Why the Drums?

As far back as I can remember I had a strong connection to music. I was also very curious about how music was created.

As a child, I sang all the time. I would often make up songs about where I was and who I was with. My grandmother would tell the story about a night that I was staying with her and my grandfather, when I was discovered standing in my crib and singing, “In the night, in the night, in the night at Pawpaw and Lorlie’s.”

My earliest experiences of participating in musical activities were singing hymns in church and being in the school chorus. I liked the idea of my voice blending with others, and I’ll never forget following along with my grandmother’s voice as we sang from the church hymnal. These melodies along with the songs my parents sang to me are some of my earliest recollections of expressing music.

I was also a fan of popular music. I learned about it from television, and by listening to the records my parents or my baby-sitters would play. The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, Soul Train and countless variety shows featured the top artists of the day. There were also tv shows like The Monkees and The Partridge Family, which were about people who formed bands  I was also introduced to rock and roll music by the teenage girls who often looked after me. Girls like my cousin Donna and Jill, the girl who lived next door. My friend’s older sister Jan, as well as a pair of distant cousins who I met when I was visiting my grandparents in the mountains, also introduced me to new songs and artists. I also listened to the radio all the time. When I heard a song that I liked, I would try to get a 45 r.p.m. recording of it. All of this was like a course in popular music appreciation.  By the age of five, I knew about the Beatles, and I knew that a combo consisted of electric guitar, a bass, keyboards, and drums.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, I had the chance to get a firsthand look at drumsets and drummers playing them. A friend of mine named Finley had an older brother who owned a gold sparkle drum set that I was allowed to fool around on.  There were also two bands that rehearsed in the basements of nearby homes. My friends and I would sometimes go watch one of the bands through the basement windows of the house where they practiced. When the teenage boys took a break to smoke cigarettes, we were invited in for a closer look at their instruments. Once, a different band set up in the driveway of the home down the street, where they put on a short concert for the neighborhood – I remember them playing “Come Together,” by the Beatles. At that time I thought that playing music was very cool.

Then there was my third-grade teacher Ms. Carter, and her colleague Ms. Neely, whose classroom was across the hall. These two African-American teachers introduced me to African-American culture in 1969: The Jackson Five, Joe Frazier, Mohammed Ali and soul music. I didn’t spend a lot of time learning the traditional school subjects that year; but, as I spent my time going back and forth between their two classrooms, I learned about different things, which were outside of my white middle-class world. These things would continue to shape my interests. My parents felt differently. They put me in a private school the following year.

With so much of it around me, I thought that music was another one of the elements in the natural world. And learning to play a musical instrument was the next step in the process.

My father bought me a snare drum and cymbal for my eighth birthday, I guess it to see if I’d stick with it before he invested in a full drumset. I don’t remember taking any music lessons, nor do I recall playing anything musical on that drum and cymbal; however, I must have demonstrated something, because the following Christmas day, I got my first drumset! Soon after that took my first lessons from a drummer in one of the neighborhood bands. At the age of eight, I became a drummer.

First Drumset

This is where it all began. My first drumset.


Steve Gadd

Steve Gadd has inspired me on countless occasions. He makes me want to sit down behind the drums.

The parts he created for songs like “Late in the Evening” and “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” have become classics in the history of great drum set parts. His solos on songs like “Aja” by Steely Dan and “Not Ethiopia” by Steps are studies in how to play musical drum solos. And his ability to “play for the song”  show how he can make the simplest parts sound completely interesting.

As soon as I figure out how to up load videos on to my site I’ll put them up. Meanwhile his work is easy to find on Youtube.


Last Night Was a Success

Last night was a busy night of drumming. I performed with two bands show at Howlers Coyote Cafe in Pittsburgh. The first band was Batamba — a band that I’ve played with for almost a year now. We were originally scheduled to be the opening act for the Zambian musician Mathew Tembo. However, four of the members of Batamba plus a bass player and a trombone player ended up backing the xylophonist/mbira player from southern Africa.
He’d contacted us about a week ago and asked if we’d like to be his band for the Howlers show. So with one rehearsal under our belt, we managed to pull off a good performance. Good enough that he’s asked us to join him for more shows.
Michael’s music is very enjoyable to listen to and it definitely makes you want to dance
For Batamba it was our first performance since last November when we opened for the Tuareg guitarist Bombino. It was so good to play with those guys again. We’ll be headlining our own show at the AVA Lounge next Friday, May 2.

Speaking of great Africa influenced music (and dance), a good friend of mine will be performing with the AfroCuban dance ensemble Oyu Oro at the Dance Africa being held at the August Wilson Center tomorrow, April 24.

Nothing to Write About

Daily writing for me represents a time when I can reflect on what’s going in my life and to sit with those thoughts during some quiet time in my day. I don’t have anything specific to share, so there’s really nothing to write about. However, I can describe the stillness at this time in my neighborhood. It’s usually full of energy with people moving around and cars passing by, people talking as they walk together, and sometimes some renovation or construction going on – and there’s the occasional siren.
No, today this writing time is just for me and my thoughts: what I did last night, what I’ll be doing today, and where my life is heading – it’s gone in so many directions lately.
So I’m looking forward to doing this more often. I intended to write more, but I got sidetracked trying to get more information about the gathering I played at last night. It was an event marking the progress in making the August Wilson home a historical site. I was part of a production that consisted of monologues where actors became the voices of Hill district residents recalling the rich and controversial history of a legendary Pittsburgh neighborhood. A jazz quartet played musical interludes and my djembe drumming provided the rhythms for the “juba dance” that closed the show.

Question: Do you make up the “breaks” that we play in our djembe drumming ensemble or are they taken from some where else?

My response:

I’ve composed a few djembe breaks and collaborated with other drummers to create them; however, most of the ones that I incorporate are ones that I’ve learned from my teachers.
They are traditional in the sense that they have been passed down by drummers that come from core djembe areas in Mali and Guinea in West Africa. Some of these breaks have become well known because they were created within the national folkloric ensembles such as Percussions de Guinee and Ballets Africaines and were widely disseminated via the recordings and videos of their performances.
Many working drummers in Mali and Guinea have their own groups. They often create their own short breaks that they use in the context of the ceremonies and festivals where they play.
All that said, in most of the drumming I’ve experienced at drumming activities in Guinea and Mali, these things aren’t played at all. Drummers are more involved with the success of ceremony and playing the rhythms to accompany the dancing and singing that’s taking place. Also, the drum ensemble may consist of various drummers that were “rounded up” for a particular and don’t usually play together, therefore they may not be familiar with each other’s “breaks.”
Drum enthusiasts call this style of playing: “traditional” drumming. And the type of drumming found in organized drum and dance ensembles where the emphasis is on creating an exciting performance is called “ballet style” drumming.
If anyone has any questions about drumming from any culture, I’d be glad to do my best to answer it, or point the way to more information on the subject.

Gordon Nunn

Open Drumming in Greenfield

Hello Pittsburgh Hand Drummers,

I’ll be leading an open drumming session at Greenfield Presbyterian Church, this Thursday, February 24 from 7–9 p.m. Some loaner drums will be provided. I’ll be asking for a five dollar donation from each participant.
The church is located at 3929 Coleman St. Pittsburgh, PA 15207.

My intention with this event is to provide an indoor environment where people can come together to drum, and have fun.

Drumming brings people together. My hope is that in this context, we can create rhythms that are the result of the collective creativity of everyone present.