What is it about drummers? Rock mythology vs. tales of the tabla

[Article preview] Why do disparate societies of the East and West seem to build such similar stereotypes around their percussionists?


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UC Davis Professor and blues-rock drummer Brad Henderson describes the psychology of his craft in frank terms. “Establishing the beat is a drug for drummers. And just like any other addict there is a restless, irritable discontent until they find their drug. If I could just sit around and play drums all the time I would, because the rest of life just doesn’t feel as good to me. And I think that’s true of most drummers. So when they get out in reality and try to deal with people they fumble”.


Stereotypes about percussionists abound – they are intense, excitable, and locked in their own worlds, radiating a nervous energy which can only be dissipated by tapping on whatever surface they can lay their hands on. They seem to be in constant communication with something unseen, and can only focus on the present when immersed in the beat. They escape boredom by harnessing a primal force, and prefer the grooves of their inner world to the mundanities of everyday life.


But to us percussionists, living this way is the most natural thing in the world. Who would choose to go without such immediacy and childish playfulness? What is a rhythm other than just a pattern observed through time? What could be more fundamental than that? All conscious beings search for structure in the sounds around them, and we can’t predict the future without a feeling for regularity. An infant can tap in rhythm long before they can sing in key – perhaps compulsive drummers are just keeping the habit up.


These stereotypes are not confined to the West. The history of North Indian tabla is also full of colourful characters, and heroes who perform extraordinary feats of virtuosity in chaotic circumstances. They totally dedicate themselves to the tala cycles, drawing on supernatural powers to aid in their quest. Blues and rock have a penchant for self-mythologising, but how often do their tales involve rival kings, battle scenes, or dramatic divine interventions?


All societies romanticise their extreme and creative characters, and revel in lurid anecdotes. This article features plenty of them, but we do ourselves a disservice if we stop there. We want to understand how our drummers actually relate to the world, and why the East and West seem to build similar mythologies around them. Do they genuinely share particular psychological traits? Or does society always find comfort in painting the percussionist as a certain kind of outsider? What, if anything, is really up with drummers?


[Full article forthcoming…lots to research!]

George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and global improvisation. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them.

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Recently I’ve worked long-term for Darbar, Guitar World, and Ragatip, and published research into tuning and John Coltrane’s raga notes. I’ve written for Jazzwise, JazzFM, and The Wire, and also record, perform, and teach in local schools. Site menu above, follow below, & get in touch here!


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