Echoing The Beat of Ancient Drums

Glen Velez uses exotic instruments to create fresh rhythms and tones

A DECADE ago, Glen Velez left behind his career as a jazz drummer and symphonic percussionist to concentrate on an unlikely instrument - the tambourine. Or, as he more precisely terms it, the ``frame drum.'' This Texas-born Mexican-American, who now lives here in New York City, has collected over 300 of these instruments from around the world and has recorded several albums of his own music. His latest, ``Assyrian Rose'' (CMP Records), is based on the musical traditions surrounding the frame drums in several cultures. The album features percussionist Layne Redmond and Steve Gorn, an accomplished bansuri (a bamboo Indian flute) flutist.

Although Velez has been a member of Steve Reich's group since 1972 and the Paul Winter Consort since 1983, and still performs with them, he is the most prominent, if not the only, American who has forged a significant solo career on frame drums.

Loosely defined, the term applies to any drum whose diameter is greater than its depth. They range from the simplest Irish bodhr'an - a wooden frame with skin stretched over it - to ornate instruments from the Mideast with inlaid mother-of-pearl and bangles. They have ``more ringing tones'' than other drums, Velez explains. And, played with the hand and fingers rather than sticks, they offer a much greater tonal variety than a jazz drum.

At his his Upper West Side apartment, many kinds of frame drums hang on the walls. Still more are kept in his house in the Pocono Mountains. His collection includes instruments from Japan, Egypt, and Alaska. I asked Velez what attracted him to these instruments in the first place.

``I wanted to do drumming with my hands, because I'd been doing a lot of stick drumming - mallets, snare drum, and so on,'' explained the soft-spoken Velez. ``So the idea of playing with the hands and fingers was something I really wanting to get into....''

And ``I find it hard to believe that anyone is still fascinated with [pop's] boom-chooka-CHOK, boom-boom-chooka-CHOK. ... It's gotten to the point where, if you hear a polyrhythm, you think, `Wow, that's so fascinating; they're doing two things at once!'''

In performance, he uses tapping, snapping, scratching, and sliding strokes. They help produce overtones, those subtle sounds that can sometimes be heard ringing above the main pitch of an instrument or the human voice.

VELEZ employs the overtones in his compositions. And he has even learned to produce some of them with his voice, as Tibetan monks do in their chants. When he demonstrates the technique during our interview, the result is an unusual hummed tone accompanied by several higher flutey sounds. It can be heard on ``Assyrian Rose.''

Velez started by studying Indian, Brazilian, and other styles of drumming. These studies led not only to performance but to further research on the history of the instruments.

``They've been everywhere - in ancient Egypt, in Mesopotamia - in all these cultures. ... You can look at the art representations from those periods, and they're using the same drums. By examining the way that they're holding them and the type of drum it was, I can really fantasize about what they were doing, and it could very well be similar to what I'm doing now.''

His fascination grows as he discovers more about their qualities and history.

IN Ireland, he notes, framed drums were a women's instrument for centuries. ``That's a little bit startling...,'' he finds. ``Even in Africa, you don't see many female drummers. But ... matriarchal societies were prominent in Europe and in the Middle East around 2000 or 3000 B.C.''

Does Velez believe there's something about the instruments that separate them from the more ``masculine'' military drum or a jazz drum kit?

``One thing is that the dynamic levels of frame drums are much softer. And you can hear a lot of detail, because ... you use all the fingers of the hands. You get intricate embellishments and ornaments. The other aspect is their size and its relationship to movement: You can pick this drum up and do a dance.''

Velez will perform with the Paul Winter Consort in Lewiston, Maine, Dec. 14-16 and at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York Dec. 19. His next scheduled solo performance will be on Feb. 11, at the Percussive Arts Society convention in Baltimore.

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