Seconds after we crawled out of the primordial slime the first-ever singer had barely begun to sing when someone started banging on a tree-trunk with a pair of branches. Before long our proto-drummer discovered a hollow log made a more resonant sound than a solid one, and soon enough this soaring intellect tried stretching an animal skin across the end. Cue pre-electricity light-bulb moment. Not only did the resultant sound make the whole tribe forget their fears and feuds, they started dancing!
It was a sound that didn’t just echo around the Palaeolithic party, it echoed down through history, the drum becoming the world’s most ubiquitous instrument. Its ability to provoke dancing never lessened, and meanwhile it also became a means of communication, an instrument capable of generating anything from high drama to simple melody, and even a happy-pill, with people in western countries now gathering to pound away on hand-drums as an alternative to Prozac.
The instrument’s variants have been legion for aeons. Ireland has its bodhran, Turkey its darabuka, India its tabla, Mali its djembe and Cuba its bongos, to name a handful. Australia’s first people are among the few indigenous cultures to never develop a membrane drum, and the Maori are another. Africa, by contrast, has always bristled with drum traditions, some of which migrated to the Americas alongside slavery. Drumming was subsequently widely banned among slaves for fear of its potential in fomenting insurrection, but such a ban could stop neither hearts from beating nor drumming from passing silently down the blood-line, ready to erupt once more when emancipation arrived.
Jazz was born less than half a century after slavery ended, and with it came the drum-kit, made possible by the invention of the bass-drum pedal (patented 1909) and the pedal-operated high-hat cymbals (1927). One drummer could now do the work of three people, and soon technological development of the kit could barely keep abreast of astounding advances in the way it was played. Independence became the name of the game: the ability for each limb to execute different figures simultaneously. What was considered virtuosity shifted every decade and, by the 1960s, faster still.
The evolution of what was possible on a drum-kit actually drove changes in music, too. The bebop revolution of the 1940s, for instance, was as much about changes in drumming as it was harmony, and even heavy metal fuelled and was fuelled by the process of drums, cymbals, sticks and especially hardware growing more durable.
Genuine polyrhythmic independence – so no limb plays a constant pattern – hit new highs in the ’60s via the likes of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams igniting the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis respectively. Among those to expand further upon these possibilities was Jack DeJohnette, now a 74-year-old doyen. DeJohnette’s career has involved collaborations with such giants as Davis, Coltrane, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and, most extensively, Keith Jarrett. A pianist before becoming a drummer, DeJohnette disperses rhythms around his drums and cymbals that can be profoundly melodic: contrapuntal figures that are often singable. He currently has two new albums out. One, Return (on the audiophile vinyl-only Newvelle label), is his first album of solo piano. Inevitably one looks for overlaps in his approach to both instruments, and finds them in the lyricism and beauty of touch, although his keyboard work is more naïve than his drumming. His compositions often suggest a debt to French Impressionism and his contemplative playing contains a masterly use of space.
The other, In Movement, is by his new trio with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (son of John) and bassist Matthew Garrison (son of Jimmy, John Coltrane’s 1960s bassist). This, too, has DeJohnette sometimes playing piano, as well as containing spectacular examples of his drumming’s capacity to go from dancing cymbal work as light as a young girl’s laugh to tidal waves of energised density. The album also has Ravi Coltrane’s soprano and tenor at their scything best, including, unexpectedly, over the boiling funk of Earth, Wind & Fire’s Serpentine Fire.
Some cultures have partly eschewed the drunk-kit in favour of maintaining their own percussion traditions. Many Cuban and Malian bands, for instance, maintain multiple percussionists rather than using a kit drummer, while the complex rhythms of North India’s Hindustani music (arguably the world’s most sophisticated rhythmic language) are enunciated by a single tabla player using the fingers. These finger techniques find echoes in the percussion of Arabic music, Australia’s James Tawadros being a master of applying them on the req (small Egyptian tambourine) and bendir (frame drum).
Korea is another country boasting a rich drumming tradition. It is a culture in which the line between music and ritual blurs, and in which intense drama can fear up as suddenly as a tornado. A deep study of this has made Simon Barker Australia’s most distinctive kit-drummer. He is also a long-distance barefoot runner, running double-marathon distances for the sheer joy of it. His latest release, On Running, is an attempt to express the state of mind he is in when the only realities are breathing and a constantly shifting pattern of footfalls.
For the project he has added electric bass to his personal armoury, creating sparse, ostensibly simple patterns that mimic the irregularity of the barefoot runner’s steps. Against these lines he improvises percussion textures (often a swishing of brushes that is like breathing), while Phil Slater creates drifting, hypnotic trumpet lines that never rise above the docile, yet never dip to being merely ambient. On Cyclic and Pendulum Barker has a gong making a sound as lonely as a sheet of corrugated iron clanging on a roof in a 4am westerly. The ancient art of drumming can come down to this, and still be wondrous.