The following interview/conversation (?) was done via several emails
and phone calls over a few weeks after answering many questions about
my hybrid set up EL MONSTRO
which has taken on a life of it's own............
THANKS to Aureliano for allowing me to post.
"I play the silence a lot..."
WHAT IS EL MONSTRO?
EL MONSTRO is a hybrid kit using hand, finger and stick percussion and sometimes electronics.
HOW DID THIS PARTICULAR CONFIGURATION OF INSTRUMENTS COME ABOUT?
That particular photo features North Indian tabla, kanjira, riq, darbuka, mbwata,
a bongo cajon, indigenous instruments of Mexico, e.g., ayacaxtli, atecocolli, tetl, gongs,
PAISTE cymbals and a MIDI trigger played with my right foot and/or my hands but El Monstro actually changes depending on the musical situation, sometimes there are no acoustic instruments other than PAISTE cymbals and a snare drum.
WHAT ARE YOU TRIGGERING?
Usually lower frequency sounds, like a clay drum or a djembe, darbuka or a bayan
as a bass drum sound .(Bayan = the low drum of the North Indian tabla set)
WHAT ABOUT THE HIGH HAT?
They are PAISTE 10" highhats that I either play with my fingers, sticks or mallets.
I also have a 16" Sound Creation Flat ride, (PROTO TYPE) a 16" China, below that with a 14" Crash above that are on my right hand side. On my left side I have an 18" and some splash cymbals, all are PAISTE.
ARE THEY DESIGNED TO BE PLAYED BY THE HANDS ALONE?
No, but they are very responsive to fingers, sticks or mallets.
IS THE HIGH HAT FOOT OPERATED?
No, it is closed.
WHAT IS AN MBWATA?
It is an LP clay drum from the UDU family, they actually make several different
shapes and sizes. After playing on all of them for a few hours I found this particular
drum to be what I needed in regards to pitch and timbre.
HOW DO YOU GET THAT SHAKER AND/OR TAMBOURINE SOUND?
IS THAT ELECTRONIC?
No, it is an actual shaker that I hold between by toes that I can swap out depending on the composition. Sometimes I play 8th notes, sometimes 1/4 notes, sometimes dotted quarters
or dotted eighths, i.e., it depends on what is happening at the time.
HOW DO YOU HOLD A SHAKER BETWEEN YOUR TOES?
Actually it was designed by Terry Bozzio for DW I think, it goes over a bass drum beater shaft and you can switch them out. It is threaded to hold different types of sonic devices, I use either a miniature shaker or a tambourine.
WHY DON'T YOU USE A BASS DRUM PEDAL?
It is one more thing to pack up and fly with and adds more weight that I don't need to be schlepping around.
Sometimes I will request a bass drum pedal as part of the backline depending on the musical situation, but if
I can hold it between my toes.........
AND YOU WOULD ALSO HAVE TO PLAY SITTING ON A CHAIR?
With a double bass drum pedal you can still play a bass drum over to your right while still sitting on the floor and playing hand drums. Highhat would be a little more difficult since I am down to 3 limbs and usually play the MIDI pedal with my right foot.
WHY A MIDI TRIGGER IF YOU ARE PLAYING ACOUSTIC MUSIC?
Originally I was not utilizing any MIDI/electronic devices but some music requires a bass drum sound - like CONTINUUM,
MA and MORE MUZIC
MANRING GARCIA DUO
definitely do not require a bass drum sound
To play a real bass drum in real time means another 2 things to carry around with me or backline
- a bass drum and a pedal but with the MIDI availability I can access different timbres and pitches
in real time which is a big plus, the ongoing struggle is getting it to blend with the acoustic instruments, hopefully where you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins.
WHAT SOUNDS ARE YOU TRIGGERING?
Right now I am revamping what I trigger for touring, but when I am home, in Los Angeles,
I trigger ROLAND sounds.
WHY SO MANY DIFFERENT INSTRUMENTS?
Actually I love the colour of sound and changing it according to what is happening musically at the moment. I now have wood, gourd, skin, clay and metal(s) and voice and access to MIDI instruments and samples.
HATE TO ASK YOU BUT WHAT KIND OF DRUM STICKS DO YOU USE,
THEY SEEM VERY THIN?
Actually they are not drumsticks, they are Wok cooking sticks.
The first time I saw someone using these as sticks was percussionist Brad Dutz, and when
I started playing with acoustic guitarist Alex de Grassi and Michael Manring, regular drumsticks were too heavy and chopsticks were not long enough. Alex plays with a microphone,
he doesn't plug in to an amplifier. So he is very acoustic and if you keep on amplifying an acoustic instrument you might as well plug in an electric guitar, which is something we don't do in that ensemble (DEMANIA*). It also allows me to play without over powering the sound of the acoustic guitar and the volume blends well with the tabla, when I was using regular drum sticks they had to turn the tabla MIC up, which got us further and further away from being an acoustic ensemble.
*The De Man Ia trio is no more,
but Christopher and Michael continue to perform
with either Miroslav Tadic on acoustic guitar,
with Jie Ma on pipa
DOESN'T MICHAEL MANRING PLAY ELECTRIC BASS?
Yes, very much so, but he is an anomaly, isn't he?
Michael should be called 'EL MONSTRO" .
I remember Chick Corea saying that when he plays solo piano that he has a dynamic range of 0 to 10, but that as soon as he played with a drum set player, his dynamic range went from 6 to 10 and all of his quiet stuff became non-existent. He said that most of the drummers he played with could not burn at a lower volume and still be ferocious. The only exceptions that he specifically mentioned at that time were drummers Barry Altschul, from the group CIRCLE and Maestro Roy Haynes. When playing with an acoustic guitar the dynamic level goes from - 3 to + 6 since there is no snare drum and/or bass drum being played louder than that.
WHY DO YOU PLAY CYMBAL AND TABLA AT THE SAME TIME?
It just makes sense, sometimes the music we are playing is harmonic, sometime melodic.
So if there is a lot of harmonic movement going on then I usually play a cymbal with
my right and/or left hand and bayan so the pitch of the tabla/dayan drum does not
conflict with the harmony and/or pedal being used or a less resonant instrument like
the bongo cajon.
But every drum whether it is tuned to a specific pitch or not has a pitch.
DOES THE PITCH OF THE LOW DRUM INTERFERE WITH WHAT THE BASS IS DOING?
It can. With North Indian tabla you are either playing resonant or non - resonant strokes/tones. So I usually don't play "one" if I am working with an electric bassist, but I do when I am playing with cello, since it is not as low as a bass, and there is usually, no pitch conflict, since I sit below him frequency wise, but I can also play "one" with a closed non-resonant stroke for additional percussive effect.
WHY DO YOU DIFFERENTIATE TABLA FROM NORTH INDIAN TABLA?
I was recently asked to play tabla for a concert. I showed up with my instruments and they wanted a tablah, i.e., a darbuka or a dumbek, which are called tablah in their respective countries, they did not want North Indian tabla.
WHAT DID YOU DO?
I played my darbuka and put my tabla away.
WHAT KIND OF RHYTHMS ARE YOU PLAYING ON THE CYMBALS,
SOMETIMES THEY SEEM "NORMAL" AND OTHER TIMES?
I am incorporating hand and/or finger rhythms on the cymbals instead of the traditional patterns associated with cymbal playing in jazz and/or rock contexts, e.g., straight 8ths, swung 8th's etc. When playing hand or finger type patterns on the cymbals the rhythms are part of a larger rhythm instead of an ongoing rhythm with accents with and against it.
CAN YOU ELABORATE MORE ON THIS?
Usually when you are playing a drum set groove, a cymbal and/or high hat pattern is repetitive, straight or swung 8th's, 16th's etc, in rock the hands tend to line up with the feet, in jazz there is more independence between the hands and feet, the cymbal or high hat pattern can be repetitive or less repetitive, but it is basically one rhythm playing against another. When playing tabla the hands usually work together to play 1 rhythm, i.e., you usually do not have 1 hand playing a straight repetitive figure, e.g., straight 8th's, and the other playing against it though it might appear that way when playing certain types of cycles.
WHY DO YOU SIT ON THE FLOOR INSTEAD OF ON A CHAIR?
In order to sit on a chair I would have to schlep stands to elevate everything, by sitting on the floor I alleviate that problem, and I usually, never run out of floor. I also bring a small rug to put my instruments on.
IS THAT UNCOMFORTABLE?
No. The only thing that is uncomfortable is being relegated to 3 limbs instead of 4 like a drummer, which is my first instrument. You are able to cover a lot of ground with 3 limbs sonically and rhythmically. The only sonic issue I have with this set up is going from fingers or hands to sticks and vice versa, when DEMANIA recorded we did so in real time, so whenever I put sticks down or picked them up I had to be really careful
to do so without any additional noise and try not to miss a beat.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN PLAYING THIS SET UP?
Since 1988 but it is always changing - contracting and expanding.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS SET UP?
The first person that I saw with a set up that incorporated hand and stick percussion while sitting on the floor was Collin Walcott, the percussionist from the group OREGON. He had North Indian tabla and cymbals but usually did not play them at the same time, it was usually one or the other.
He also played sawed off congas and sitar.
Latin percussionists have been doing this for years, bongo players, conga players etc., but they usually use 2 limbs, sometimes 3, some of them now utilize a bass drum pedal to play clave and /or a cowbell. But the biggest difference is that they are usually not the prime time keeper, but an auxiliary percussionist working as part of a rhythm section. Collin was the first musician that I experienced being the only percussionist to supply rhythm and color without the use of a drummer and being BEYOND musical with it.
(There is 1 Oregon record where the musical guest is drummer Elvin Jones.)
COLLIN MOUNTED HIS CYMBALS ON CYMBAL STANDS,
BUT YOU MOUNT YOURS STRAIGHT UP INSTEAD OF GOING OUT ON EITHER SIDE. WHY?
That is because of MAESTRO John Bergamo. One time we were in a music store looking at a cymbal tree, and he said, "Wouldn't it be great to have access to different cymbals that you could just take off or put on depending on the music. You could pull the cymbals forward or push them back without having to have a bunch of extra stands, just a cymbal bag." Much like an electric guitarist has access to different pedals to colour his or her sound. So the idea comes from Guru John Bergamo and it makes sense.
WHAT KIND OF RACK DO YOU USE?
Actually it is an old ultimate support keyboard stand that I bought for $20 and cut up. It is aluminum and is 1/3 the weight of stainless steel and very light. I can actually pick up El Monstro with everything on it and move it.
WHERE DID YOU SEE OREGON?
In Los Angeles at Hop Singhs, and at the Beverly Theatre, now both defunct venues. I actually got a chance to meet Collin backstage, the band had been touring without him because he had some rare form of pneumonia, I think, that was not responding to antibiotics and he was not up for touring but he finally got his health back and was able to tour.(1980?) They even made some jokes about him not being on the first part of the tour and worrying about performing as a trio.
DID YOU EVER SEE OREGON WITH TRILOK GURTU?
I saw them at the PALACE upstairs with Trilok Gurtu the first time they played in Los Angeles with him and I have also seen them with drummer Mark Walker when they played at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, and of course I have seen Trilok when he was in the McLaughlin Trio.
HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THE DIFFERENCES?
Each musician is very unique and brought themselves and their musicality to the table. But Trilok is amazing in a whole different sense, his set up is basically a smaller version of the drumset, with a low drum below and to his left and another low drum up and to the right. It makes for some very interesting sound and groove combinations that are not readily apparent to a traditional drumset set up. Obviously no other person sounds like him when they play on a "regular" drumset sonically or rhythmically.
CHECK OUT THE LINK BELOW FOR AN EXAMPLE OF THIS
TRILOK GURTU SOLO ON ZILDJIAN DAY
DID YOU EVER SEE OREGON WITH JAMEY HADDAD?
No, I never caught them with Jimmy Haddad. One thing I would like to mention is that I spoke to Collin and told him that I had just started taking tabla lessons with Pandit Tarnath Rao, in 1979, and he pointed to his bayan and told me that Tarnath had given it to him and that he had met him previously, I don't remember how exactly, but he made a point of telling me about it.
(Pandit Tarnath Rao was Christopher's first tabla teacher, he also studied with Leonice Shinemann, John Bergamo and Swapan Chaudhuri while attending California Institute of the ARts.)
WHEN DID YOU FIRST HEAR TABLA?
I was 14 or so in East Los Angeles (same planet, different world) playing garage band rock e.g.,Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Edgar Winter, Cream, Beatles, Yes, Gentle Giant, Flash, etc., and it was 1973 and my bass players mom played a record for me (Black petroleum based circle with a hole in the middle) called, I think, Ravi Shankar's Festival from India which featured Alla Rakha who performed a tabla solo on the record where he recited and played. His son is of course, the other great MAESTRO Zakir Hussain who I would eventually hear and see with John McLaughlin's SHAKTI whenever they played Los Angeles a few years later.
DID YOU WANT TO PLAY NORTH INDIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC?
No, I just wanted to learn how to play the instrument and learn the rhythmic concepts. I knew of no musicians who played the music and/or owned the instruments in East Los Angeles, let alone Los Angeles that I could play with and learn from at that time - 1978.
You have to understand that it is 1977 when I realized that I could actually study the instrument.
The concept of "world music" and "new Age" music did not exist at that time. Record stores had the "international" section which usually consisted of 8 records, music from Africa, China, India and that's about it, usually "traditional and/or folkloric" music.
Telling my parents that I wanted to study the drumming traditions of North India was not considered the wisest career move for a Mexican American kid growing up in East Los Angeles. There was no genre blending on the scale that it is now, there were no DVDs, videos, internet, or YOUTUBE.You had to look for stuff, go to concerts, and go to the library, find other kindred spirits that were not only into the music but actually attempting to perform it or maybe owned the records or instruments.
Oregon and Shakti were my main inspirations in regards to acoustic music and blending different forms of improvisation with world instruments. Of course there are now many others who do that but they are the pioneers and definitely still doing it.
DID YOU STUDY ANY OTHER HAND DRUM TRADITIONS?
Yes and no, some of the other drums I learned from playing and/or sitting
next to master musicians, playing with them and watching them play,
Cyro Baptista - hand and stick percussion
John Bergamo (multi focus percussionist),
Erick Barraza, Gabriel Castaned, Belen Gallardo, Gallardo, Raymond Ramirez,
( MEXICA Danzante drummers)
Enzo Fina - Mediterranean folklorist
Houman Pourmehdi (multi-instrumentalist - breath/string and percussion from Persia),
Souhail Kaspar (Egyptian Darbuka player from Lebanon),
Malik Sow - (Senegalese drummer),
Mochizuki Takinojo (traditional Japanese percussionist from Japan), etc.,
but I am not a virtuoso on those instruments which takes another lifetime of study,
and of course we are specifically speaking of drummer percussionists, not all of the musicians I continually learn from.
I have enough problems with drumset, marimba, tabla, percussion of indigenous Mexico and Mesoamerica, and composition to keep me busy and yet I have been very fortunate to have opportunity after opportunity to be sitting next to these gentlemen and make music with them at rehearsals and on stage, which is priceless. There is no better experience than the actual experience of doing it. I should stress, for me anyway. Once you learn the basics of those instruments the different techniques may apply to other drums, but the bottom line for me though has always been music, making music with the people I am with on stage, it has never been about chops to me, but the music, the rhythms and the colors.
YET YOU DO HAVE SOME INCREDIBLE CHOPS.
Not really, or I should say I don't think so.
Music is communal and to me it is about the group effort not how many notes I can play. There are many other percussionists who can run circles around me technically speaking, but that is not how or why I play.
DO YOU EVER PLAY RHYTHMS FROM ONE HAND DRUM AND PUT THEM ON THE OTHER?
Each hand drum has very specific things that are idiomatic to each instrument, I don't learn stuff on one instrument and then apply it to another drum, unless I hear it that way. That is a little too academic for me. I tend to hear the instrument when I pick it up. The way your hand works playing South Indian kanjira is very different from your hands playing a dabruka or North Indian tabla, let alone going from hands, to fingers to sticks.
A musician playing a banjo wouldn't hear it like a guitar when he goes from banjo to guitar, even though they both have necks and strings and are plucked instruments. They are tuned differently and resonate differently and I am sure when they pick it up they hear it. Same thing for horn players who go from soprano saxophone to tenor saxophone, or a piano player who also plays synthesizers, you can play the same notes but in different octaves and with different colors, each instrument has its own resonance and creates its own space and mood.
BUT YOU CAN APPLY CERTAIN TECHNIQUES FROM ONE DRUM TO ANOTHER?
Yes of course you can, whether it be finger, hand, stick or mallet percussion. Each has its own beauty and limitations. I just try and play what I hear, or don't hear. Sometimes the silence is more musical than anything else I could possibly play and I play the silence a lot.
YOU STILL PLAY DRUMSET CORRECT?
Yes, that is my first instrument. I play as many gigs on drumset as I do playing EL MONSTRO.
WOULD YOU EVER CONSIDER PLAYING EL MONSTRO IN AN ELECTRIC ENSEMBLE?
There are a lot of factors that have to be addressed in order for that to work efficiently. I would either have to play with headphones to hear myself over an electric guitar or the guitarist would have to be physically far away for us to work musically. When you have to amplify a hand drum to the point where it is no longer in an acoustic environment, i.e,. where I can't hear myself without monitors or headphones I would rather play samples. Usually I don't hear EL MONSTRO sounds in that context. Which is my limitation, and I have lots of them, it is obviously not the limitation of the instruments.
Anything and everything I can do to learn from the work never ends musically or sonically and there is so much and so many to learn from and so little time.
MBWATA mbwata link
PANDIT TARNATH RAO
DEGRASSI/MANRING/GARCIA LIVE IN MEXICO CITY
PERFORMING YET AGAIN