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Brazilian drumming inspires Rob Frayne's latest percussive project, DrumSwamp

When Rob Frayne heard a performance by his son Charlie's Brazilian drumming class in January, “it just blew me away”. And the reason why was his son's teacher, percussionist Liz Hanson.

Hearing Liz Hanson playing Brazilian rhythms inspired Rob Frayne's latest project, DrumSwamp (photo by Petr Cancura)That inspired the Ottawa composer and saxophonist to start jamming with Hanson, and to create his newest project, DrumSwamp. The quintet, playing “jazz and drum-grounded music”, will have its debut at GigSpace on Saturday.

Hanson is a classically-trained percussionist who has also extensively studied Brazilian music and rhythms, and has spent more than a decade teaching percussion to students in New York City-area schools. Last July, she moved to Ottawa with her husband, Juno-nominated jazz musician Petr Cancura, and their four-year-old daughter.

“I couldn't believe Liz showed up here!” Frayne said. “I'd met her socially, but at my kids' school, she's teaching Charlie in a Brazilian drum club on Friday. And it's amazing what she's doing! I couldn't believe it. And when I heard her play, like they do a call and response in a samba thing, and it was unbelievable! And that just grabbed me so much.”

He had the idea of teaming her up with one of his long-time musical partners, Chilean-born percussionist Alvaro de Minaya, and the three started playing together informally. Then Frayne added pianist Adam Daudrich and bassist Martin Newman to form DrumSwamp.

The group's rhythm-rich format suits his current style of playing saxophone, Frayne said. In 2014, he returned to playing the saxophone in concert after many years of recovery and re-learning technique after a serious automobile collision.

“I'm still trying to find a way to play the saxophone after getting knocked back to zero. So I'm finding the way I'm playing now, I can actually play in a kind of a percussive or rhythmical or drummy format. So this is something I can actually do, as opposed to trying to play a jazz standard with tricky harmony and tricky fast rhythm. This is more like I guess soulful, or rhythmical, or emotional.”

The name “DrumSwamp” came to Frayne as a working title, and “I guess I liked the name right off. I liked the idea of being surrounded by drums in a swamp. A swamp means it's more like there's stuff around you and there's lots of animal life. I just liked the sound.”

He said Saturday's show will be “good clean drum fun”, and “a chance to bask in the joy of grooves, drums and rhythm-music.”

“It's folky, jammy. It's still jazz and they're jazz players. Adam Daudrich is a real jazzer, and Martin [Newman] is Mr. Solid, so it's a different thing that we're trying.”

“It fits the jazz kind of background but yet I think people will react somehow more physically, like dancy, happy-sad. Part of it's the samba vibe. It's that celebration and parade outside and happy, I mean really happy!”

Good jazz has the groove or pulse in it ... so that's the common thread, it's the drums, and the way the triplets work. Everyone in the band is going to be thinking of that, Martin, and Adam, and I, we're all thinking as if we're playing a drum. That's why DrumSwamp. We're all drumming.
–Rob Frayne

The set-list will include some Brazilian music – the most recognizable of which will be a remake of the samba “The Girl from Ipanema” – plus the calypso number “Brown Skin Girl” done in a 1920s style, and a number of lesser-known spirituals.

“I love the piano in a spiritual, and if you think of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen” or the song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, if you think it back in the 1920s or whatever or 1910s, it would be like a work song. There was a way of doing those spirituals like really, really rootsy. So that would work with the drums. It's hard to describe but I'm trying to do them more the way they would have been done."

Frayne will also include several of his own compositions. The musical styles will be from all over: from a funky samba to “70s Miles Davis meets Sun Ra” to ballads.

He said they're all related through an African groove, whether in the roots of Brazilian music or in the more funky numbers. “Good jazz has the groove or pulse in it ... so that's the common thread, it's the drums, and the way the triplets work. Everyone in the band is going to be thinking of that, Martin, and Adam, and I, we're all thinking as if we're playing a drum. That's why DrumSwamp. We're all drumming.”

One thing they won't have – despite the group's name – is an actual drumset, Frayne said. Instead, the stage will be filled with congas, a cajon, and smaller drums. “It's like a symphony orchestra of drums.” At previous concerts with Frayne as well as with local Latin ensembles, de Minaya was literally surrounded by many drums in different sizes as well as a wide variety of rattles and shakers.

Alvaro de Minaya in concert surrounded by many drums and shakers ©Brett Delmage, 2015With a single drumset, “normally you hear the same kind of things, like basically a cymbal beat, a drum beat, and playing with the band. But these guys are more texture as well as a groove. It's neat! When you have two percussionists it's like it's split up, so they focus on one thing, and so there might be more variants in the sound and the volume. So it's quite exciting, really, with two drums.”

Hanson said she would be bringing several Brazilian instruments to the concert.

“One is called a zabumba, which is a drum that's typical for a rhythm called baião. And a rabeca, which you play samba on. And I was going to bring an atabaki, which is a conga basically, and I don't know what else! We'll see.”

She said she might add other types of Brazilian rhythms besides samba.

“I was listening to the tunes Rob chose and going through them, and I was thinking [that] there's another style of Brazilian drumming which is my favourite. It's called maracatu, and I was trying to figure out how we could use some maracatu in some of the songs, and add some different rhythms to the mix, outside of samba, for example. I like samba, but I love maracatu. So I'm hoping to get together with Alvaro to see what we can put together, to see what his ideas are, and see how I can collaborate with him.”

She said she enjoyed playing with Frayne: “He's really open-minded and he likes to play with a lot of different people and just try different things.”

Hanson herself has played with musicians in several different countries, including Brazil and Japan. Originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, she was attracted to the drums from an early age.

“When you're 9 years old, in the States, often you can choose an instrument. And I chose drums, but my parents said some excuse like 'girls don't play drums'. I don't remember exactly, but it was something like they are too loud. So they suggested I play the flute, and I was like 'no, but all my friends are playing the saxophone'. So I took the saxophone just because I was told to do it, but then I tricked my parents. When my grandparents came into town, I said, 'Oh my mom said I could switch to drums', so I just switched [laughs]. And my parents were pretty laid back, so they were like, OK.”

I think I liked the drums because it was a kinesthetic visual. I think I always just wanted something really physical and visual. That's the kind of person I am. It's loud, it's rhythmic, you're hitting things!
– Liz Hanson

“I think I liked the drums because it was a kinesthetic visual. I'm a teacher now, so I think about all these things. It's not like a violin, which I tried, and I hated. You hold it close and you have these fine little motor skills that you need and you have to play by ear. I think I always just wanted something really physical and visual. That's the kind of person I am. It's loud, it's rhythmic, you're hitting things!”

She studied classical percussion performance at the University of Michigan, concentrating on the marimba. One of her musical heroes was renowned Japanese marimba player Keiko Abe – who turned out to be a friend of one of her professors. “They actually played together. So when she came to visit our university, I asked if he would help me figure out a way to study with her.”

“I just loved the marimba and I loved her approach. She's a very soulful, amazing marimba player. She's not all about the technique or the perfection of it, although she plays incredibly, but she writes a lot of her own compositions and they're just beautiful! They're different.”

She ended up studying with Abe in Japan for five months.

“All her students were just incredible. It was just a great experience. But what was really cool, too, was that I was really insecure being there because a lot of the Japanese kids had been playing since they were 3 [years old]. They grew up playing piano, so they could just read anything, and there's such a high level of technical proficiency and ear training.

“But then, I remember, I was playing the snare drum for the percussion teacher. And all the Japanese kids were like, 'Woah! You really play the snare drum!' And then you realize that's an American tradition. We have marching bands. I did marching band as a kid. You get a lot of chops that way. And I realized, 'Hey! I'm well-rounded and that's cool, too! I'm not horrible!' ”

A few years after university, Hanson moved to São Paulo, Brazil, living there for 2½ years. She studied Brazilian folk drumming part-time, and played an instrumental music group with young people there part-time.

“I studied with a guy who was versed in all kinds of percussion. I took lessons with him one-on-one and I also went to a couple of schools. I took some classes at a really great instrumental music – more like Brazilian jazz-type school – that was called the Tatuí Conservatory. It's a great little gem of a school, it's like two hours outside of São Paulo City.”

“In Brazil you have hundreds of different kinds of rhythms. Samba is well-known, but there are hundreds of kinds of rhythms that you could learn and become familiar with, and take part in, in terms of folk music. And a lot of people take that music and they put it on a drumset, or they put it on whatever. When I was there, I did a lot of taking samba stuff and putting it on the marimba.”

There's another style of Brazilian drumming which is my favourite. It's called maracatu, and I was trying to figure out how we could use some maracatu in some of the songs, and add some different rhythms to the mix, outside of samba, for example. I like samba, but I love maracatu.
– Liz Hanson

For the past 13-odd years, Hanson has concentrated more on teaching, first as a teaching artist, working with New York City children playing Brazilian drumming and hip-hop drumming. “And in the last few years I was a certified middle school band teacher in Queens, New York. I taught a lot of Brazilian drumming, and a lot of blues and funk and groove-oriented music, to middle-school kids in inner-city New York.”

Since she moved to Ottawa, she said, she's been “mostly parenting and just starting our life new again, getting my immigration papers.”

She obtained her Ontario teacher certification, and is now waiting to get on the occasional teacher list. In the meantime, she has been running the drum club (which Frayne's son attends) at Churchill Alternative School, and teaching some Kindermusik classes as a volunteer. She's also been organizing an after-school band program for students in Grades 4 to 6, which she hopes to run at Dovercourt Community Centre next fall.

And this Tuesday evening (March 22), she'll be leading a Brazilian Drumming for Families class at Bluesfest House in Westboro. “It's for families, any age, anyone, any background level.”

Hanson said she was looking forward to the DrumSwamp concert.

“I haven't really been playing much in the last bit of time because I've focused so much on teaching, so it's just a nice chance for me to get back to that. And I have a four-year-old, so just getting back to what I really, really love and trying something new is fun. It's kind of scary, but it's also fun and I'm excited to do it."

Frayne is looking even further ahead, seeing the band eventually on a festival stage. “What I would like to do eventually is to enlarge this group and add two more horns and maybe a drumset even but in a groovy way, and make it more like the Shuffle Demons, large-style.”

“It's a slow process. It used to be in the 90s like you'd just make a demo, make a record, get a couple of grants, tour the country, and try to get some more gigs. But now it's more like you develop the thing. It's like a bunch of actors just finding a way to play together. For us, it's just a long-term, low[-profile], fun thing.”

He definitely wants to continue it in the long-term. “It seems like I tend to hit things and run. But this is one I think I'll definitely stick with.”

    – Alayne McGregor

DrumSwamp (Rob Frayne, Liz Hanson, Alvaro de Minaya, Adam Daudrich, and Martin Newman) will perform at GigSpace at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 26, 2016. Admission is $20.

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