The back cover of Drumhand’s newest album provides a lesson in percussion instruments. Amongst the various drums the band plays are congas, berimbaus, gome, atsimevu, frame, pati and more. They also play using bamboo sticks, wrist jangles, xylophone, and other shakers.
To complement all that rhythm are two horn players and one woodwind player. Five of six band members sing.
Drumhand started about five years ago when Larry Graves, David Chan and Steve Mancuso started to get together in what Graves called a “study group,” to look at the variety of percussion traditions from around the world they were interested in.
“We came together to play some of these other styles of music we’d been interested in and we’d been involved with in some way or another,” Graves told me on the phone from Toronto, where the band is based. “Gradually it turned into us creating our own material, and I started writing our own material in a similar vein to the stuff we were working on, but it was unique.”
The band added Marcus Ali, who brought with him a variety on flutes and other woodwind instruments, and then horn players Rebecca Hennessy and Karl Silveira.
For Graves, his interest in traditional percussion music began in the early 90s. He grew up playing drums and eventually he decided he wanted to learn more about the African roots of the music he was playing.
“I got interested in African drumming,” he said. “I was curious about the rhythms. I figured if I really wanted to understand it, I needed to go to the source.”
Graves made several trips to West Africa, traveling to remote villages to play with traditional drummers, and scouring record stores for unknown gems.
He mentioned some of his influences to me – the most well known was the legendary Afrobeat band leader Fela Kuti, but mostly he said, unpretentiously, there were ones people wouldn’t know.
“It’s like here – you have local players that aren’t very well known but they are really great musicians,” he said. “Every time I would go out to an event or be in a remote village, I would meet a whole bunch of great drummers and I would be blown away by how good they are.”
Drumhand’s music doesn’t feature the big, thumping drumlines common in Afrobeat. The percussions are very rhythmic and more sparse, and are complemented by the horns, flute and call-and-response vocals.
“If you have flutes and drums – the flutes don’t interfere with the frequency range of the drums, so everything is audible without amplification,” said Graves. “A lot of those traditions involved singing and vocal work, so it seemed to make sense.”
Drumhand has released three albums, the latest being Cheer on the Sun. This will be their first Western Canadian tour, though Graves said he played here once before with his old band Mr. Something Something.
“We want people to come out and be engaged. If people want to dance, they can dance, if they want to listen and focus on the way the instruments interact, that’s fine too. The whole idea is to be uplifting,” he said. “Even though sometimes our songs have sociopolitical story lines and get into heavy social issues, that’s not the main focus of what we’re doing in our live show.”
Drumhand plays at the Last Drop on Friday, July 12, at 9 p.m.