This past weekend I had the pleasure of teaching a group of great drummers some samba Carioca (Rio-style samba). The group was a bunch of drum corps drummers, which means they had tons of chops–great hands. But I think few, if any, had any extensive experience with Brazilian escola-style music and phrasing.
So, I want to tell you the story, but first I need to tell you a little bit about how serious drum corps drummers compare to the rest of the drumming world.
In terms of pure hand technique, drum corps drummers are the jet fighter pilots of the drumming world. They have so much strength and dexterity and chops in their hands it’s almost ridiculous. They all come from a background that is both musical and competitive (this last part is very important). That means that during their active careers, they were rewarded as much for what they did technically as what they did musically.
I’m trying to think of analogy here. Maybe it’s kind of like olympic gymnastics versus something like Cirque du Soleil. In gymnastics you have all this technical stuff that you have to do in a competitive format. In Cirque du Soleil you deal primarily with aesthetic concerns (is it beautiful, does it convey the proper emotion, etc.) and technical concerns are not the primary consideration.
On the surface they may look the same, but it’s a very different approach. For the Cirque du Soleil folks getting all of those compulsory moves in the show is hardly a concern at all, I would imagine. For the olympic gymnastics folks, being aesthetically beautiful and conveying the proper emotion doesn’t mean a whole lot if they don’t do well on their compulsory moves–all the technical stuff.
So then, bottom line, these drummers had chops to spare. But what we were teaching had nothing to do with chops but had more to do with musical interpretation. Actually, it’s probably more than just musical interpretation–it had to do with the difference between Western European culture and West African culture.
How to explain? In Western European-influenced culture (this would include American culture, where the drum corps drummer come from), the rhythms are very downbeat focused and when you do subdivide the beat or play a syncopated phrase, you’re almost always dividing by whole numbers; two’s and three’s primarily. In West African-influenced culture (this would include Brazilian drumming) it’s a much more nuanced rhythmic approach. So they don’t really divide things by whole numbers or twos and threes–they’ll divide things by say 2.75 or 3.12. (Actually, if one of my African or Brazilian drummer friends heard me describe their music like this they would think I was from another planet. Which I kind of am, being from America 🙂 What’s probably more true is that they think of rhythm more organically and things don’t divide evenly by whole numbers and by twos and threes. It all eventually adds up to 100% of a musical phrase, but they have a much more nuanced and, perhaps, organic way of getting there.
And this issue of rhythmic differences between the two cultures was the entire challenge we were dealing with. So, it was no small thing that we were teaching these amazing drum corps drummers this idea of how to phrase like a Brazilian drummer, and play that Brazilian swing. It’s just a HUGE concept to get your mind around, especially if you’ve been training yourself in the American approach your entire life. It’s something that, in a way, has no basis in American, or Western European-influenced culture.
Bottom line, all the wonderful and amazing technique in the world doesn’t help you if you are having your assumptions challenged at a fundamental level regarding a concept (rhythm in this case). One half-hour workshop session will only scratch the surface and do little more than point out the immensity of the task (or, as I put it on Saturday, it will “melt your brain”). Wonderful stuff, but it’s incredibly challenging to get your mind (and your body) around it at first.
So, the guys and girls that are part of this drum corps drummer community on Saturday did a fabulous job despite all the brain melting stuff I threw at them. We played a Brazilian groove, learned to do a bit of the Brazilian swing, learned to start and stop the groove, and we learned three breaks. All of this in like 30 minutes or so. Amazing, amazing stuff and it was by far the funnest thing I’ve done a long, long while. (Way, WAY fun 😉 My hats off to all of those who participated.
Where have you had an experience where your assumptions were challenged in a fundamental way? Maybe it was in college, having kids, caring for a sick parent, traveling abroad, or to a different culture in your own community…I imagine we’ve all come across something like this at some point in our lives.
P.S. I am, myself, and old drum corps drummer, but I don’t have nearly the chops that some of these folks do. I have other skills, though…