The oldest musical instrument known to mankind is believed to be the human voice. Some of the percussion instruments come a close second. The percussion instruments generate sound when struck, rubbed by hand or hit against a similar instrument.
Percussion instruments are either pitched or unpitched. The former ones produce notes with an identifiable pitch while the latter produces sound with an unidentifiable pitch. The percussion instruments form the backbone of the orchestra or an ensemble.
In our new segment ‘The League of Extraordinary Percussionists’, we shall interact with some of the leading percussionists from across the world. The first percussionist to be featured in this segment is Los Angeles based drummer Greg Ellis.
From trumpet to drums
Greg started playing trumpet in his school band at the age of 9. Through his high school he was a part of the symphonic band. It was at a concert for the great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillepsie that Greg was heavily influenced by the drummer. He became transfixed by the way he played and moved around the kit and how he was leading the groove.
“I convinced my mom to get me a used cheap drum set. I would listen to my favourite rock and roll records and figured out how to play along. Drums became my obsession. Each song was like an equation to figure out,” recalled Greg.
After moving to Los Angeles, Greg began working in clubs and recording demos. He got his first professional tour with a band on A&M Records and began his career as a touring and session drummer.
On a tour with a rock band, Greg was given a copy of ‘Drumming at the Edge of Magic’ by Mickey Hart, the drummer from The Grateful Dead. The book details the role of rhythm throughout history and how drums helped shape culture. The book inspired him and he started listening to music from all around the world. He began acquiring drums from India, Turkey, Iran, Africa and Indonesia.
“I started composing music with only percussion instruments and began developing my own technique to be used in the multi-drum live set up I use today. I play the cajon, darbuka, frame drum, djembe and udu all as one instrument, like a drum set,” quipped Greg.
The influence of nature
It is not just music and musicians who have influenced him, the natural sounds have had a profound impact on him. There is an aspect to drumming that allows the exponent to almost disappear into trance when in middle of a groove. It is much like the feeling of being in nature.
“Any musician or listener that closes their eyes in their musical experience is experiencing a form of prayer. Where the sound becomes so personal you need to shut out all external visual distraction and just go inside of your own experience. It can be very much like an altered state. Rhythm is an incredible transmitter of pure emotion,” feels Greg.
It has been known that the whole universe is filled with frequency and vibration. Music and more specifically, rhythm, just translates it all into something we can dance to.
Being a self-taught drummer, Greg faces more technical limitations. Greg used to memorise rhythms thinking of them as songs. The drum set was not created as a solo instrument. It was created so one drummer could do the job of three.
“When I play percussion, I still think of the drum set in my head so the groove is there but then I have all these tonal sounds to play with as well. I really enjoy playing with dynamics. For instance playing really fast but very quietly. It makes the audience listen deeper when you are able to play quietly yet keep the intensity of the rhythm. It is something very difficult to do on drum set or playing with sticks. This aspect of tone and dynamics is what I love about percussion,” asserted Greg.
Making percussion instruments out of anything
Despite being acclaimed globally, his family has a tough time at home. While cooking at home, Greg has played on every utensil in the kitchen leading to yells from his wife and daughter. When outside he tries to produce sound from the branches of fallen trees, water splashing on rocks, crunching dried leaves or just playing on the ground.
His prized possession is a Dumru and Kangling from Tibet. The Dumru is made of two human skull caps and the Kangling is a horn made out of a human leg bone. They are beautiful instruments ordained with silver and copper and intricate engravings which Greg has possessed for many years but has never played them on recordings or in performance.
“These are ritual instruments in Tibetan Buddhism and there is nothing morbid or grotesque about it. I think they remind of the ephemeral nature of all things,” said a philosophical Greg.
Greg has performed with Indian tabla virtuosos Ustad Zakir Hussain, Bickram Ghosh, legendary Indian singer Laxshmi Shankar among others. He has been touring India regularly since the late 1990’s. He will be in Mumbai to conduct a ‘MasterClass’ along with Bickram Ghosh at the ‘All About Music’ conference on the 27th and 28 of August.
Bickram and Greg will dwell on aspects like the power and energy that live musicians, especially drummers, bring to any production whether it be film, T.V. or recordings. They will also cover the best ways they experienced of how to incorporate live percussion with the electronic pulses and sound design in films and T.V today.
“Most importantly I want to share ways of how to not fall into the trap of technology and limiting our creativity rather than expanding it,” asserted Greg.
Being averse to technology
The percussion maestro is not in awe of the technology used nowadays in music. He agrees that music is now dependent on technology but feels that now you do not even have to be a musician to create music.
“The real loss is the nuance and feel of real instruments and musicians. It is not the same in other arts. We are also witnessing some of the most technically incredible musicians today able to post solos and playing along to cover tracks. I see musicians evolving but not music. Every drummer should remember what the ultimate role of drummers and rhythm are; and that is to be the heartbeat of the music, creating the pulse that connects us and moves us,” said Greg.
He signed off saying,
“I feel it is one of the saddest casualties of modern music that we are dancing more often to a machine than a live drummer.”