They are the first to admit they play garbage. They bang trash cans and hubcaps. They brush rhythms across the stage with brooms. They do a thundering tap dance with oil drums strapped to their boots, and create quirky shuffles with Zippo lighters, rattling matchboxes and plastic bags. They play everything including the kitchen sink (worn like a snare drum in a marching band). Stomp has become a household name by beating household objects. With its ingenious mix of mime, dance and slapstick percussion, it has grown from a fringe troupe of British buskers into a hugely successful franchise. It has made TV commercials for Coca-Cola and Heineken. And it has toured some 50 North American cities, including Vancouver and Toronto, where it has packed the 1,500-seat Elgin Theatre for three months and grossed more than $4 million. Another Stomp company has been playing New York City since 1994, and a third troupe is touring South America. Theatre without words and music without instruments, Stomp has tapped into the simple but universal appeal of beating on things. As Fiona Wilkes, one of the original British cast members, points out: "Rhythm is the language of the world - there's nothing to understand."
But Stomp is just the most visible example of a much broader phenomenon: the boom, so to speak, in percussion. The evidence is everywhere - from the lone street musician beating a goatskin beside an office tower to the carnival of drummers who ushered in the Olympic Games last week with a percussive extravaganza. Each Sunday in Montreal, a large throng gathers at the base of Mount Royal for a massive drumming jam - smaller-scale jams occur each weekend in Vancouver and Toronto parks. And last week, during Newfoundland's biennial Sound Symposium, Guinea-born drummer Alpha Yaya Diallo and his group had the narrows of St. John's harbor echoing with African rhythm.
In a wired world, where communication has been reduced to the nibbling cadence of the computer keyboard, there is a spirited revival of drum culture - the original Internet. Among North American native people, drum groups are proliferating. And, while rekindling a sacred tradition, they are also reaching a global audience - next month members of the Toronto-based First Nations Drum and Dance Troupe will be performing in Cologne, Germany.
The community drum circle, meanwhile, has become the Nineties answer to the Sixties happening. And its devotees range from New Age healers to executives trying to beat some harmony into the ranks of major corporations. "You're seeing a grassroots phenomenon," Mickey Hart, former drummer for the Grateful Dead, told Maclean's last week. "Non-musicians are taking up drums for fun, but also for power - to contact their inner selves." Hart has championed world percussion with such CD compilations as Planet Drum and helped compose the piece for the Olympics in Atlanta. He also founded Rhythm for Life, an organization of music therapists who use drumming as an alternative therapy for various ailments, including Alzheimer's disease. "Rhythm," says Hart, "is the one common denominator we have. We're rhythm animals."
In music stores, drum departments are now stacked with exotic hand drums - East Indian tablas, African djembes, talking drums, Turkish darabukkas, caribou frame drums. Over the past decade, sales of such instruments have increased fourfold, says retailer Doug Sole, who recently left his job at a Toronto drum shop to set up a competing store called Soul Drums. Sole's clients are not just musicians. They are therapists, men's movement gurus, women's groups and even corporate movers and shakers - recently Sole animated a drum circle of about 20 Scotiabank branch managers in a Toronto hotel as part of a leadership training program.
In California, which always seems a beat or two ahead of the herd, corporate drum therapy is all the rage. Last week in Santa Cruz, 6,000 employees of Silicon Graphics, a computer firm, gathered in an amphitheatre to beat on plastic tubes called boom-whackers. Conducting the session was Arthur Hull, a 50-year-old Californian who calls himself "a rhythm evangelist." Hull's roster of corporate clients ranges from Apple Computer to Levi Strauss. "My corporate work is what the media usually grabs onto - hey, there's a guy working with suits," he says. "But I also work with communities, schools, kids at risk. And gangs. I did a Drums Not Guns program in Dallas." Adds Hull: "A lot of people believe that they're rhythm dorks, that they're rhythmically challenged. But in a drum circle you don't need expertise. The bottom line is the spirit."
While the electric guitar launched the Sixties revolution, the drum has since moved to the fore and become a talisman for a new Beat Generation. Jamaican reggae first shifted the compass to Africa in the 1970s. Then, rock stars such as David Byrne, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon helped turn the West onto what would be labelled world music. Now, in the global village of the Nineties, the migration of rhythm knows no bounds.
Appearing at next month's Edmonton Folk Festival, for example, is Takadja, a Montreal group that plays authentic West African music and won this year's Juno for best global music album. Its six members include Canadian and African-born musicians, black and white, male and female - and they are led by a white drummer, Francine Martel, a Quebec woman who studied for years with a drum master in the Ivory Coast.
But while some musicians go out of their way to render traditional drum cultures intact, others treat the world as their mixing board to concoct cyber-rhythms. Nightclubs are vibrating to hybrid strains of industrial music called "trip hop" and "jungle," dance beats dense with uprooted African and Latin rhythms. "Drums are like guitars used to be," says Toronto drummer and record producer Billy Bryans. "Everyone can play them a little bit. And now with the rise of drum machines and digital samplers, any 14-year-old kid can play a Latin or African rhythm without being a master."
While it is true that anyone can beat a drum, or clone a riff, percussion still has its virtuosos. And five of them - Bob Becker, William Cahn, Robin Engelman, Russell Hartenerger and John Wyre - make up the internationally acclaimed Toronto ensemble called Nexus, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. All are classically trained musicians who have served as soloists with major symphony orchestras. But Nexus was exploring world music before the term was coined. And its repertoire spans African drumming, Indian tabla, ragtime xylophone and collaborations with such contemporary composers as John Cage and Toru Takemitsu.
Touring the world, Nexus has served as a kind of rhythm switchboard, inspiring the formation of similar groups in cities as far-flung as Budapest and São Paulo. "What Nexus has done," says Salvador Ferreras, a prominent Vancouver percussionist, "is spawn a brand new generation of percussionists that very comfortably walks the line between classical and world music."
At a silver anniversary concert in Toronto, Nexus has modestly surrendered the spotlight to seven guest artists. On one end of the stage, Trichy Sankaran, who teaches Indian music at Toronto's York University, plays a skin tambourine. With lightning speed, his fingers construct rhythms of brain-teasing intricacy, filigree patterns that ascend into celestial abstraction. Across the stage, Abraham Adzenyah, a master drummer from Ghana who teaches at Connecticut's Wesleyan University, attacks a giant drum with an accelerating, but ever-simplifying, pulse that seems to flow right out of the earth. Between them, Nexus plays along, looking as pleased as monks who have struck a time-share deal on nirvana.
After the gig, John Wyre retreats to his house in the woods, about 150 km north of Toronto. The midsection of the house is circular, like a drum - a white geodesic dome filled with hundreds of percussion instruments from around the world. Like his fellow Nexus members, Wyre grew up in the United States. As a child in Philadelphia, he recalls, "I was a tapper. I got in trouble at school for taking the bobby pins out of the girl's hair in front of me and plucking them. I'd throw a ruler on the edge of the desk to get a bass line."
Wyre, who went from rock bands to music school to orchestra work, met his future Nexus colleagues on the symphony circuit. They ended up in Toronto, he says, partly because it was "a tolerant environment for a gathering of different cultures." Nexus began as an improvisational ensemble. "We didn't think about what we were doing. We just allowed ourselves to follow the music. It taught us to listen."
As world music chairman for the international Percussive Arts Society, Wyre is one of percussion's elders. But he displays no snobbery towards the drum-circle fad. "Nexus is a drum circle in a sense," he says. "We've been doing this all our lives. But the 40-year-old executive who is fired or splits up with his wife and ends up in one of Robert Bly's drum circles is simply trying to find himself. And that's great."
Bly, the American men's movement guru, has embraced drumming as a way to recover lost manhood. In most traditional African and native cultures, drums have been played exclusively by men. But now women are breaking that taboo. And gender certainly does not stop Takadja's Francine Martel from conjuring a thunderous range of tones from her African djembe. "It's a bit like a martial art," she explains. "I'm physically small, but my drum master taught me the right technique. I've learned to play from my elbows down."
For some women, drumming serves as a source of empowerment. Helen Zador, a former Bell Canada manager in Toronto, was referred to drum teacher Doug Sole by her therapist Gary Diggins four years ago. Drumming, she says, helped her recover from a history of abuse, which includes a violent gang rape in her 20s. "At first just looking at the drums aroused a fear," Zador recalls. "They're phallic in shape, especially the African drums, and the sound is primal, deep in your body." Her first attempts to play reduced her to tears. "When I started drumming, I felt traumatized. It would bring back body memories." But confronting her fear helped her overcome it. Now, she works as a massage therapist - at a massage table surrounded by percussion instruments.
Whether through therapy or music, drums are circling back to one of their traditional roles - as medicine. For native peoples, the drum has a sacred healing power and must be treated with reverence. Jerry Alfred, a Tutchone Indian, leads a Yukon band called The Medicine Beat, which won this year's Juno for best aboriginal recording. The group has no drum kit. Replacing the foot-pedal thump of a standard bass drum is the soft-stroked beat of a frame drum, handmade from goat and maple. "It represents the heartbeat," says Alfred. "The drum is alive. You have to respect it and treat it like a person."
But some drums are more sacred than others. Toronto percussion dervish Graeme Kirkland spent a recent evening drumming on two plastic tubs and a metal can in the street. Kirkland is a respected studio drummer, "but I still love to play buckets," he says. "It's more intense." Like Stomp, he raises spirits from recycled junk, the dead skin shed by technology. In a similar vein, a Toronto troupe called The Subtonic Monks has built a percussion "cycle" - a rainbow-painted jungle gym of wrought iron festooned with pots, tubs, bicycle-fork chimes and makeshift drums. Towed by a unicycle, the contraption can be played by anyone who gets the urge. On a recent Sunday, a crowd of kids swarmed over it and banged merrily away as the Monks paraded through a Toronto housing project. "It's Stomp meets Dr. Seuss," says Monks leader Peter Jarvis. "In Africa, they make instruments from gourds, hollow things lying around. In our culture the things lying around happen to be Evian bottles, carpet spools and sewer pipes."
But the bottom line remains the same: if it looks like a drum, beat it.
Maclean's July 29, 1996