The Birth of a New Percussion Instrument (Right Here in Marin!)
I couldn't believe my eyes. A few hours earlier I was sitting at home reading about a percussion concert coming up in three days, featuring Zakir Hussain and some of his associates. I had seen Zakir display his breathtaking talent on tablas on numerous occasions over the years and was excited about going to this concert. Now I was unexpectedly grabbing a quick lunch alone in a San Rafael restaurant, and Zakir had just walked in the door!
It was Tuesday, August 28, 1994. Zakir certainly had no idea who I was, and someone I did not recognize accompanied him. My mind started to run - well, I've got to tell him about my new percussion tubes!. . . I can't believe Zakir Hussain just walked in here. . . And he's even wearing a Planet Drum T-shirt. . . Just in case I didn't recognize him. . . I was just looking at Planet Drum twenty minutes ago at Open Secret. . . Now what do I do? - How do I approach him? - What do I say?
This mental dialogue continued for the next twenty minutes as I finished my lunch, keeping an eye on Zakir to make sure he didn't leave before I connected. The waiter brought my check and the light went on in my head. "I would like to pay for those two gentlemen over there," I told him.
He approached Zakir and spoke, pointing in my direction. Then Zakir looked at me and said, "Thank you, you are very kind, but I am here with my friend and would like to treat him."
At least the door to communication had cracked open, so I told Zakir that I understood, but would love the opportunity to speak with him for a few moments. He invited me to pull up a chair and introduced me to his friend, Sivamani, telling me that he was an extraordinary percussionist from India. I thought to myself, wow, this guy's name sounds like a combination of my dog's and wife's names - Shiva and Monnie. (The Hindu deity's name is alternatively spelled "Shiva" and "Siva", but sounds like "Shiva" to me.)
What I said was, "Oh, is that like the Hindu name of the Lord - Shiva? My dog's name is Shiva." Then I thought, way to go, Craig, you've just met this guy and you're telling him he has the same name as your dog!" Anyway, he didn't seem to mind, and Zakir proceeded to tell me Sivamani's name meant "Shiva's gem". (Turns out he's a gem of a percussionist!)
I began to tell Zakir about the tubes. "I've invented a new percussion instrument. I've been having a lot of fun with them. They are tubes which are tuned to specific musical pitches, and you can hit all kinds of things with them, including the body." I think the keys were specific pitches and hitting the body.
Zakir responded, "They sound very interesting. Perhaps its time you share your tubes with other people. How would you like to have a world debut performance of your tubes at our concert on Friday night? We're busy after lunch - we're on our way to Mickey's (the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart). But we are rehearsing Thursday night. Bring them by rehearsal, and we'll check them out. If we like them, we'll include them in our performance on Friday."
I said, "I'll be there," and dashed home to frantically begin making enough tubes to bring to rehearsal. At the time we met I had made only a few crude prototypes of the instrument with some tubing and a hand saw. I had purchased a digital tuner, but hadn't really fine-tuned the pitches of my prototypes. But I knew what was possible and contacted our neighbor to see if I could use their table saw for my production.
For the next two days I went bonkers getting a couple dozen tubes ready - working out my calculations for pitches, getting the proper length for the first note - a middle C - for each of a few different diameters by trial and error, calculating the other notes, cutting the tubing to these calculated lengths, checking the results, figuring out how to get labels on the tubes, making the labels, etc.
Thursday night we arrived at rehearsal and watched and waited for about two hours as Zakir, Sivamani, Vince Delgado (percussion), Tommy Kesecker (vibes), Anthony Hindson (guitar), and Toni Minnecola (Kathak (North Indian classical) dance), rehearsed their way through the performance. Finally, Zakir said, "Here's where we'll do the tubes if we do them. Let's see them."
I got them out, did a quick demo and handed out a pair to each of the musicians. They were immediately a hit (pun intended), and after a few minutes, Zakir said, "These will work. We'll play them tomorrow!"
I made a lot more tubes the next day. Late afternoon we showed up at Cowell Theater (Fort Mason) for the sound check as we had arranged. We still didn't have the labels on the tubes yet, so after our part of the sound check was over we went backstage and sat down to stick the labels on. About half way through, a silver-haired man was passing by and stopped.
"What have you got there?", he asked.
"A new percussion instrument I've created that is being performed tonight," I responded, continuing my focus on labeling the tubes.
"What are they made of?", he continued, seeming ever more inquisitive.
"Well, that's proprietary information."
"They remind me of the bamboo tubes played by the 'Are'Are people of the Solomon Islands." He proceeded to tell us about a very interesting ethnographic video that shows the bamboo tubes being performed by these people and that we might find it at a library, but not our local video store.
The concert was part of a weekend festival called Percussion Currents, presented by New Music Theatre. The weekend included numerous performances and activities, including a closing concert by D'Cuckoo, the all-woman, high-tech, percussion-oriented, audience-interactive band, and several drum circles, led by the well-known hand-drummer and drum-circle facilitator, Arthur Hull. The evening began with a lecture about percussion through history and around the world. We had finished our tubes and taken our seats in the theater. Then we found out who the inquisitive gentleman backstage was: the lecture was given by Fred Lieberman, a professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-author of Planet Drum with Mickey Hart. (I was a bit chagrined at not showing a bit more respect!)
The concert began and we were enjoying the performance. I was too exhausted to be nervous. Zakir and Vince had left the stage, and I thought perhaps now they were getting the tubes to bring on stage. Suddenly I heard the sound of the tubes coming from the back of the theater. They were starting the performance by whacking the tubes as they came down the aisle from the back! Tommy was wrapping the previous number on stage on the vibes, and then walked over to pick up a pair of the tubes to play. Sivamani had also picked up a pair of tubes on stage and begun to play. Anthony began a rhythmic, scratchy accompaniment on guitar.
It was happening - the first performance of the tubes! They were resonating through the whole theater, and they sounded great! Then people started laughing. I strained my eyes through the darkness surrounding the audience to see that Zakir and Vince were no longer just striking themselves as they worked their way down the aisle, but each other and even members of the audience. And the audience was loving it!
Zakir and Vince proceeded onto the stage, and the performance continued for a few enchanting minutes. They had spent no more than ten minutes with the tubes the night before and had completely improvised a fabulous performance. As they finished and laid down their tubes, I heard the sweet, sweet sound of the audience's applause and cheers. This was an unforgettable, magical moment.
There have been many more magical moments these past nine months, but first I must backtrack. It was late May of last year - we had just wrapped a birthday gift for a friend and had finished the roll of gift wrap paper. I put the cardboard roll into our recycle bag, but it was sticking out quite a way. I figured the people that pick this stuff up curbside can be kind of particular about it being a certain way, so I decided to cut it in half.
I held one part in each hand and then did something that millions of others (including me as a kid according to Mom) have done over the years with cardboard tubes from paper towels or toilet paper or whatever - I hit something with the tubes. Hey, I thought, these things sound pretty good, and their pitch is noticeably different! I held them right next to each other. They were a little different length. Of course! Lots of musical instruments are based on that principle! I began hitting the countertop, the chair, the table, my legs. I had been bit by the percussion bug. The cardboard tubes were quickly falling apart. I'm on to something, I said to myself. If I can find a material that "gives" like these cardboard tubes without falling apart . . .
A couple of days later I showed the tubes to some friends. "Hey, look. I've got a new idea. Check this out." I hit my thighs with the cardboard tubes. "See, the pitches are different. I can make a new musical instrument, if I can just find a material that won't fall apart like these cardboard tubes do."
The woman shook her head. "Craig, I know you're struggling with your health problems and you're going through some difficult times. You must be careful not to get too excited and jump at the first thing that looks interesting to you." She later confided that she told her husband after that conversation, "You know - I'm really worried about Craig." (She's feeling much better about my idea now, thank you, and they are among my best supporters.)
Then, despite my excitement, I didn't begin my research until August - going to plastics stores, going to libraries, talking with plastics consultants, reading about fundamentals of musical acoustics. Amazingly, it was exactly one month from the day I began the research to the day Zakir and friends performed with the tubes at Fort Mason!
As I was developing my new invention, I originally called them "tube drums". After the concert, I was reading a review of the concert that talked about people whacking things. (There was no mention of the tubes - I think the reviewer left the concert before the tubes segment.) Within a couple of days the word "BOOMWHACKERS" came to my mind. I knew this was the name I wanted for the percussion tubes because it evokes the fun people have with them.
Okay, so what are these things? They are patent-pending plastic tubes which produce precise musical tones. And you can whack all kinds of things with them. Simple enough, but people are blown away by how good they sound. A pre-teen neighbor's reaction: "They're really cool because they just look like a piece of plastic but they sound cool."
They are loads of fun, easy to play, and sound great. They are durable, economical, lightweight and portable. Everyone loves them, from kids to professional percussionists, from music educators to drum circle facilitators. They are a blast to play, alone or in a group. And you can instantly be making music with them, even if you think you're not musical!
While the ultimate "how" of marketing the tubes is still developing, Monnie and I have started a company we call DrumSpirit to market them. So far we just have prototypes and will be launching the "real thing" at the Marin County Fair, June 30 - July 4. We expect to start getting them into music stores soon after. More on that later. . .
But back to the tales. . . Zakir performed with the tubes again with his full Rhythm Experience band at Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford in late October, and again they were a hit. I was the only one doing any video at that concert and I had a heck of a time. For about the first two minutes, as five of the performers came down different aisles, I was trying to shoot into the darkness of the audience to capture the action and couldn't see well enough into the monitor to know what I was shooting. Meanwhile the audience was laughing and clapping and I was missing all the action on video as I shot the ceiling and the stage lights and the sound man in his little booth at the back.
Oh well, at least you can hear the tubes and the laughter. As Zakir has said, "The tubes are a real crowd pleaser - the audience loves them."
That same week, Kitaro was coming to Marin Civic Center. I've been a big Kitaro fan for a long time and knew that drumming, and especially the Japanese taiko drum, was important in his music. I wanted to show him the tubes. I attempted to set up an appointment with him through his tour manager. Alas, no one called me back.
As the day arrived, I decided that they had to set up for the concert, so I would just go over there with some tubes. It turned out that the concert was being filmed for eventual PBS broadcast. People were swarming all over getting things set up. I could hear Kitaro's music starting and stopping. The door to the auditorium was open, and I walked in and sat down about a third of the way back. I watched and listened for over an hour, the familiar strains of Kitaro's Mandala CD filling the air.
The sound check finished. I approached the stage. Kitaro was talking to someone in the middle of the stage. I realized I wasn't prepared. If I planned to give him a couple of tubes, I had better know which ones. I was standing there with a bag full. I looked down, opened the bag, picked out a good match and looked up again. Kitaro was gone! I had been standing there for several minutes while these two were talking, and the second I looked down he disappeared!
Now what? Undaunted, I exited the auditorium and headed for a door in the hallway that looked like it would go backstage. Through the door I went- people were going this way and that. But no Kitaro. Then I saw a sign - Kitaro's dressing room was on the other side of the stage. I was back out the door, across the auditorium between two rows of seats, and then headed for a similar door on the other side.
Through the door again - this time nobody around. Now what am I going to do. Then I faintly heard voices. I proceeded slowly - no doubt my heart was pounding pretty good by now. I rounded a corner and there was Kitaro on the stairs, talking with someone. I stood quietly for a few minutes until the conversation turned to the new address for Kitaro's management company. He wanted to give it to this other man but did not have it with him.
"Would it be in here?" I asked, somewhat sheepishly, as I pulled his Mandala CD out of my pocket and stretched it toward him. (I had brought it in case I had the opportunity for him to autograph it.)
"Yes, it should be, thank you." He looked inside and found the information he needed. As he began to return the disk to me, I held out a pen.
"Would you, please?" He signed the liner. I continued, "The reason I'm here is that I have invented something I would like to show you." I quickly grabbed a couple of tubes out of my bag and did my favorite demo, whacking my thighs and my head with a little rhythmic pulse. Then I handed them to him and he did the same.
"I tried to reach you through your tour manager, but he never called back," I said. Just then a man was walking near us down the hallway.
"That would be me," he said.
"Oh, I'm Craig Ramsell."
"I figured out who you are," he replied, making it obvious he had heard my remarks, and kept on going.
Kitaro proceeded to tell me that Mickey Hart would likely be at the concert that night and that he would be doing some recording at Mickey's before he left town. I gave him an extra information flyer about the tubes and asked him to give it to Mickey. Then I headed home.
The concert that night was great. (I saw it on KQED a couple of months ago and got to enjoy it all over again.) I kept an eye out for Mickey, but never saw him. Afterwards, I hung out to see if either Kitaro or Mickey would show up. Several band members came out, but no Kitaro. I chatted with some of the others. The drummer came out. I showed him the tubes. He liked them and gave me his card.
Eventually, everyone had pretty much cleared away and given up on Kitaro showing up. I left and headed for my car. Several of the band members - the drummer, the percussionist and the bass player - were hanging out on the curb waiting for the crew to finish the breakdown. I stopped.
"Hey, you want to jam with the BOOMWHACKERS for a bit?" I asked.
"How many have you got?"
"Enough for us all to play a pair."
"Sure. Get 'em out."
It was midnight. I should have been in bed. Monnie had left shortly after the concert, having more sense about these things than I. I handed them each a pair of tubes, and we started to jam. Several stage hands were walking back and forth, loading gear on the truck.
"Hey," one of them hollered, "you guys make enough dough doing that to get in to see the concert? I heard it was pretty good!" he razzed us, as he tossed a coin in our direction. But we just kept playing our tubes. A few moments later, a van pulled up about twenty feet away, and out stepped Kitaro. He looked at us for a moment. It was pretty dark but I think he kind of shook his head with a funny smile on his face and headed back into the building.
A few minutes later we wrapped up the jam. Everyone wanted to know how to get some tubes. Then I headed home. Didn't get to meet Mickey. But had fun jammin'.
Mickey, Mickey. Seems like half the people I show the tubes to (at least the drummers) say, "Has Mickey seen these things?" "Have you showed these things to Mickey yet?" "You've got to show these to Mickey." Everybody calls him Mickey. Not Mickey Hart. Just Mickey.
The answer is "No, not yet." At least, not that I know of. Kitaro might have. Zakir might sometime, but I don't think he has yet. Fred has kindly offered to. And I would love to. I sent him a fax back in December but never heard back. I hear he's hard to get in touch with.
But I've certainly been inspired by his books, Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum, which is aptly sub-titled "A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm" and is a major contribution on the history of percussion and drumming around the world, profusely illustrated. Check 'em out. Anyway, I guess when the time is right we will connect. I have some prototypes waiting for him.
A couple of months later the phenomenal Japanese drumming troupe, Kodo, appeared at Marin Civic Center. Monnie and I were attending a reception after the performance for "Friends of Marin Center", a group of supporters of the Center's activities (which I highly recommend). There we met the Center manager. We began talking and he ended up introducing us to Kodo's company manager, who agreed to have me come to their hotel the next morning to show them the tubes.
I arrived at the hotel and showed two of the group's leaders the tubes and part of the video from Zakir's first performance. Meanwhile the rest of the troupe's members were boarding the bus for their next destination. These two were excited enough to invite me to stand at the front of the bus and introduce the tubes to the rest of the troupe. I did my quick show-and-tell and told them of my dream to turn millions of kids and adults on to the joys of rhythm and percussion. I told them that someday I would love to enlist their extraordinary talent in showing what the BOOMWHACKERS can do in the hands of so many amazing and finely trained percussionists. I wish I could have given them each a pair, but I was not in a position to do so. The driver was waiting to take his seat and everyone else was on board, so I was whisked off the bus and that's the last contact I have had with Kodo.
More recently I connected with a group of fine percussionists at a drum clinic at Lemmon Percussion in San Jose: Chalo Eduardo (with Sergio Mendez, and co-founder of Escola Nova de Samba school in San Francisco), Jorge Bermudez (formerly with Pablo Cruise, and has performed with Gypsy Kings, Joe Sample, Crowded House) and Raul Rekow (with Santana). I attended the clinic, having a great time (and even learning some percussion tips!), and hung out afterward until most the people had left and the musicians had begun to break down their gear. Then I approached them.
"I've got something I would like to show you guys."
Once again, I did my quickie demo. Chalo and Jorge immediately turned on to the tubes. (Raul had stepped outside where I showed them to him separately.) We did an instant jam and they were hooked.
"Are you going down to the club? We could play these down there," they said. They had been invited to jam with a jazz quartet at a San Jose club.
"Well, it will get pretty late and I hadn't planned to, but if you'll play the BOOMWHACKERS, I'll definitely come," I replied. It was going to be a couple of hours before they played, so I grabbed a bite to eat, rested for a while and headed down to the club. When they arrived, the quartet was playing. They joined in and I waited patiently for the break.
Then I went up to Chalo. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea. I don't think the tubes will be heard over all the other instruments."
"That's okay," he responded. "We'll open the second set with just the three of us playing the tubes. That should be fine." So I lined up three pairs for them at the edge of the stage and waited. At the end of the break, Jorge, Chalo and Raul grabbed up the tubes, walked up on the stage and began to jam. The rhythmic, melodious sound of the tubes filled the room. There really isn't anything else that sounds like these tubes!
They played for a few minutes. I wasn't really watching the audience - I was busy messing up another video. (This time I recorded the whole thing on "pause" - which is to say I didn't get a single note on video!) But I was told everyone at the club did their own "pause" - stopped what they were doing to see what was happening on stage.
It was all over too fast, and the jazz quartet joined the other three on stage and began to play. I headed for home, exhausted, exhilarated and oblivious to the fact that I had not captured the event on video. (A gnawing sensation must have come over me - I checked the video as I was driving home and discovered my foul up. I couldn't believe that I missed it.)
Chalo and Jorge really appreciate what I have created, and we've been in close contact since. In the middle of May they did a drum clinic at Main Street Music in Chico and opened the clinic with a playful BOOMWHACKERS jam. (Yes, more video trouble - this time the audio.) Jorge took a set of tubes with him to L.A. shortly before that and must have been like a walking commercial down there, because I kept getting calls from people he had shown them to.
One day while he was down there I got a call. "You don't know me, but my name is Ron Powell. I drum for Kenny G. and Diana Ross. Jorge was just showing me your BOOMWHACKERS, and I want to know how I can get some. These things are great!"
So what does Jorge say about the tubes?: "The simplicity of the BOOMWHACKERS enthralled me, and the spontaneity that they inspire is unprecedented. They are an immediate fountain of youth, an immediate inspiration to jam non-stop. Children should find them really enjoyable. They are FUN. I love these things!"
And Chalo?: "They're great ice-breakers for the clinics that we do - to open with an instrument that is unexpected in its melodic qualities and the levity it provides by whacking different things with it, like your leg, your head, each other, your drums. They are the rhythm sticks of the '90s." - a fun way to get kids involved in the melodic and harmonic aspects of music while learning rhythm, which is actually really cool.
Zakir and his Rhythm Experience recently performed with the BOOMWHACKERS at UCLA. His brief report: "They were a hit again, of course!" No doubt, other performances will be coming soon.
I have shown the tubes to many other drummers, percussionists and bands over the past few months. (A partial list: Emil Richards, Arthur Hull, John Bergamo, Jim Greiner, Carmine Appice, Michael Carabello, D'Cuckoo, Pele Juju, and, just recently, Michael Shrieve and Chepito Areas. (Okay, I hadn't heard of half these people either until I plugged into the world of percussion.)
Each connection has a story that goes with it. There are occasional exceptions, but almost all of them have been really excited about the tubes and can't wait to get some to play with, to perform with, to use in drum circles, to have fun with.
Perhaps I can tell some more tales again soon, but in the meantime it will be a busy month getting the final product ready in time for the Fair, and some other events that precede it. It has been and will continue to be quite an adventure with the usual ups and downs, but it's all worth it because people love these things. We have had a lot of help from whatever you want to call the mysterious, higher force.
Take note: D'Cuckoo will be performing at the Fair on July 1 at 2 pm and 4 pm and Arthur Hull will be leading a drum circle between the sets. When I showed the tubes to D'Cuckoo, "Bean" (Tina Blaine) didn't want to wait until the Fair to perform with them, telling me they have a gig June 11 (sorry - not a public performance) that they would love to use them for - getting the audience playing along, as they are so well known to do in many creative ways. Bean's observation: "BOOMWHACKERS are really fun because they are so spontaneous - you never know what you'll create next with them. Things can get pretty wacky with BOOMWHACKERS."
Arthur just recently got his hands on some BOOMWHACKERS prototypes and called me up to rave about them. "Primo! I just opened the box today, and I've already laid down three tracks with them. I'm really having fun with them. They're beautiful! They're simple, accurately tuned and lots of fun. As a music facilitator, they fill my needs very well."
So lots of BOOMWHACKERS action from D'Cuckoo and with Arthur's drum circle at the Fair. We'll also be making lots of BOOMWHACKERS available for kids to play in the kids' activities area on the opening day, June 30. So we hope to see you there, checking out the BOOMWHACKERS for yourself, whacking and getting wacky.
And after the Fair, we intend to market the tubes through music stores, such as the Magic Flute at Northgate. Tom Holmes, in charge of the Drum Magic percussion section of Magic Flute, is a big BOOMWHACKERS fan. Here's what he says about them: "The BOOMWHACKERS are fantastic. They are so easy and cool. They are something that everybody can play, yet if you want to develop your skill, you can do some really fantastic technical stuff with them."
Thanks, Tom! We're gettin' 'em ready just as quick as we can. BOOM-whacka-whacka-whacka-BOOM-whacka-whacka!!
Copyright © 1995, DrumSpirit. All Rights Reserved. BOOMWHACKERS and DrumSpirit are trademarks of DrumSpirit.