Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sunday Music: Hand Drums, Hippies, and Béla Fleck

The context: Most of the friends I see regularly in town I met through high school or I met through being a part of the local music scene, particularly the more-or-less "punk" side of the scene. A few weeks ago, a pair of "hippies" were present for a small porch party with the punk friends and the discussion turned to hand drums and whether or not they could ever rock. After some thought, I came up with three criteria underwhich they can potentially rock.

  1. The drum is being used with full respect to the tradition in which it originates and with adequate knowledge of the the theory and rhythms of that tradition and is not being used to add a touch of exoticism to the music.
  2. The drum is being played with some degree of technical ability and isn't being played to prove the (rather Eurocentric) point that all people are natural musicians until we're taught otherwise.
  3. The drum isn't being used as part of a sham-shamanistic or otherwise syncretic religious practice.

An example of these rules being violated is the following: Rusted Root "Send Me On My Way" from 1994 (embedding disabled). Although I understand the band might contain one or two ethnomusicologists among the regular lineup, the mix of faux-African pop sing-a-longs and imagery from American plains cultures can't help but reek more of ganja than respect.

On the other hand, there's this.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. "Hoedown" (Aaron Copland). From Live at the Quick. 2000.

In this performance, Sandip Burman is given the space to play the tabla as he chooses both in the song and in a demonstration of the bol technique for teaching rhythms. Not every incorporation of foreign instruments needs to be a lesson for the audience, but the band should at least pull as much away from the experience as one imagines the Flecktones doing after touring with musicians like Burman. Although the music on their album Outbound was incredibly dense, they still found ways to work with the tones of each instrument and styles of their players.

I often tell musicians the story of when I saw the Flecktones on this tour. Normally, a concert inspires me to keep playing, but the technical ability of the Flecktones made me envious and dispirited. I doubted I'd ever be able to play with their level of skill.

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