Companion material for introductory workshops relating to Mizhar (frame drum) from seminars in 2006.
The Hand that Whispers (J. Cagwin 2006)
In the last 12 years that I have been involved in the study of various hand drumming techniques from around the world, I have discovered a general rule that can be applied to not only musical instruments, but to the many aspects of life: simple principles beget a life long devotion to mastery. In the contemporary world, musical mastery often equates being a brilliant soloist or composer, regardless of the qualifications of musical genre. Some of my greatest heroes in the field of percussion were, in fact, brilliant soloists. KaraikuddiMani & Harishankar from the south of India, Zakir Hussein & Allah Rakka from North India, Mamaday Kieta from Guinea, Giovanni Hidalgo from Puerto Rico, Buddy Rich, Jack DeJohnette, Terry Bozzio, great American drum set soloists, and in the world of frame drums another American, Glen Velez, all widely recognised for their virtuosic solo abilities. In my earlier days as a percussion student, I had focused a great deal of my efforts into developing technique, which is of course, a necessary discipline for many years. In my adolescent years growing up in the Midwestern United States I was trained primarily in rudimental drum corps technique and classical Marimba and Timpani methods. In those days, growing up in Iowa, I had very little exposure to music outside of the “western” world. I had no idea, or even interest, that in India exists a centuries old system for rhythmic training and development, or that the West Africans are the masters of Polyrhythmic music. Oriental music to me consisted of strange plucked lutes, gongs, & flutes from the East Asian lands, Middle Eastern music conjured up images of deserts, camels, and belly dancers, and Latin Music was anything south of Texas that contained congas, bongos, & trumpets, In those days I believed that England was the greatest musical culture in the world, because from that land came the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. As the years have passed, I have spent a great deal of time refining my tastes and broadening my perceptions of the world. I graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I majored in percussion performance, primarily on drum set. To my good fortune in my second year I was exposed, for the first time, to Carnatic Music from South India. I was in a rudimental percussion ensemble class, and we were performing a South Indian percussion ensemble piece, orchestrated for western percussion ensemble. Before I had heard any of the original recordings, I noticed that the piece was quite rudimentally developed from a technical point, however the phrasing of the rhythms was unlike anything I had experienced previously in western writing. One of our assignments was to be able to recite the rhythms, using any phonetic syllables we chose. It was at that point that I heard the original recording of the piece with South Indian instruments, which contained the Mrdangam (double-sided barrel shaped drum), the Kanjira (small tambourine fitted with lizard skin), the Ghatam (clay pot), the Moorsing (Indian mouth harp), and one musician only performing with the voice, reciting the rhythmic Solkattu syllables, called Konnokol. Being a diligent student, I decided to learn these solkattu syllables, to better understand the musical relation to the rhythms. I also began playing the kanjira, which was the first of many frame drums that I would go on to study in the years following. The introduction of the South Indian system of rhythm was a gigantic catapult into a new musical life. The Indian system gave me the tools to train myself for any rhythmical situation, to understand rhythm logically and metrically. The more cultures and musical styles that I studied, I found that the frame drum could used in a great variety of situations. As I began to develop my vocabulary on different types of drums, I always found that I could use the solkattu methods that I had learned to internalise the rhythms, and I could practice without having to have an instrument if necessary. The rhythmic integrity would always be inside me; it was then only necessary to apply different variations of hand technique related to the style that I was playing. This became quite apparent when I began playing Arabic and Turkish music. I had played oriental music from the Middle & Near East while living in New York after school, but it was limited to folkloric groups or jazz formations. After I moved to Paris in 1999 two very important influences came upon me. The first would be my short, but very important friendship, with my Syrian Riqq and Mizhar teacher, Nabil Khaiat, and the second would be my residence in Turkey. Nabil came from Damascus, Syria, and had long been in the ensemble of the renowned Sufi singer SabahFahkri. He came from a musical family, but he was never a “schooled” musician. He had learned everything by playing from an early age in oriental and Sufi ensembles. He and I were working together in the band of Rabih Abou-Khalil at that time in 1999. He had been playing with Rabih for nearly 10 years at that point, and I had just joined the group to fill the drum set position. I had always admired Nabil’s soulful playing, as well as his incredibly sensitive sound, so I felt quite honoured to sit next to him on stage. We worked together for just over 2 years, on & off, and almost every moment with him remains clear in my memory. We didn’t converse so much; his English was quite broken and I did not speak any Arabic, so most our time together we spent playing. Nabil would never play anything that one might consider to be virtuosic. He had no desire for “flash” or technical complexity, in fact when I would watch him play it always seemed that his fingers were dancing together, rather than the typical image of fingers flying off the performers’ hand that is often the case with lightning fast players. He also never struck the drums hard to play accents or loud passages, instead it seemed as if the drum was speaking only by a simple command from his hand. But for me the most incredible thing was his ability to play extremely softly, while still holding the passion and integrity of the rhythm. He had an unbelievably sweet touch on the drum, and he could control every dynamical level of the instrument. One time I asked him directly about his technique for achieving such intensity at such a soft dynamic and his response was that he was not playing the drum as much as he was breathing the strokes, thus the drum was essentially breathing with him. This is more directly related to Sufi breathing techniques that were part of Nabil’s heritage, and I would later go on to study this art as well. As I became more and more fascinated with his way of playing he was eager to show me some of his personal techniques for voicing on the instrument, all of which could be related either to the breath or control of his diaphragm. The concept of controlling the diaphragm while playing was something entirely new for me, and as I started developing my own techniques I found that it immediately opened a new door of musical possibilities with the frame drum. It also proved quite important when I started playing Ottoman and Sufi music in Istanbul in 2001, the next defining influence in my development. From 2000 – 2001 was a period of intense travel for me. I was still based in Paris, but I was making frequent and lengthy trips to Morocco, West Africa, and Turkey. For a period of about 9 months I based myself around Istanbul, just for living and absorbing the cultural influence. During that period I was studying, as well as recording and performing with Turkish musicians in modern and classical Ottoman ensemble formations, and as well I had been playing with the Mevlevi (Whirling Dervish) musicians. The rhythmic structures in Sufi and Ottoman music are often in slow cycles of 5, 6, 7, or 10, and particularly with Sufi music much attention is directed towards tempo and emotional intensity.In addition to seeing a direct relationship of the breath to the rhythmic phrasing, I also became immediately more conscious of the turning of the drum. Turkish classical music has a very delicate and refined quality, and much of the artistry of the musicians is their ability to improvise around different makams, or modal structures. This approach can also be found in Indian music, where you have a certain tonic with several scale variations. Similarly in Turkish music, there is generally one fundamental tonic throughout one piece, and the art of the melody and improvisation is the scale variations dancing around this tonic. So, it became quite important to have my drums in very specific pitches with precise intonation. Often I would be playing very large Mizhars (Bendirs as they are called by the Turks) where I was responsible not only for the rhythmic cycle and interplay, but for the drone fundamental tonic as well. As my ears became more sensitive to the intonation of myself within the ensemble, it also forged a greater sense of unity within the ensemble, and in turn created much more rewarding musical experiences. As I started experimenting with different types of skin and rim designs, I also became more and more refined on my finger technique, as well as precise tuning and the creation of overtones and the harmonic sequence from the instrument. This is still an ongoing evolution for me, as I work with my instrument maker to create new innovations for drum designs and skin combinations. I have several variations of the same drums with different skin types and thickness, and different edges and rim sizes, all depending on which technique or musical style I am playing.
In the last years I have begun to look at the frame drum, specifically the Mizhar, in quite a different way. I have acquired many hand techniques which I can apply to the drum, ranging from Indian, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, North African, West African, Italian, and as well Rudimental and jazz drum set technique. What I find fascinating is that with all of the different techniques and styles of playing the drum, is that it is still just one skin wrapped around a wooden frame. To make the instrument truly speak, breathe, sing, cry, dance, laugh, and most importantly, to seduce only in whispers, is to me the true art of the Mizhar.