By the Landlord
Percussion, taken from the Latin percussio, means to beat or strike, though not necessarily in a violent way. But in another dictionary it is defined as “the collision of two bodies to create a sound”, which instantly strikes my mind in a variety of contexts: sticks on rocks, boxers beating the shit out each other, planets smashing into other planets to create galaxies, molecules colliding to divide and create, and a rather naughty mental image possibly too rude even to write in the bawdier booths of Song Bar.
So do you know your idiophones from your membranophones? Basically the former vibrate within themselves without strings or membranes, such as a bell, but the later have a skin that makes a sound - in other words - drums. Concussion idiophones, or clappers, are played in pairs and beaten against each other, such as zills and clapsticks. Even these words have a rhythm all their own, but what we’re looking for this week are songs where the percussive element, whatever instrument involved, plays a prominent or unusual role, marking the work stand out because of it. It doesn’t have to fast, or flashy, but it has to be different or original in some way.
But is big and flashy best? Terry Bozzio, who played with Frank Zappa and many more, has one of the biggest kits around. He explains: “Well it really isn’t about being big or getting attention.” He claims his kit is more about reaching a variety of “notes and pitches”. Well, yes of course percussion also has a variety of notes. But also, of course it’s about getting attention, you big Bozzio show-off! Check out how long it takes to build this monster up.
When I was around 10 years old I always thought Rainbow and Sabbath’s Cozy Powell was the best drummer. He wasn’t exactly shy when it came to rocking out the big solos. Then I discovered Keith Moon, and then the great John Bonham settled in as my all-time favourite rock drummer. But as tastes mature you later you realise you don’t have to fill every space with a beat. Percussion doesn’t have to be loud and brash, it can be subtle in its brilliance.
Marvin Gaye, for example, was a superb, understated drummer, creating the backbone of soul music, its heartbeat, almost indiscernibly. Meanwhile another singer, but not a drummer, known perhaps more for her massive voice and elemental ideas, has a starting point and primal instinct always with rhythm - the rhythms of the natural world. And here she comes now. It’s Bjork strolling into the Song Bar after a long perambulation, ideas flooding out of her like a volcano waiting to explode. What’s on your mind? “There’s something about the rhythm of walking, how, after about an hour and a half, the mind and body can't help getting in sync,” she says, and then goes again out into the wilderness.
One of Bjork’s biggest musical influences is the remarkable percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who was profoundly deaf since the age of 12, but says she “feels rhythm”. A true virtuoso performer, she played on Bjork’s Transformer album, duetting on the song My Spine. Here she is showing us a new side to Vivaldi:
Percussion is a lot harder than it looks. One of the most extraordinary musical feats I have witnessed was years ago, seeing a drummer show students his basic skills. He asked four small groups to carefully watch and count his left foot, right foot, left hand and right hand separately beat out four beats to the bar, five beats, six and seven beats to the bar, all limbs working independently, as if he had four brains working at once.
Yet perhaps the greatest drummer of all time in many people’s estimation is Buddy Rich. Self-taught, he described himself as a “knife and fork drummer” and was a jazz great among jazz greats. He was able to slip with ease between explosive and quieter moments:
Talking of explosive, here is an excerpt from the terrific film Whiplash, where an angry pupil battles with his psychopathic teacher. Who has the upper hand in this section?
Over to India now, a country of infinite styles, intricate tabla finger-techniques and a continent of instruments. Let’s get a taste of master drummer of Rajasthan Nathulal Solanki - his rhythms sound like the chatter of conversation:
Percussionist don’t have to perform on their own. Sometimes its good to double up. James Brown sometimes used several drummers at once. So did Adam Ant with the Ants, but let’s take a look at a more recent example, one of best live bands I’ve seen in the last year, California’s Thee Oh Sees. They have a fearsome frontman in the form of John Dwyer, but check out the two drummers sitting at the front, playing fast and in complete synchronicity:
Taking the mass percussion theme to the max, let’s next get in step with this Swiss military drum line, an exhibition of extraordinary group timing:
Percussion, as with all things human, began in Africa. This mixture of footage and sounds claims to show some of the earliest known footage of African drumming from 1930s footage. It is certainly an exquisite beat:
But who needs drums, or any other kind of percussive instrument? Water drumming from the Banks Islands, Vanuatu makes a very musical splash:
Does percussion have to be brilliant to be outstanding? Some may argue that it was Meg White’s limitations as a drummer that helped form the White Stripe’s powerful sound, so let's think not only globally but also laterally about this topic. Remember also that other instruments, including piano and guitar can be used solely as percussive instruments, so perhaps who might also want to cite examples.
So from castanets to cabanas, vibraslaps to xylophones, put forward your outstanding percussive songs in comments below. This week’s king of rhythm is Ravi Raman, who will no doubt display masterly timing and hit on the perfect playlist next Wednesday. The bell will ring for nominations on Monday. Time to beat it? Almost, but first, one of my favourite new-found clips. And remember, as Song Bar, we always like to have a bit more cowbell:
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