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Monday, November 22, 2010

Why God Gave the World Drummers.

I was seriously infected in the year of my 8th grade of high school.

When I was still in grade school, my dad had a pair of Cuban bongos around the house that I'd occasionally try to "play" when we'd have family gatherings at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and he'd play his guitar and sing (as I mentioned in an earlier post, he was very gifted at both). I had no idea what I was doing, but it felt strangely good anyway. The universe seemed to line up.

In 8th grade, I had a small record player in my room where I'd listen to Beach Boys and Chubby Checker, records, etc. At some point during those listenings I dragged out the bongos and "played" them with an old pair of brushes my Dad had lying around for some reason.

I discovered as I sat in my room with the Beach Boys, I could keep time to the record and it felt like it was what I was made for. I'd never felt more alive than when I was trying to play with the simple music I was hearing. I still had no idea which end was up, but I wanted to find out.

So I did.

At 15, I'd hop on the bus with drumsticks and books in tow and head downtown for a Saturday morning (I had to wake him up sometimes), lesson from the best teacher in Albuquerque, a jazz player transplanted from St. Louis with strong technique, an impeccable sense of rhythmic time, and wonderful musicality. He played the right thing at the right time and made it feel good for everyone playing with him. He enhanced the music through his musical sensibility. I wanted what he had with a vengeance.

Through high school I gigged with rock bands and what were then called dance bands. In one, I met Tom van der Geld. At the time he was a trumpet player. He was a couple of years older than me and loved jazz like I was growing to. Somewhere in college he switched cold turkey to playing vibraphone (an instrument most non-musicians call a xylophone or marimba because they look similar). At the University of New Mexico, we formed a jazz group and through a series of national collegiate jazz competitions, we both won scholarships to Berklee College of Music in Boston - he a full and I a partial. Off we went.

A few months after arriving in Boston, I met my future wife, Tricia and a few months later, through her, I met Jesus. One year later I was invited by James Ward to become a member of the first jazz-influenced Christian touring group. It's name was Elan. Before we hit the road we spent a summer rehearsing at Peniel Bible Conference in Lake Luzerne, NY. At summer's end, we played a "thank you" concert. In it, was some of the instrumental/improvisational music I had been writing.

After the concert a very distraught-looking young guy came up to me and wanted to know why we were playing such music, especially the highly rhythmic instrumental pieces. Did I not realize what rhythm did to people? He went on to explain he'd been to as seminar by a very popular Christian teacher at the time where he learned that highly-rhythmic music was designed to drive people to sexual activity. In fact, rhythm was the culprit. I have to admit I was almost speechless at hearing what he said. I'd never had anyone enlighten me of such a dreadful problem. While just a year-old believer I still knew his thinking was flawed and tried to gently help him recognize it. Not sure of the outcome from his side, but I don't think I won him over.

To his credit, his challenge forced me to examine and develop a theology of art. I'm still exploring. Because I am a drummer by nature and heart, I've done some thinking about why God gave drumming to the world.

1.  He created time, movement and sequence. One author said, "Time and rhythm are two elements that make up the very foundation of music itself. They are omnipresent and eternal elements that govern all movement in an orderly universe. Anything moving has rhythm. Oscillations, and waves have rhythm.  Movement is movement through time, however infinitesimal.

2. He created numbers which have their own rhythm when gathered in groups and sequences to be heard: 
123...123...12...12...123. Number orders rhythm. That's why musicians learn to count in order to know where they are and how to parse complex, multi-layered rhythms. Counting has rhythm. As soon as you go from 1 to 2, you've created a simple rhythm. Number also gives rhythmic sequences a contour and momentum over time. 

3. He created sound and the ability to hear it. Read this sentence aloud and there is a rhythm or cadence to it. We can distinguish the rhythms of language if we listen even a little. Poetry is like music in that regard. Word and sentence rhythm illuminate the hearing and meaning of a well-wrought poem. The words move the meaning by rhythmic sequence, however subtle. Or walk anywhere and you can hear a cacophony of rhythms from source upon source - all jumbling together in a constant flow of instants, but distinguished in pattern as we turn to notice and listen. We can pick out sequence and rhythmic shape. Our brains are hard-wired to catalog and reference them even before we give the sound a name.

The reality is there is no sound or music at all without rhythm. Musical notes are sound events oscillating at certain frequencies; the higher the note the faster the oscillations. In turn, there is no melody without rhythm because one note must move through time to get to the next one creating a sense of melodic shape. Rhythm moves musical notes into discernible patterns called phrases. Songs and larger melodic structures have many phrases all transported forward by rhythm.

4. God gave people the ability to sense rhythm and for most it is pleasant to do so. When people refer to a "beat" they're acknowledging an orderly rhythmic movement which can be felt in time. Musicians talk of "being in the groove." Drummers think about "staying in the pocket" or "keeping time." People tap their toes or get up and dance to rhythms which somatically move them. Moving to an infectious rhythm is invigorating and fun. Celebrations often include music with robust rhythmic pulses to get people in the mood for celebrating.

5. I think strong rhythms played by drummers are tied primarily to feeling. Drumming can create a somber atmosphere as when I, my son, Dan, and nephew, Jesse, played a slow funeral cadence on drums when my father's remains were taken out of the church to the cemetery while my daughter, Eslie, sang Be Thou My Vision. There was somber, respectful gravity in the air because of deep sounding low drums reminding us of our sadness and loss that day. 

Most often drummers enliven a joyous occasions spontaneously propelling people to their feet. It's commonly held among musicians that a bad drummer can deflate a band's energy and a great drummer can elevate or ignite it. Drummers create a sense of energy and excitement as they lock onto rhythms catalyzing people to move in sync with them, or at least to move. Drummers add a sense of power to dense musical structures and drama coinciding with passionate melodies or words.  They propel the music forward, giving it an unmistakable feeling of momentum and inevitability.

I think God created drummers because he likes watching passionate, dedicated players enhance the music with their ability to create interest and energy. He gave them the ability to serve the musicians and the music by creating and managing the orderly unfolding of musical ideas which move the heart and challenge the mind. Drummers invite people engage the kinetic energy of the music. Thus, they not only serve their musical cohorts, but the people gathered and listening so they might experience and feel something transcendent. 

God made drummers percussive animators of sound and sequence. He gave them the task of making the music dance and the heart leap. He gave them the calling to point people to joy and passion, the JOY and PASSION which STILL makes the universe leap to rhythms heard first in the place of their beginning by the One who said "Let there be rhythms for all the dances of life in the heavens and on the earth!" Drummers feel that original call in their hands and feet synchronized and flying, even if they don't know the God of the Big Dance or they play music dedicated to baser pursuits. You can see it in their passion. If the have heart and integrity in their work, you can see it.

These days I've come to think God made drummers to offer rhythm so others can fly, and sing and dance and shout. Go on YouTube and listen to the drummers who play with African bassist Richard Bona. Listen to congeros Giovanni Hidalgo or Poncho Sanchez, or drum kit virtuoso, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. Listen to Steve Gadd or Jeff Porcaro stay in the pocket. 

Oh yeah, and while you're at it, let our toes tap...It's good for the soul!
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