It is an aphorism to suggest than an art cannot be taught. After all thousands of years ago Horace famously said poeta nascitur non fit’ – a poet is born not made. He might have well been speaking of all the arts. However, it may be suggested that musicality is innate in the human being. In Mickey Hart’s seminal works Planet Drum and Drumming at the Edge of Magic he posited not only that it all began with the drum, but also in a sense that all of man had the ability to communicate by drumming, whether it meant beating a log with a stick or a skin of a primitive drum with a stick. Today, however, with the refinement of the drumming instrument, there is the added dimension of craftsmanship. And while the drummer/pedagogue will still tell you that the art must be in you to begin with, it can be shaped, and trimmed into an ornate craft.
There are varying degrees of difficulty when it comes to the drum performance, but there is no easy way, or shortcut to success. For instance Ringo Starr seemed, for a long time to be someone who was easy to emulate. But let a rank amateur sit at a drum kit and try to drum to a Beatles tune as Ringo did and it is a recipe for an unmitigated disaster. Likewise other rock drummers from the earliest ones through John Bonham and the more recent ones are just as difficult to even copy. Orchestral drumming takes a lengthy, stiff course at a conservatoire. And anyone who thinks jazz drumming is easy would probably need to have his head examined in great detail to determine the exact extent of madness. Percussion practice varies so widely in different parts of the world that no one drummer can do it all; even the best of them would stumble. This is just as true of African drumming, the drumming of the gamelan ensemble, the myriad of Brasilian rhythmic forms and Afro-Cuban clave. Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez is said to have once remarked that it was not something that came easily even to the great Dizzy Gillespie, who, with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Kenny ‘Klook’ Clarke, invented bebop – perhaps the most famously enduring rhythmic signature of all time.
There is now a whole new generation of drummers who have come out of Cuba’s famous conservatoires. All of them are brilliant musicians first and foremost; then they are drummers. The prodigiously talented Dafnis Prieto is one such musician. Prieto grew up on Cuba. His first percussion instrument was a pair of bongos, which like almost all percussion instruments, originated in Africa. In Cuba, as in New Orleans, the so-called ‘cradle of jazz’, instruments such as the bongos and the congas – derived, of course from their African ancestors, began to develop from proto-historic music that gave rise to music such as ‘son’, danzon’ and other traditional forms of music in Cuba. With the influence of Jazz, which developed into another African-influenced music in America, the music of Cuba changed dramatically as musicians, especially percussionists and drummers began to incorporate syncopated patterns in their music. There is a long history of this subsuming of Jazz into Cuban music over the years. Through all of this osmosis, however, Cuban ‘clave’ has remained rock steady even as it was made to bend like a reed in a marsh by such legends of the drum as Changuito.
In his enthralling book A World of Rhythmic Possibilities Dafnis Prieto has created – yes, created – a veritable ‘library’ of texts on drumming. Prieto may not see the ten chapters in the book as a kind of biblical library. But the manner in which history precedes basic techniques, which, in turn evolve into more recent history and then into newer and more revolutionary techniques is just like reading a series of mystery books in which conundrums are laid out and solved, step by step. As a drummer Prieto is anything but linear. His art is informed by polyrhythmic cycles and spirals that only have a beginning, but are seemingly endless in their possibilities. What is remarkable is how Prieto has developed his revolutionary language into a linear textbook for the advanced drummer. The key operative word here is ‘advanced’. This is not a beginners’ book but a Pandora’s Box of tools and instructions to explore the world of drumming – from percussion colouring using the palette of the instrument’s timbre to incorporating the soundscape of various drums. It’s all possible and accessible, Prieto seems to tell an artist who is born with ‘it’ and a brain and a mind large enough and open enough to grasp the possibilities.