I would set up drum sets made from the chair we sat on, be it plastic or wooden. The wooden chairs looked like they had been there from the 1960’s, while the plastic ones were durable and appeared to be new. I set up my drum set so it would be a five piece, but then I wanted to be like Neil Peart of Rush and stack them. I think the most I ever got was an 11-chair drum set. I felt I was a bad ass because not only could I play, but I kept a beat. I was getting funky, doing little fills, tapped the metal bars as if they were cowbells, I merely emulated what I heard and thought see, I don’t need lessons. I knew what a paradiddle was, because I had done a small bit of reading but I did not want to be taught. I wanted to do things “from feel”. One morning, as I was playing my mammoth drum solo, Mr. Shimada came in and he was pissed. Told me to take down my set, and all of my classmates ran off. It appeared that I didn’t break anything, but some of the chairs were “shredded” due to the impact of my playing.
All of the drums and percussion instruments were locked in a room normally reserved for students to practice in, but one or two became makeshift storage rooms. One day someone had access to the keys, and while Mr. Shimada went to the main office, we went in. I saw bells, triangles, bongos, bells, glockenspiel, and everything I had heard on records, seen on TV, stuff I was interested in trying. But there was one drum and only one drum I had my eye on: the timpani, also known as the kettledrum.
I was aware that the band class had a timpani, but this could only be played by the main band. I was still in 8th grade, which meant we were “in training”, and only a select few could play it. I was “in training” and thus not one of the select few. Why an interest in the timpani? Because I had heard it in what became my all time favorite drum solo, found on Love‘s 1969 album on Blue Thumb Records, Out Here. The song was the 12-minute masterpiece “Doggone”. I don’t remember if the album came from a friend of my dad, or if it was in the basement of the house next door where my best friend lived. I just remember looking at the cover and going “whoa, this is trippy”. I had never seen a record label where its logo was just a thumb print, so I had to hear what this Love was. Out Here was a 2-record set, but this copy only had one LP, and it was Side 2 and 3. It was Side 2 that had a 3 minute song, a 1:30 song, and a big ass song listed as being 12:00. It was “Doggone”. I thought it was goofy at first, just what sounded like a country song. Not even two minutes into it, the band stops and all you hear is a drum solo. Sounded simple, I had heard drum solos before, but all of a sudden this guy was doing all of these takka-ta-tikki-ta-taka-ta-ka do-godo-do-godo-do-dogo stuff and I thought “this guy isn’t even 10 seconds into his solo and I’m hearing things I’ve never heard in my life.” A minute or two into it, it seems to slow down or at least as if he’s about to gear up to do something new. All of a sudden he’s tapping the rim of the drum, and then BOOM! Now he’s playing something quite funky. WHAT IS THIS?!?! Since I was also into making my own custom mix cassettes and pause-tapes, I would do my best to make that beat last for more than the 30 second that was on the record. All of a sudden the funky part ends, and the barrage begins. About 7 minutes into it, the drummer gets into hitting the cymbals everywhere and I hear something I had never heard. There was a drum that actually changed pitch. WHOA! It sounded warbly, as if it was underwater, but it was incredible. It sounded tribal, it sounded like the rhythms of war, and right in the middle of this, some kind of warped metal instrument, a demented triangle. Then the drummer moved into his proper drum set and then incorporated that warbly drum into his solo. The drummer was going nuts, and I could not believe my ears. He’s playing faster, sounds like he’s exhausted and all of a sudden he’s back into the beat from the beginning, and the band comes in one last time. The song finally ends, and then the warbly drums “speak” one last message. I had to know what this drum was, so I went to my library and looked up different types of drums. Discovered it was a timpani, and the pitch was determined by a foot pedal that you adjusted with your foot as you played. I had to play it.
A few years later, when I joined the band class, I looked immediately for the kettledrum. It was in the building, but no one was allowed to see or touch it. Yet on that day when keys were accessed to the percussion room, I saw it and I may not have said “move away, this is mine”, but I most likely thought it. I saw the drum, I saw the pedal, and I was thinking “this is it”. I was aware from the album cover that the name of the drummer was George Suranovich, and to me this man was a gift. He was the one who gave the world the power of this incredible drum. I remember tapping the drum head to hear the tone. I then placed my foot on the pedal, tapped the drum. Then I moved my foot on the pedal, started tapping. I probably had the biggest grin on my face, as I was now playing the drum that was in “Doggone”. I was looking for sticks, mallets, I wanted to play the “Doggone” solo with my hands but as I was moving the pedal around, who comes in but damn fricken Mr. Shimada. “How did you get access to this room, how did you get these keys? Get out, GET OUT, NOW!” A lot of us were in the room, not just me, but we had to part. In my mind, I was that close to playing my favorite drum solo and I did not get my chance. One day, I said, one day.
My family had plans on moving to Canada to make a better life for us. He died in 1983, but my mom felt that it was time to move in fear that her kids would somehow “go down the wrong path”. Instead of Canada, we moved to the Pacific Northwest. I joined the band class in the 9th grade, but I found myself overpowered by students who could play. The instructor gave me a drum pad and sticks, but couldn’t read my sheet music. Everyone else was playing full songs, while back in Honolulu in my 8th grade class, we weren’t even up to that level. I discovered that in my new school, there were band classes in the 4th and 5th grade. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I was four to five years behind everyone else. I got the looks. The worst thing was when I enrolled at this new school, they looked at my grades (I did very well in a number of classes, especially math) and thought they were forged. “No one from Hawai’i can have grades like this” so while I remained in the 9th grade, I was doing 7th grade level work. They lowered me a level or two in all of my classes, until I had taken some math classes and was acing each and everyone with scores of 100%. They had to move me up, but only by one. For the remainder of my middle school and high school life, I was always “one level lower”, pretty sad considering that in elementary school, I was placed in E’onipa’a, which translated to “one step higher”, or basically a class for the very smart/nerdy kids. Since I couldn’t play drums up to their 9th grade level, it was decided it was best to take a new class. My drum dreams were over.
At the same time, rap music was making a shift from being keyboard and band driven to having a sound that sounded like someone understood the “found sounds” of Art Of Noise. If I could not play drums, then I had to find a way to make my cassette pause-tape loops work for me.
Years later, it’s still very much the power of the drums. Of course now I realize that Suranovich was heavily influenced by jazz drummer Ed Thigpen, who made great use of the timpani when he played with Oscar Peterson but as would be the case for all my life, once I found answers, there were always doors and paths to more. If a drum set was out of reach, then I was going to make noise one way or another.
Drums: and the kettledrum was at fault.