As I explained, the music of New Orleans came from very humble and poor beginnings. And the music reflects that. Especially the percussion section. Now, of course, I know I could go directly into talking about the drum set. But I prefer to talk about the world.
First, let’s go back in time and imagine those formidable singers coming from Africa, pouring their pains in the middle of oppressive New Orleans into hymns so filled with sorrow and despair they had to put a little light in it in order to soothe their souls. I am talking about the blues. What were their instruments, besides the voice? I can see guitars made from shoe boxes, flutes and wind instruments carved in woods. I can see discarded trumpets, trombones, some out of tune pianos even, everything that they ended up playing because nobody else wanted to. And, of course, for the percussionists, everything was an instrument. And I mean EVERYTHING! From hand clapping to tapping pots and pans, from stomping your feet to banging two spoons together. From carved woods (Drums) to wash boards. The percussionists, free from tradition but participating in the revolution, giving it its carpentry, its spine, discovered how to orchestrate a dinner bell or a pair of straight sticks, or even how to caress a goat skin with little brooms (who would become eventually brushes).
The world, with its infinite resources of bizarre sounds was theirs to explore. Our current drum set is an attempt to replicate the grand arsenal the forefathers of our modern drummers created. As a matter of fact, in its infancy, and until Gene Krupa came along, the drum set often included some wood blocks, cow bells (still does in many rock band!), broken cymbals and almost dead sounding drums.
I saw in New Orleans, in 2017, just right at the corner of two shabby streets, three musicians lazily playing the blues. The drummer, a blond young lady leaning against the wall had a washboard with one bell on top, and one on the bottom and two thimbles on her left hand. She followed the music in style and with dynamics leading the tempo in a simple and straightforward way. Nothing complicated, nothing really technical. So easy… So simple…
We are about to fall into a trap.
Our brain, at least our drummer’s brain starts to think: “Look! There’s nothing to it! I can do that. Give me anything and I’ll accompany that guitarist and create music!” That’s the trap! Because this lady who plays seemingly without thinking about it, is creating magic not because she knows technique but because she understands and feels music. She has a strong command of how to project the style of the song, what would be needed to support it without crowding it. She also gets where the different waves of energy are placed, when to gain momentum and when to hold back. But, more than anything else, she is relaxed. Not a tense muscle in her body. She is flowing and tranquil like a slow river under a summer sun. And the music breathes and blossoms and rise and takes you and gives your dreams all the space it needs and, without even realizing it, you are giving up your worries and strife to be sheltered in her world.
Yes, drummers of New Orleans played all sort of weird and surprising artifacts (can we call some of those instruments anything but “Artifacts”?). Many of them probably went through garbage to build their collection of sounds. And so? So they still manage in the process to give the music its back bone as well as its fire, in one word, its purpose and its nobility.
I am very proud to make a modest contribution into that magic world.