Sunday, May 25, 2008
Remembrance of Things Past
When I was a kid I learned drums pretty much on my own, and with a nudge from my dad, who had a bit of experience. Mostly, I learned by playing along to records. Strangely enough, even though I grew up in the fifties, the twenties recordings of Jelly Roll Morton's band were a big favorite of mine.
Occasionally Morton, a product of New Orleans, had his drummers throw in a "Spanish" flavored 4/4 pattern, usually executed on a woodblock, and following the rhythm he laid down on the keys with his left hand. When interviewed by Library of Congress folklorists, he explained that "the Spanish rhythm" was a legacy of his Creole heritage, which included French, African, and Spanish elements. One of the sections of his classic composition, "The Pearls," is set to that Spanish-style woodblock pattern, and I learned it, rather imperfectly, at about age 14.
Lately I've had occasion to revisit that rhythm, and used it yesterday playing with my friends Ellen and Billy (the group "Reallyshooo") at an outdoor concert in Yucca Valley. It fits perfectly with a lot of Cajun and Zydeco music, since that stuff comes out of the same Louisiana bayous that produced Jelly Roll Morton and his contemporaries.
In terms of difficulty, I'd call the "Spanish" pattern "intermediate." That's because the right hand has to play the heavily syncopated "Spanish" riff on the woodblock while the left hand and right foot maintain a "hard" 4/4 on the bass and snare drums. It's definitely a split-brain exercise.
I'm not good at musical notation, but this crude rendering might give you an idea of what the pattern sounds like on the Zydeco song "Iko-Iko":
"See that man all dressed in green"
I must admit to feeling a certain amount of pleasure in still being able to play a pattern I learned 50 years ago, possibly because it never hurts to have an extensive vocabulary; you never know when you might want to pull something out of the archives, dust it off, and put it to good use. Also, I can play that pattern considerably better now than I could at age 14.