I’m a drum soloist…?

Jon Silpayamanant with Raks Makam, Sabah (director of the Bellydance Superstars) and members of Crescent Moon Dance after our performance in Louisville during the Club Bellydance tour

So I’ve technically done my first drum solo now.  Sure I’ve drummed for dancers for years and have played for who knows how many dancers, but tonight (or technically, last night) I’ve performed my first honest to goodness drum solo.  Sure, I’ve been in settings where I’ve played back up for another drum soloist (and I understand that the idea of a ‘drum solo’ can be confusing when it can include more than one musician and/or dancers, but indulge me for a bit) and have drummed ‘solo’ in workshop settings for dancers playing rhythms as a teaching tool for workshop attendees.

But never as a soloist in a performative setting.

The biggest irony here is that the many years of playing drums included mainly playing Egyptian tabla or other Middle Eastern drums for mostly bellydancers (the occasional gig playing with Greek bands or my Balkan band, Kermes for Greek folk dancers and Balkan folk dancers notwithstanding).  What is ironic is that my first drum solo happened to be on the doira, for Uzbek dance.  And it looks like most of my drum soloing will include many more Central Asian styles–the next piece that Raks Makam will be working on is a Bukharan doira solo.  I’m stoked for this and so looking forward to learning more about all this wonderful Central Asian music!

Most importantly, I just love working so closely with dancers.  Really I love working with any collaborators in general, but especially non-musicians, and most especially with artists in an art form that is so closely tied to music as dance is.

Being a soloist (musician) means a couple of obvious things.  No one else is responsible for learning the music but me, which means that while I have no one getting in the way of picking up a new tune.  The other thing is I also have no one else to rely on if things go awry musically.  I’ll trade the one pressure for the other in a heartbeat!

Ok, I must get some sleep before heading up to Chicago to play some Klingon music!

S.A.R.A. “Sounds and Rhythms of Afghanistan”

S.A.R.A. "Sounds and Rhythms of Afghanistan"

So tonight I will be going to the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts to see S.A.R.A. (Sounds and Rhythms of Afghanistan).  This show will be exciting as I’ve spent so much time the past couple of years learning about the Uzbek doira through the career of Abbos Kosimov and he is actually a member of this ensemble!

Four of Asia’s most acclaimed musicians come together for a fusion of cultures and art forms to create SARA, featuring Salar Nader, who thrilled local audiences in Actors Theatre’s production of The Kite Runner, and Homayoun Sakhi, master of the rubâb (the national lute of Afghanistan). Drawing on centuries’ old heritages from throughout Central and South Asia, SARA explores musical styles both ancient and completely modern.

I had no idea this group existed until seeing some of the advertisements for this show recently.  This is going to be a nice prelude to my show tomorrow night with Raks Makam where I’ll be playing a doira solo with dancers.  This is a part of a tour with members of the Bellydance Superstars called Club Bellydance which features local acts in the first half of the show.

I never thought I would get a chance to Kosimov so soon–this will definitely be a treat, as will the show tomorrow night.  And just getting a chance to hear classical Afghani music will be a pleasure as there are so many similarities to South Asian classical music but I’ve never had a chance to hear the former live.

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on learning drum solos and how to speak “percussionese”

Raks Makam (from l. to r.) Jessica Hamilton, Jon Silpayamanant, Jo Hadley

So today, after several exhausting days with little sleep but much exciting activities (see my previous post for some details) I went to rehearse with Raks Makam for our upcoming performance this Friday.  My brain is still a little bit fried and with little sleep I was making more mistakes than I think I would normally.  Granted, the Uzbek doira is still a relatively new instrument to me and I don’t have one of the best instruments but mostly it’s my skill level (and the mitigating physical circumstances) that got in the way.

I almost want to say this instrument is far more difficult than, say, the Egyptian tabla which I also play regularly in a couple of groups but I’m not entirely sure that’s ever a useful type of comparison to make.

What I will say that the standard rhythmic patterns are very different than what you might find in the Middle East (or in any other region for that matter) and even the inter-Central Asian countries differ to a significant degree.  There’s tons more finger work and as many patterns in three beat measures at duple/quadruple beat measures, if not more, than what you might find in the Middle East.  And the phrasing–that’s the kicker–as many in multiples of three as not!

The piece I’m learning is called “Doira Dars” which almost literally translates as “Doira Study” or what classical trained musicians might call a “Doira Etude.”  And it is just that–an exercise for drummers that uses many of the basic rhythms found in the art dance music of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

But it’s not just a study piece for drummers–it is designed as a training or warm-up piece for dancers as well. By going through the rhythmic patterns–roughly 12 or 14 depending on how the Uzbeks would count them; and about a handful of different shokh (transitions); and the intro and ending–a dancer will have an opportunity to use a great number the moves in the repertoire of the dance.   Now, 12 (or 14 depending) different rhythmic patterns may not seem like a huge amount but keep in mind that many of the (non-native) Middle Eastern drummers here in the US will rarely learn more than 10 different rhythms for the entirety of the repertoire they might play.  Unless we’re talking about the art music, e.g. Ottoman classical music which has several dozens of rhythmic modes used for the repertoire.

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the perils of having too many bands…

Last night I was meeting and rehearsing with my Central Asian music and dance project, Raks Makam, and tonight I get to meet and rehearse with my String Quartet.  The previous night (Tuesday) I rehearsed with the IUS Orchestra which, as I said I do in alternation with the Klezmer group, The River City Klezmer Band, every Tuesday.  Tomorrow night I meet with my Arabic band, Ahel El Nagam, and the bellydancers we’re playing for this Sunday to run through things.

Around this time last year I first started playing with the Klezmer group and my Balkan band, Kermes (now on hiatus) as well as intermittently with the IUS Orchestra.  I started a new project with Celeste–a “Vintage Experimental Goth Music and Dance duo” called Secondhand.  Raks Makam had been on hiatus for a bit since Taletha, my then partner, relocated to Colorado but is not back into the full swing of things with new collaborative partners.

My solo experimental noise act, Noiseman433, which had been on hiatus four a few years, was resurrected last year for a show opening for The Enigma last year and has been performing pretty regularly since.  Reminds me that I have to update the website!

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on playing music from Central Asia…

Jessica and Taletha of Raks Makam dancing a Persian Dance at WorldFest in Louisville with the Crescent Moon Dancers (September 5, 2009). photo by Jon Silpayamanant

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a meeting with my partner, Jessica, for Raks Makam.  This comes on the tail end of me performing a fully fleshed out version of Kor Arab (otherwise known as Kor Ərəbin Mahnısı).  I had performed an excerpt of this within the context of a longer collage piece with one of my other dance/music duets, Secondhand, but had only worked out a version for solo cello and voice for Friday’s Terrabeat Cultural Showcase.

I’ve done a number of tunes from Central Asia with il Troubadore and Ahel El Nagam, but in those cases the tunes were either as an extension of Middle Eastern tunes for bellydancers, or Persian Pop (e.g. Googoosh).  Since Raks Makam is a project that focuses specifically on music and dance from Central Asia and the Silk Road, the material will be focusing more specifically on traditional and art music from those regions. 

Kor Arab fits in very nicely for a number of reasons.  First, it is a song written by Fikret Amirov, an Azerbaijani composer who was trained in the Soviet tradition as well as in the indigenous tradition of Mugham.  Second, the tune is, for all intents and purposes, a Mugham song.  The most recent recording of it (and the first I had the chance to hear several years ago) was by Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project.  It was sung by Alim Qasimov who is a master within the Mugham tradition in Azerbaijan.  The liner notes for the CD, “Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon,” says:

For the Silk Road Ensemble musicians, hearing the ethereal voice of Azerbaijani mugham singer Alim Qasimov put their years of conservatory training into serious question.  As they delved into the mugham, they each wondered, “If this is how music should be played what have I been doing all these years?”

Really, that’s a question I ask of myself when I hear music from anywhere!

The obvious difficulty with working up solo versions of this music is distilling the music into two voices (voice/melody or voice/drum) rather than having at least three (voice/melody/drum).  One of the reasons for meeting with Jessica was to talk about our options.

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