Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Percussion Universe

I just got back from a long weekend with Warren in Indianapolis. We were there for the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC). After all, I do live in the percussion section.

This was not my first time at PASIC. I attended the 2007 convention in Columbus, Ohio, so I was not a total neophyte at this. All the same, I was once again just blown away by what it means to immerse yourself in a world of percussion.

A world of percussion? Try something bigger, much bigger. A galaxy? A universe? Yeah, that's more like it. It is a Percussion Universe out there and I just spent two and a half days in the center of it.

There are some things you should know in case you ever are in Percussion Universe:
  • Lots of performers in Percussion Universe wear black. Despite this, Percussion Universe is not a somber or grim place. All the same, if it were up to me, I'd throw some color into the mix. What about a little fuchsia or turquoise every now and then?
  • Five gallon buckets (empty) dipped into water and then emptied out are percussion instruments.
  • It is not unusual in Percussion Universe to see the denizens walk by carrying a drum cradled in their arms as gently as you would carry a child. On a return trip, they might be guiding a marimba in the same manner one would coax a balky horse.
  • You may come upon a group of older men standing outside talking, carrying what look like from a distance to be purses of various colors and styles. Only when you are closer do you realize they are holding tambourine bags.
In Percussion Universe, the drumming never stops. You cannot go anywhere without tripping over someone drumming, hearing someone drumming, or seeing someone carrying something that could be drummed upon. At any time day or night, you find percussionists, regardless of age, gender, or nationality, tapping out rhythms with their fingers, their feet, their hands, the mallets or sticks in their back pocket, or any other object that can strike a surface, be it a wall, a tabletop, a floor, or a leg - theirs or that of a buddy.

I arrived in Percussion Universe tired and out of sorts. We'd been up way too late the night before and had left early Thursday morning to get there. I was disoriented in the large convention center.

But that mood didn't last long. The joy of Percussion Universe is infectious. There are too many notes, too many beats, too many rhythms, too many shiny things, and too many goofy things to see and do to stay grumpy for long.

To enter the Exhibit Hall at PASIC was to plunge into the heart of Percussion Universe. In the front of the hall were publishers and schools and makers of the quieter instruments like marimbas. The back area contained the drum sets, the timpani, the cymbals, and everything else that was loud. In between the two was a buffer zone, curtained off, that contained dead space.

You need a buffer zone in Percussion Universe because percussionists need buffered. Think of the buffer zone as a DMZ between loud and LOUD.

In Percussion Universe, all that glitters is not gold. The hottest colors and metals are brass, bronze, and copper. Everywhere I turned, there was another stack of shiny cymbals or triangles to run my fingers over. Everywhere were percussionists touching, drumming, tapping a bar, a marimba, a triangle, a cymbal, just for the sound of it.

It is glittery eye candy. It is stunning ear candy.

The big question in Percussion Universe is "what does it sound like?" And that question is answerable in infinite ways ranging from tone to rhythm. I know, because I walked more than once through the Exhibit Hall with Warren, who did a fair amount of tapping, rapping, and drumming himself. The PASIC staff kept making announcements to hold any playing to a mezzo forte level and no louder for no more than 20 seconds. For the most part, people did that. But with 100 or 200 percussionists all playing different instruments at the same time, the phrase "mezzo forte" didn't mean a thing.

I saw some amazing performances that I am still carrying in my head and ears. One was a gamelan ensemble from University of Illinois. A gamelan is an assemblage of Balinese percussion instruments that are treated as one instrument for playing purposes, being built and tuned to stay together as one unit. Some of the pieces are mounted metal bars (like a xylophone) which the players strike with metal hammers. The musical effect is wonderfully like a merry-go-round band organ. One of the players, a young Balinese woman who had danced the first piece with three others, wore her elaborate golden headdress while she played. She looked like the Queen of Percussion Universe as she concentrated on her striking.

There were so many groups that just floored me (and everyone else listening to them). Ju Percussion from Taipei performed pounding rhythms, classical Chinese opera complete with two singers in traditional operatic costume (elaborately brocaded) and makeup, and incredible keyboard work that brought us all to our feet for a lengthy standing ovation. There was the high school quartet, Badaboum, which won an audition to be a showcased ensemble and came all the way from France to play at PASIC. Saturday night, the amazing Tommy Igoe and his jazz band performed. They were joined by Rolando Morales-Matos, who has the fastest hands I have ever seen and who just happens to be a brother of our Symphony's conductor. Again, we - all of us in Percussion Universe - were on our feet at the end.

My favorite group was the Louisville Leopards Percussionists, a group of about 65 children ages 7 to 12, who learn the happiness of making music through learning to play jazz percussion. We heard two different ensembles: the beginners (who had started just three months ago) and the older students, who have been in the group for anywhere from a year to several years. Never mind how cute the group was (how can you not melt watching a little boy play bongos when his eyes barely clear the level of the drums?), these kids were musicians. As they played, they filled the room with joy and rhythm.

Soon after the performance, the youngest Leopards exited single file. Adults lined up on either side and applauded and cheered them down the hall. Later on, I saw many of them in the Exhibit Hall, all wearing their telltale orange shirts, weaving in and out of exhibits, playing different instruments. A couple of the Leopards had purchased drum sticks and were doing what any other percussionist would do - drum on the table, the backs of chairs, their legs, or a nearby buddy's back - just to see what it sounded like.

By the end of PASIC, Percussion Universe had infused entire city blocks in downtown Indianapolis. Everywhere you went were people walking around with sticks in hand, tapping, or their fingers drumming on a sign pole while waiting for the light to change. At Rhythm Discovery Center, the soon to open percussion museum of the Percussive Arts Society, I heard someone taking a masterful turn on a cajon drum, which is very much like a large box you sit on and thump with your hands. Turning the corner, I found one of the museum guards just getting up from it, grinning. And in what was surely the epitome of PASIC and a badge of being a true citizen of Percussion Universe, one of the college age attendees set up shop on a street corner with his steel pan drum, an open case in front of him, busking for fun and a few bucks.

We have been home for a couple of days now. Our living room still contains the detritus of our trip. There are brochures and cymbal mounts and programs on one chair. There is a large tuned cowbell on the couch. As I type these words, I hear again the sounds of tambourines and bongos, and see again the faces of the Louisville Leopards as they showed a whole room of adults what it was all about. It was all about the rhythms, all about the beat, and all about the sheer energy and joy of making music.

It was all about being in Percussion Universe.

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