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Susie Ibarra: listening to the elders

Susie Ibarra will play with John Geggie at the National Arts Centre on Nov. 12. (photo courtesy of the artist)I wasn't sure what to expect when talking to Susie Ibarra. From one angle, she is the archetypal free jazz musician, having played with David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Pauline Oliveros, John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Derek Bailey, Billy Bang, Mark Dresser, and Craig Taborn, among many others, in her home city New York, and in concerts and festivals around the world.

From another, she is a renowned jazz drummer, who has recorded over 40 records as a leader and co-leader. She was recognized for her cross-disciplinary talent by being named a 2010 TED Fellow, and has created works in collaboration with poet Yusef Komunyakaa and artist Makoto Fujimura.

She is also an artist who not only incorporates world music elements (particularly from her ancestral Philippines) into her music, but goes the next step to documenting and preserving indigenous music directly from its creators.

And she is also one of a very select company of contemporary women jazz drummers and percussionists.

But talking to her, all of these aspects fit into a unified whole.

On November 12, Ibarra will perform in a duo concert with Ottawa bassist John Geggie: the first concert in Geggie's 2011-12 Invitational series, and the first time the two have played together.

I talked to her a few days before the concert. Over the phone, Ibarra is soft-spoken and friendly, and answers questions carefully and thoroughly.

She is a second-generation American, born of parents who emigrated from the Philippines. She was exposed to music and jazz from a young age, starting to play piano at age three, and singing in choirs. Her parents listened to big band music and vocalists like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, but her interest in jazz was really triggered by encountering – and loving – Thelonious Monk's music when she was a teenager.

At about the same time, she started playing percussion (both drum set and South-East Asian gong music), which she fell in love with. "Percussion was really an instrument that drew me in, I guess. One of those callings, inexplicable."

"I think it's just very instinctual when it happens for teenagers: 'Well, I love this. I love this, and it just made sense. Oh yes, I'd like to do that. This is what I want to do.' And I spent many years, many hours crafting that aspect of being a performer."

Then when Ibarra moved to New York City in 1988, the first live show she saw was with the Sun Ra Arkestra, which had a big influence on her. It was "very memorable" – both in terms of the individual performances and the whole ensemble. "I felt the performers were great, but also the orchestra music that Sun Ra brought and his whole combination of how he delivered it, from traditional influences to his own unique voice." Ibarra later ended up studying with Buster Smith, one of the drummers in the Arkestra.

"I tell a lot of people that when I came to New York in the late 80s jazz was really like a fresh blood for me. I really love the music and I had a great opportunity at the time to hear a lot live."

Another major influence was avant-garde drummer Milford Graves, with whom she studied over a period of 2½ to three years. "I had a really wonderful time studying with him.  I love his concepts and what he does, and what he shared with me was really beautiful from his concept of poly-rhythms and he has a whole holistic approach that is very similar to many Eastern practices and many Asian practices because he mixes his martial arts and his acupuncture and medicine along with his music so he's very much about how it's integrated into the body."

"He's one of our treasures, really. Unique. It's great to see how he adapted his world influence, mixed it with jazz, and onto the contemporary jazz set from a lot of other percussion drumming."

But, at the same time, she was also studying and playing music from her own ethnic heritage, playing in traditional ensembles of South-East Asian gong music: Philippine Kulintang music, and Javanese and Balinese gamelan music.

"I was actually pretty split which direction I was going to go, because each instrument you play takes so much discipline. Which was going to be a principal instrument for me to perform on: I thought: well, I'm going to stick on to the trap set and then continue with the gong music and then it's going to move in this time frame. And I actually was hearing it from a perspective of some of the Eastern [music}: a lot of cymbals and gongs, but when I went to Milford Graves, we really studied the drums. So there was a lot of earth sound and it was great."

Since then, Ibarra has moved back and forth between free jazz (for example, three years as drummer for the David S. Ware Quartet in the 1990s, or in her 2002 collaboration CD with pianist Craig Taborn and violinist Jennifer Choi called Songbird Suite, and with her own quartet), compositions together with artists from other media, music and workshops for children, and projects involving indigenous musicians in south-east Asia, particularly the Philippines.

Working with indigenous performers

Together with her husband Roberto Rodriguez, Ibarra has founded a production company called Song of the Bird King, whose goal is to preserve indigenous music and ecology in south-east Asia using film and music. She has also initiated a public service project with Asia 21 of music compilations from Asia/Pacific to benefit The Philippine Eagle Foundation, the Peace Museum in Nepal and the Chi Heng Foundation for orphans impacted by AIDS.

I asked her how working with indigenous performers influenced her own music.

"Well, I guess I've always been inspired by that, because I've been playing South Filipino Kulintang gong music since the late 1980s. I played in traditional ensembles, and then I had composers write works for me and then I started writing my own music back in the late 1990s influenced by that. Definitely it has inspired me and influenced me both as performer and improviser and and a composer. It's something I keep going back to, and I guess what really surprised me was about in 2004 or 2005 I went back with my husband and we were doing field recordings and it was such a big homecoming -- an artistic homecoming – to connect with both traditional and contemporary artists.

"I realized that it was a bigger calling than I thought when I stepped into working with indigenous artists. So I'm also really interested in the social dialogue of cultural innovation and preservation - both -, and also how it connects to environmental preservation. Because I think especially in indigenous languages it's inseparable, so it's guided me to roads that I'm walking now, have been walking the last few years."

In February, she will be returning to do more more recordings with traditional artists. "The thing about documenting is that the more time that passes, the elders are passing on and some of it, if it's not recorded, it's not passed on."

Immediacy and intimacy

The concert on Saturday will just be Ibarra on percussion and John Geggie on bass. It's not the first time she's played a duet with bass: in 2004, she and bassist Mark Dresser released the CD Tone Time, and she's also played duets with bassist John Lindberg.

"I like playing with bass and drums, especially when we're dealing with elements. There's obviously traditional roles for the instruments, depending on which sort of music you're coming from, but we're also soloists, and I think that's similar with John Geggie. ... I think the language [of bass-drum duet] is very interesting because it's the capacity to deliver music from different roles and break stereotypical roles that you might think these instruments would deliver."

As in other Geggie Invitational concerts, Ibarra has sent Geggie some of her compositions, and he's sent her some of his. She said she enjoyed listening to his recordings: he's a "really wonderful artist".

"We've been passing several scores back to each other. We haven't set the program yet, because I think we'll have time to get together and see which feels right for the concert day. We definitely will be doing live free improvisation, since it is our first concert which I'm very excited [about].

"I think anytime you're improvising with just another person, a duet, there's an immediacy and an intimacy that you can connect [to], because there's a lot of space! As opposed to playing with a large ensemble and the space fills up much quicker. I think one of the advantages is that I really get to hear the language that he'll be playing and how we will be conversing."

She wouldn't predict what the result would be: just hoped that the audience would "be open to take the music in. I think it's going to be really fine."

Jazz in general has relatively few female performers, and the number of prominent female jazz drummers and percussionists is even lower. I asked Ibarra what challenges that had created for her, and her answer surprised me.

While she had certainly experienced challenges because of her gender in North America, that wasn't the same elsewhere.

"I definitely live a bi-cultural life and North America is very patriarchal and in the Philippines, it's a matriarchal society. Even though I'm second-generation here,  it's the family in which I have a very strong role. I have a lot of very strong women role models including my mother.

"[Women say] 'Well, I wanted to play drums BUT' ... and they have a story."

"And also the percussion music, the gong music, all the masters that pass it down in the Philippines: they're all women. I have some male teachers, but that's because their mothers were masters and they taught them also. Korean drumming also, there's a lot of women drummers I've done collaboration [with]. When I talk to some of my friends who are artists and scholars over there, they don't quite understand the feminist movement over here because they haven't experienced [it]. It's a different  experience over there."

But in North America, what she hears is very different. "I have tried to support younger women drummers and children coming up because over the years when I've taught workshops here in the United States I've had a variety of just random people from very-well-known professional artists to young women in college or even in high school come up and they give me the story, 'Well, I wanted to play drums BUT' ... and they have a story. You cannot imagine how many people come up to me and they literally start a sentence with that, and then they have their own story."

She pointed to Tom Tom magazine, a magazine devoted to female percussionists whose aim is to encourage women to take up drumming, and which featured her in its September,  2010 issue. "I do support that and I understand why that exists. Just the fact that these things exist: people say "OK, there's a reason for everything and it's important to listen, to listen and to see what it is."

Western music has not progressed as far as other sectors or careers both in terms of dealing with gender and race, she said: "I wonder if it's because of the intricacy of culture, in regions, and how long it takes to integrate that. But we are in 2011, right? You did open up a big question."

    – Alayne McGregor

Susie Ibarra performs with John Geggie at the NAC Fourth Stage on Saturday November 12 at 7:30 p.m.  View listing

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