By N. Scott Robinson
from Percussive Notes 39, no. 1 (February 2001):
Bergamo is an astute percussionist with a flair for creativity.
He’s been the head of the world percussion department
at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia since 1970.
His worldly approach to hand drumming, jazz drumset, and
classical percussion has led him to record and perform with
a diverse assortment of artists
such as Shakti, Ringo Starr, Ali Akbar Khan, Frank Zappa,
Lou Harrison, Charles Wuorinen, Mokave, Il-Won, Robert Shaw,
Julie Spencer, Harry Nilsson, Shadowfax, Brent Lewis, Addiss
& Crofut, Gustavo Aguilar, Herb Alpert, Johnny Clegg
& Savuka, Bracha, Angels of Venice, Chris Blake, Jaguares,
Morton Feldman, and Eugene Bowen. He has pioneered percussion
composition and world music innovations with the percussion
ensemble Repercussion Unit and his latest hand drumming
group Hands On’semble. John has been involved in the
soundtracks to 18 Hollywood films, released 3 hand drumming
instructional videos, published a methods book called Style
Studies for Mallet Keyboard Instruments in 1969 and
over 25 percussion compositions since 1963. His informative
articles about hand drumming have appeared in past issues
of Percussionist, Percussioner International,
Percussive Notes, Modern Drummer, and
Drum! John has also served with the Percussive
Arts Society from 1979-1988. John Bergamo, along with Collin
Walcott (sitar and tabla), was one of
the first Westerners to become proficient on Indian percussion
instruments such as tabla, kanjira, ghatam,
and thavil. One of the things I was interested
in for this interview was how and why Western percussionists
get interested in combining drumming techniques and instruments
of other cultures. I have been trying to find out if there's
a commonality in the backgrounds of these new kinds of percussion
players that do this. John Bergamo was part of the first
generation of "New Percussionists," and his approach
to playing involves an eclectic blend of the classical aesthetic,
jazz drumset, and world drumming traditions.
NSR: Was your background as an
orchestral percussionist or were you a drumset player?
original goal in life was to play bebop on drumset. I still
play when I get a chance to; I love to play any kind of
drumset gig. That was my background. I barely got out of
high school because I was such a bad student in all the
other areas but music was always my thing. I had started
school when I was too young, and I graduated when I was
just barely seventeen, so I was really kind of green behind
the ears by the time I got out of high school. Somebody
said, "Hey man, why don't you go audition for the Manhattan
School of Music?" I said, "I'll never get in there."
So I went just for the hell of it. And all I could do, really,
was play snare drum. I could play snare drum pretty well
at that point; I could read snare drum music, and I played
drumset. But in 1957 at the Manhattan School of Music, drumset
was not even talked about. So I took my audition, and they
said, "Wow, you play snare drum really great,"
and I took the entrance exam in music theory and I swear
to God, all I could do was write my name on it. Seriously,
I really did not know what the treble clef meant. So I spent
the next year as a remedial student. They only accepted
me because I could play snare drum. That was the same year
that Paul Price started teaching at Manhattan. I remember
very well the first percussion ensemble rehearsal. The first
piece of music was "Canticle No. 3" by Lou Harrison.
It had a half-note triplet in it, and I literally had to
go to the bathroom. I was this panic-filled freshman standing
next to all these monster players, and I knew these guys
could really play circles around me. Paul Price was the
kind of guy that cooled me out, and I wound up playing the
piece. He taught me about all that stuff. He was the first
guy that opened the rhythm door for me. I knew four-four
meter, and that was about it. And then I realized, "Wow,
you can do all this; you can do that." So I spent several
summers going to summer school, just trying to catch up,
and then I did one extra year, and I finally wound up with
a master's degree in classical percussion from there. It
was about my third year there, and everybody was saying,
"Hey, why don't we have a jazz ensemble?" But
they didn't want jazz; jazz was still not "cool."
So finally we got a jazz group, and John LaPour was our
first jazz teacher there. William Russo was the arranger,
and he taught classes there, so for about the last two,
maybe three years of my stay at Manhattan, we actually had
a jazz band. But it had to be on Saturday, when nothing
else was happening.
At the same time
I was a student at the Lenox School of Jazz in 1959. It
was during my second year at Manhattan, and a friend of
mine said, "Man, there's a school of jazz, why don't
we audition for it?" So we auditioned, and we got in.
There were two choices for drumset: study with Max Roach
or Connie Kay. I'd studied with Max Roach. Other students
at that time were Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and Ian Underwood.
Ornette and Don Cherry had just finished their first album.
John Lewis, from the Modern Jazz Quartet, heard Ornette.
At that time, everybody was waiting for the next Charlie
Parker. They didn't know who it was going to be. Some people
thought, "Here he is! He plays alto, he plays a plastic
alto, he's a little bit crazy, but he plays." John
Lewis brought in Don Cherry that same summer. I'll never
forget sitting here listening to the big band. We had big
band, and then we all played in a small ensemble. My ensemble
teachers were Kenny Dorham and Percy Heath. They were my
ensemble teachers! I was in a dream world pinching myself.
We all lived in a dormitory, not knowing who Ornette Coleman
was; he was just this weird guy walking around with an overcoat
in the middle of the summer playing alto saxophone. I'll
never forget listening to the Herb Pomeroy Big Band. Herb
was the big band teacher. There was Ornette, sitting in
the middle of the sax section, playing his first solo. He
got up and blew, and John Lewis leaped out of his chair.
He was turning around looking at everybody saying, "Listen
to that." So maybe this was going to be the next Charlie
Parker, we didn't know? For me, at age 19, to get to study
with Max Roach, it was like studying with God. I had listened
to his albums, and I'd memorized half of his solos, and
written them down, and everything else. He was very strange,
because I would go to his room, and he a drumset with cymbal
muffles on it, and the drums were all dead. That's what
I learned to play on. I was always fascinated by the fact
that we used to sit and count the drumset solos. Max played
a solo that was sixty-four bars, or whatever multiple of
the tune, it was exactly that. I knew that there was something
else going on inside his solos, but I couldn't quite put
my finger on it. He taught me what it is. He said, "Well,
how do you know where you are when you're playing a solo?"
I said, "Well, I don't know, I just play, and then
I go, "Boom-boom-boom-boom," and the band comes
back in. So he said, "What you've got to do is you've
got to sing the tune to yourself while you're playing."
In other words, he's playing along; whatever the tune is,
it's going down in his head while he's playing. He's hearing
the tune inside his head, and he's playing the tune. You
go can back and you listen to Clifford Brown and Max
Roach at Basin Street, that's what we were all listening
to then, and you can hear it. You can hear when he goes
to the bridge, and you can hear when he goes back to the
top. I was just blown away. That opened a huge door for
me. The structure is inside my head, because of Max. There’s
a CD of the 1959 student concert at the Lenox School of
Jazz. We all got to play, and luckily they played the piece
where I got to play solo. It was a tune by Kenny Dorham
called "D.C. Special." Max said, "When you
play this solo, I don't want you to take your hand off the
ride cymbal. You play the whole solo with your left hand,
and keep the ride cymbal going." So I did it, and it's
on this CD. Ornette is on there, playing, and Don Cherry.
I finished up at
Lenox and then graduated the Manhattan School of Music in
1962 and stayed in New York for a while. I made a trip to
Europe that summer with a guy named Max Neuhaus. He was
the first American to play "Zyklus," the percussion
solo by Karlheinz Stockhausen. That summer, both of us got
accepted, and got a small scholarship to go to Darmstadt,
where there was a new music course in Germany. We went there,
and Neuhaus approached Stockhausen and told him he had played
"Zyklus." Stockhausen said, "How long did
you take to play it?" He told him he had played it
in twenty-eight minutes or something, and Stockhausen's
jaw just dropped, because you're supposed to play it in
ten or eleven minutes. Stockhausen did a really nice thing,
which I've always appreciated since then: he gave Max and
I a private class, just in "Zyklus." For the time
we were there we had four or five meetings with him. He
sat down and explained the whole score, how it worked, how
you're supposed to do this and that. Then after that I came
back to New York, and I spent the next year or so just messing
around. I took an audition for the Robert Shaw Chorale,
in the orchestra. I was still mostly an orchestral player,
although I could still play jazz. I took this audition for
Robert Shaw, and I got the gig; it was a State Department
tour. We went to Germany, Yugoslavia, and then we did seven
weeks in the Russia. I was just 22 years old, and it was
an amazing tour! We were there during the famous Cuban missile
crisis in Leningrad [now St. Petersburg]. We were not allowed
to unpack our bags or anything; we were on alert and ready
to go in case the bombs started dropping. But the Russian
people were just absolutely wonderful; they just loved us.
The featured piece was J.S. Bach’s B minor mass, which
hadn't been played there in many years. I'll never forget
the first performance at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in
Moscow, the whole audience was in tears, just literally
crying. It was such a moving thing. Then I did a little
States tour with Shaw in 1963. In 1963, I just freelanced;
I did a little of this, a little of that, trying to keep
it all together in New York. I worked a lot with Paul Price
and Michael Colgrass at that time. I studied composition
with Colgrass. He had been around when I was a student;
he wasn't a student, but he had just graduated a few years
before, from the University of Illinois, with Paul Price.
He was into giving me gigs. I'd go out and sub for him,
or do a little orchestra thing. So I wound up working quite
a bit with Michael in the next year and a half. Then hooked
up with Lukas Foss, and he was starting this group at Buffalo.
He got some Rockefeller money, and he called it the Creative
Associates. He wanted people who were into new music, who
were into improvising, who could compose, and could conduct.
I had already written some music and studied a little bit
of conducting with Price. I got that gig, and that was from
1964-66. I also spent the summers of 1963-1965 in Tanglewood,
playing new music. The other percussionist in that group
with Foss was Jan Williams. So we did that with Lukas, and
George Crumb was part of that group. He was a totally unknown
guy at the time, and he was just like coming into his thing.
Mauricio Kagel was part of the group, Sylvano Bussotti was
part of the group, Buell Neidlinger [bass player with Cecil
Taylor] was part of the group. Paul Zukofsky, the great
violinist, was also part of the group. So there were all
these great people. We worked very closely; the idea was
to work really closely with people, like the composers,
the players, the conductors, and so on. There was an article
in a Percussive Notes on George Crumb, and he talked about
those years. He talked about the influence that Jan and
I had had on him, because we both worked with him. We would've
done anything for him. He would ask things like, "How
do you do play this on the vibraphone," and, "Can
you do this?" During my last year there, in the Fall
of 1965, they had a Festival of India, at SUNY Buffalo.
There was live music, film, food, dance, poetry; everything.
So who comes to play? Ali Akbar Khan spent the week! I didn't
know who this guy was; I just went to the concert. I'd heard
him on records. The first time I heard tabla was
before the concert, I remember a friend of mine played me
an old recording of Chatur Lal, and he said, "I want
you to hear this drummer." I said, "Drummer or
drummers? There's no way there's one guy doing that."
I was immediately impressed. Ali Akbar Khan played several
concerts in Buffalo, and Shankar Ghosh was his tabla
player at that time. For one of the concerts, I sat right
in the front row and he played a tabla solo. I
was a basketcase because that was the first time I'd ever
seen it. I'd heard it; now I'm looking at it, and I'm seeing
it happen there, and I'm just going, "Oh, my God."
So I went backstage, and I'm like, "Oh, man, how do
you do that?" I mean, I was just out of my mind! You
can imagine, seeing it for the first time, being a drummer.
So he looked me straight in the eye and he said, "Ah,
yes. For three years we play only on stones." So I
figured, "Okay, man, these guys sleep on nails, they
walk on fire, so he played on stones. Okay, I dig it."
So I accepted that. I didn't know it at the time, but Shankar
Ghosh was a great one for putting people on, and that's
what he did to me.
Several years later,
I was studying with Mahapurush Misra at the American Society
for Eastern Arts in California. In 1968, the Ali Akbar College
of Music started and I went there. Shankar Ghosh came, and
I began studying with him. I was talking to him one day,
and I said, "You know, when I play na ka ta ri
ki ta ta ka, it's not so good; maybe it's because I
didn't play on the stones." He looked at me and he
said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "You
don't remember the story you told me!" I told him that
story, and he just burst out laughing, because he was totally
putting me on!
NSR: When did you relocate to California?
1966, after I was finished up with the Buffalo grant with
Lukas Foss. We weren't making much money during that time,
but it was a lot of money then, and it was all tax-free.
It was about seven or eight thousand dollars per year. We
did gigs in New York, we went back to Buffalo, and we did
little things here and there. We were actually pretty free
to do what we wanted outside of the group. We did have a
lot of time outside of the group, so most of us did some
freelance stuff while we were there. I had some cash saved.
This friend of mine kept bugging me, he knew that they had
a school in California for Indian music; he said, "Man,
why don't you go study in California with us?" I said,
"Come on, man, what am I going to do? I'm 26 years
old. What am I going to do with that? I'm like finished,
I hear this guy play, what am I going to do?" This
guy bugged me, man. I swear to God, he just kept bugging
me and bugging me, and finally I said, "Okay, man,
I'm going to California."
So I got my VW bus,
and my dog, and a couple of other people, and drove to California,
went to the Ali Akbar school, and was hooked immediately.
Mahapurush was such a great guy. Both of them, him and Shankar
Ghosh. Mahapurush especially, was just this very gentle
guy, and he would take great pains to help you. Being a
drummer, I could move my hands, so I got into it right away.
I studied with him for three years, and he went back to
India. Then I taught for one year at the University of Washington,
1968-1969. I heard this job was open, they were looking
for somebody specializing in new music so I took the audition.
I taught there for one year, but I didn’t like it.
It's different now, but it was just so chauvinistic about
world music. Dumisani Maraire from Zimbabwe was there. A
fantastic guy! He played mbira and African marimba.
But world music was down in the basement. And not only physically,
but in the mind of all the guys upstairs, it was like something
less. Of course, there were a lot of students who were into
it. And there was a guy, Usopay Cadar, from the Philippines,
who taught kulintang, and I played in that; it
was wonderful, and I was just having a ball. But I was the
percussion teacher. So I was teaching Western percussion.
I started in September and handed in my resignation in December.
I finished out the year. So my girlfriend at the time and
I, we just drove back to California, and I went to the Ali
Akbar school. In 1969 my friend Buell Neidlinger called
me up and said, "There's this school opening up out
in California, it's down near Los Angeles, and it's called
California Institute of the Arts started by Walt Disney.
I was skeptical; Walt Disney? I thought it was going to
be like a Mickey-Mouse-scene. So I went down there, and
Mel Powell was the first dean. He was already hired, this
was in 1969 and the school was going to open in 1970, and
they were looking for players. I interviewed with them;
I didn't even audition, and they said, "Okay, you can
have the gig." He knew about me, because I actually
worked with him through that Buffalo gig; he had come and
done some stuff with us. So there I was in September 1970
NSR: When did the world music boom
begin? Were you primarily doing new music there?
was that whole introduction to tabla. Outside of
slamming on a conga drum in a new music piece or something,
I had never done anything strictly with my hands. But after
that first summer, with Mahapurush in 1966, I was hooked.
I already liked the idea of India anyway, and I had read
some Hindu philosophy, and the Bhagavad-Gita. I
was just fascinated by the whole Indian thing. I had already
done some gigs in New York with Collin Walcott.
NSR: How did that come about?
and I wound up doing some funny gigs. I remember one, [chuckles],
we did for a perfume commercial in New York. I was back
and forth, between California in the summertime, and New
York in the wintertime. Back to make some money then back
to California. I did that for a while. This was in 1967-1968.
I was in New York trying to freelance, starving to death
playing new music. I'd take any record date that came along.
So they'd call me: "Oh, I hear you play tabla."
I'd say, "Yeah, okay." So I went to the session,
and there was Collin! I mean, I already knew him, and this
producer came in, and he said, "Yeah, I want you guys
to play sixteen ragas and fourteen chakradars,
and maybe sixty-four tihai." He didn't know
what he was talking about. He must've read some liner notes,
you know? Collin and I were looking at each other, going,
"Okay." So we played the gig, and we wound up
getting residuals from that. There was a point several months
later that I was literally destitute. I was borrowing money
from my parents to keep alive, and pay the rent. I went
down to the union to see if anything was there, and the
guy said, "Man, where the hell have you been?"
He handed me a stack of checks. I was all of a sudden a
rich man; it was all these residuals from this perfume commercial
that we played [laughs]. So I was lucky for that. Collin
and I hung out quite a bit.
NSR: At that time you were both
learning to play traditional Indian music. Was there any
kind of realization that you could play something Western
on the tabla?
that point there wasn't. There really wasn't, and I always
tried to keep it pure. I didn't want to mess around. I eventually
got that idea because of CalArts and doing some other kinds
of funky little gigs, like little recording sessions here
and there; we also did a couple of minor experiments with
other Western musicians, a sax player, and we'd say things
like, "Hey, let me play along with that," or "Play
this scale," that kind of thing. When I went to CalArts
in 1970, on faculty was T. Vishwanathan, the flute player,
and his brother T. Ranganathan. I used to hang a lot with
Ranganathan, and he was showing me kanjira and
ghatam. He said, "No, the instrument you really
should check out is thavil." He played me
a recording, and I said, "Oh, my God!" So he opened
that door, the South Indian door, which I was instantly
fascinated with. Ranganathan was a big influence on me.
He just opened that whole door to solkattu, and
the kanjira, and all of that. I actually studied
ghatam for a while. After he left, L. Subramaniam
came to CalArts as a student. He got his master's degree
there. I remember his recital well; he played Bach violin
sonatas and South Indian music. And at the time, he and
Yoko Matsuda, who's a great Western violinist, were studying
with each other. She was his violin teacher, but she was
also studying South Indian stuff with him. So because of
him, and because of Ranganathan, I got really fascinated
with South Indian music. I was still playing tabla,
although at that point I really didn't have a teacher. So
I would go to the Ali Akbar school in the summer times and
go back to CalArts for the Fall. In the Fall of 1978, this
guy named A. K. C. Natarajan, a great South Indian clarinet
player, came to CalArts. He had a thavil player
with him. Like I did with tabla, I heard tabla
first, then I saw it; I heard the thavil, then
I saw it. Then the next year, A. K. C. Natarajan came with
two thavil players. There were two clarinets and
two thavils. These drummers were two of the hottest
young guys at that time. When they have two thavils,
sometimes there's a left-handed guy and a right-handed guy.
So the left-handed guy, he had one of the fastest bass techniques,
[on the lower side of this double-headed drum] with a stick.
I was sitting there listening, and he was playing incredibly
fast, and changing the note by pressing it into the head.
He was doing it with just one stick. There were drum students
sitting all over the balcony, and after the concert they
were going, "What was that guy playing?" The thavil
player demonstrated the technique right there, and we were
all standing there watching this happen. I went home that
night, and my wife said, "You're a basketcase, you
know that? You'd better go over there as soon as possible
and check it out." So I went over there, to Madras,
for 7 weeks, and spent a week in Bombay. I of went with
Subramaniam; I hung out with him in Bombay for a week, went
to Madras, and all I did was go to thavil concerts,
one after the other. But in the meantime I had some ghatam
lessons with T. H. Subashchandran while teaching at CalArts.
So when I got to India I also studied ghatam with
study with his brother, T. H. "Vikku" Vinayakram
after Shakti happened. So I was there in Madras, again,
not knowing how important it was. He would take me out on
gigs with him. He'd say, "There's a good concert tonight;
you come." So I'd get into a rickshaw with him and
go off to the gig, and watch him play. But I really had
gone there to check out thavil. But I was doing
the ghatam as well. It was embarrassing, though.
There was this beautiful young Indian girl in the class.
She used to come to my private lessons, because she could
speak English. She was wailing, and she would translate
for Vikku. Subramaniam also hooked me up with a thavil
teacher. He agreed to give me fourteen lessons, one
a day, for two weeks. So they went out and they got me a
thavil, and I got in the rickshaw and I went. I got off
the rickshaw, and instantly there were people following
me. I was carrying my thavil, and they were like,
"Who is this gringo with the thavil?"
NSR: You were probably the first
Westerner to study thavil?
didn't know that. I really didn't know if I was actually
the first one, but I was probably the only one that they
knew of, to study. Other people had studied tabla
and stuff like that, but I was just fascinated by this instrument.
So I went to the guy's house, and when I got there, to his
living room, the place was packed with people. They'd come
to see the gringo do his thing. So I sat down, and he gave
me my first lesson. I had some tabla chops already,
so I was familiar with the basic technique, it's a lot of
this split-hand stuff, but with the addition of the stick,
and I also had some stick chops, from playing Western music.
So right off the bat I could do something. So right away
he was fascinated that I didn't have to start absolutely
from scratch. He'd play, and then I'd play. He could only
speak a few words of English: he could say "yes"
and "no," and "fast," he used to say,
"Fast! Fast!" I knew how to say, "yes"
and "no" in Tamil. I got through my lesson that
day, and I had been taping. So I went back to my hotel.
The next day I got back in the rickshaw, and came over there,
and there were more people; people hanging in the windows.
My teacher was sitting here, and I was sitting here, and
right behind him there were like four, five, or six dudes,
and the guy on my right was a very old guy. I was freaked,
man. I was just barely getting through my lesson. After
the lesson, this old man, at the end, stood up, and he grabbed
my hand, and he put it on his forehead. And he left it there,
like someone does when they hold your hand while you're
shaking? And I thought, "Oh, my God, what's happening?"
Finally there was this young girl, and she was learning
English. I said, "Please, who is this man?" She
told me that he was the head of the gharana [school].
I asked her, "Please, could you speak to my teacher?
Could he please come to my hotel, because this is just too
much for me? I only have so many days with him." At
that point, I only had twelve lessons left. So he agreed,
as long as I brought him some money to pay for the rickshaw.
So anyway, he came to my hotel, and we were sitting on the
floor in my room, and we were playing. At that point, he
hadn't given me those rings that you put on your fingers;
we were just doing it barehanded, just to get the fingering
down. It was still a loud instrument. So we were playing,
and the door was open, and all of a sudden there was the
manager of the hotel standing in the doorway. I stopped
and said, "Everything okay?" And he said, "Sure,
you are playing thavil!" I said, "Oh,
yeah, man, I'm sorry, is it too loud?" He said, "No,
this is fantastic!" The guy was like so into it, and
once again, it's like the gringo out there doing his thing,
that they weren't ready for. So he came to my hotel, and
for the next twelve lessons we did our thing in the hotel,
and then I went home. Unfortunately there are no thavil
teachers in the States. I just messed around with it for
as long as I could; I just tried to play what he showed
me. But what was happening, at that point, without my realizing
it, I already started playing drumset with my fingers. After
I had been playing thavil, I started doing experiments
with one stick in my hand. So it already started without
my even deciding to do that. I really don't know why, or
how. It just evolved. Like, for instance, there's a piece
I play where I play with a stick and hand. But over here
is a small djembe on a stand, and over here is
my Jag African talking drum. But I play that with a stick.
So what I'm playing is all thavil stuff. It's almost
100% thavil, but obviously not on the thavil.
I remember playing a film date one time, and they said,
"Oh, yeah, play congas." I said, "Congas?
I don't play congas." They said, "Come on, man,
play congas!" So I wound up playing tabla
stuff on the congas. Then I started doing some more on my
own, I actually bought some congas, and started experimenting.
But I'm playing them like a left-handed player would with
the high drum on the right because of the whole low-to-high
relationship, like on a piano. So that just kept evolving,
and evolving, and also through doing stuff with the Repercussion
NSR: Through this whole period,
you were getting immersed in world musics, but did you make
that part of your Western tradition, and keep up new music
by incorporating these things?
it was starting to come at us anyway, from new music. Like,
for instance, George Crumb. I don't even know where his
connection was with it all, but he had some stuff with fingers,
on bongos. So already there was this intricate stuff played
with your fingers, on bongos.
NSR: So if you had tabla
technique that was a way you could better execute that part?
So these different ingredients were slowly being put into
the soup. I also played Balinese gamelan. Then
the guy who was in the Javanese gamelan, K. R.
T. Wasitodiningrat, who's like a living treasure of Java,
he's probably 90 years old now, he came to America when
he was sixty, to start a new gig, in another language that
he didn't speak. I was totally blown away by that. Imagine
going to a whole other world at 60, when most people are
retiring, right? He came to CalArts, and he spent twenty
years there, teaching. And I didn't know, but he was a great
experimenter himself, and he was like a legend in Java for
doing all of this weird stuff, and all of these avant-garde
pieces. We played a piece of his called "Sopir Betjak,"
which was a rumba! Total rumba for Javanese
gamelan. He was playing a rumba pattern
on the Indonesian drum [kendang]! I was thinking,
"Man, this piece is amazing!" I talked to him
about it, and he said, "Oh, yes, yes, I heard some
South American music; I like that music." He also loved
John Coltrane. And this was a guy who, at that point, was
almost seventy! I was being completely blown away. And at
that point, things had already started with the Repercussion
Unit. Those guys were all students at CalArts, and we just
all of a sudden had a group. In that group, a lot of the
guys had studied tabla or mridangam. Like
Ed Mann, from the Frank Zappa band. We still play once in
a while, in that group. He brought mridangam to
it having studied with Ranganathan. There wasn't any one
point where anybody said, "Okay, now let's do this
on that;" it just kind of evolved naturally. I don't
know how else to put it. It was sort of like something that
just grew; and a little branch went out there, and a little
branch went out there, and all of a sudden we were doing
all these things. Like the players in my new group, Hands
On’semble. Randy Gloss wrote a piece, and he just
told Austin Wrinkle what to play on the tabla,
and it came out that the clave was in one hand,
and the cascará was in the other hand, it
was just the way it worked. That just kept snowballing and
snowballing, and I realized even on congas or on bongos,
you have those same three open sounds that you have on a
tabla and a mridangam; you've got the
rim, you've got this center, and the open one on every drum!
And that opened up a whole other door. And then that whole
thing about the South Indian percussionists playing the
full contingent of percussion [mridangam, kanjira,
ghatam, and murchang], but all playing
in unison. That really inspired me, so I thought, "Why
can't I do that on the congas? Why can't I do that on whatever?"
So then, a while later, on the first video I did with Interworld,
there was a solo with a quinto and an African drum.
It was once again tabla or thavil. It
was that same right hand-left hand--with the split-hand
thing, the bass over here . . . that idea, just coming out
on that instrument. It was just something that took its
own evolution, and it wasn't really specific.
NSR: When did frame drums and tambourines
come along for you?
Remo was just starting this world drum thing. I already
had a little thing going with them; I wasn't an endorsee,
exactly, but they knew about me, and they would give me
stuff at discount. Lloyd McCauslan called me up and said,
"There's a bunch of stuff we want you to test out."
So I drove down there; at that time I had a little Datsun
pickup. They literally filled the back of my pickup truck
with boxes of stuff; I didn't know what the hell it was.
So I got it home, and found a bodhrán. I
didn't even know then about bodhrán. I knew
it was a drum, and I thought, "What the hell do you
do with this?" The only thing I knew was about tabla
and thavil. So the first thing I did was I just
sat down and put it between my legs like a pair of bongos,
and that's why I started playing that way. They also had
some Chinese drums; most of the stuff they have since dumped,
they don't even make it anymore. But there were all kinds
of weird drums that they were just experimenting with making.
But in the meantime, Mark Nauseef came in. He was a student
at CalArts for a couple of years, and we hit it off right
away. And then he said, "You know about Glen Velez?"
He showed me this frame drum stuff. I said, "Oh, wow,"
and that's another new thing coming. So then Glen came and
gave some seminars, and we hung out. He was with Layne Redmond
then, and she was there. I was totally fascinated by the
whole thing, and I did a lot of practicing.
But in 1982, this
was before Glen came; I had a horrible accident in a car.
I literally almost died. If I hadn't have had my seatbelt
on I wouldn't be here talking to you. I didn't know but
I had a heat stroke. I was with the Repercussion Unit, and
we were doing our third recording. I was really feeling
sick, and they said, "Why don't you lie down? You don't
look so good." So I went home. I remember getting in
my car, and I put my stick bag in the front seat with me.
I was really feeling bad. I started out, and that was the
last thing I remember. What happened was that I passed out
on the way home, which was about seventeen miles from where
I was. It was a very hot day in August, and it was just
around sunset, and I literally went out, completely fainted
while I was driving. I drove into a pickup truck head-on.
But it wasn't dead head-on; it was like our left headlights
met and another guy came and hit me from the other side!
I was in this little tiny Datsun. If you looked at the car,
you would've assumed that I was dead. There was absolutely
no way you could live through this. They had to pry me out
of the car with that machine they have, the jaws-of-life.
They had to tear the door off to get me out. I spent the
next fifteen weeks in bed, and I broke this arm, this finger,
my elbow. I mean, you can see all these scars on my arm.
I busted my head. I didn't think I'd ever play again, because
my chops were finished. I couldn't even move my hand for
months and months and months. So I had fifteen weeks to
lie in bed and look at my chops. When I was in the hospital,
this other orthopedist came in one day, just to look around,
and he said, "Well, what do you do for a living?"
I said, " I'm a drummer." He said, "Really?
Well, you'd better start moving that finger right away."
I was home in a body cast, and my friend Ron Snyder, from
the Dallas Symphony, had his wife make me a dumbek.
I remember that I had a hospital bed at home, and I would
just play in bed, as much as I could. So thank God, it came
back, and I could play. I was really very lucky, I didn't
think I'd really ever play again.
So after that it
was just like one thing after another, with playing this
kind of drum and playing that kind of drum. And then I thought,
"I've been playing so many things, and I've been trying
to learn so much stuff, I have to somehow find a place to
cut it off." And so I said, just to myself, "By
the time I'm fifty years old, I'm not going to spend time
learning new instruments--anything that takes more than
twenty minutes to learn how to play, I'm not going to do
it [laughs]. That's why I don't play pandeiro,
for instance, because it was after that limit that I'd imposed
on myself. Now that already nine years ago. Alessandra Belloni
said, "This is your heritage, you have to play tamburello."
I said, "Alessandra, I love it, but if I have to practice
it I'm not going to do it, I can tell you that right now."
At that point I had become fascinated by the jaw harp, thanks
to Emil Richards. He's been like my godfather. I don't know
if he would admit to that, or if he even wants me to say
that. But I call him that, like my mentor. I've always,
whenever I needed advice, or anything, whatever it was,
business, playing, whatever, I'd call him and talk to him.
He’s like an older brother, basically.
So since then I've
been working on various things. We have a tabla
teacher now at CalArts, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, and I study
with him. I still do kanjira and ghatam.
And then the ongoing investigation of doing stuff on other
drums is still going on. Basically I've got this kind of
circle of stuff: frame drums, jaw harp, jal tarang,
tabla, ghatam, kanjira that I
concentrate on now. That's what I work with.
NSR: How do you approach composition
a good question. Composing evolved along with the playing
thing. Because I studied with Mike Colgrass. I don't know
if he does now, but at that time, there was no knowledge
of world music, or Indian music, or any of that stuff. We're
talking 1962-1963. I took a year's worth of composition
lessons with him. In my first lesson, I went to see Mike,
and he said, "Okay, look, here’s a piano, here's
some music paper, and I'm going to go out shopping."
He said, "I'll come back later, and you write a piece."
I asked, "Really?" He said, "Yeah, just write
a piece. Or as much of a piece as you can write." So
he went out and did his shopping; I don't know how long
it took, but when he came back I had written maybe a bar
or two of, like a little trio for flute, vibraphone, and
clarinet. He said, "Is that it? That's all you did?"
I said, "Yeah, that's all I can do right now."
He said, "Okay, let's start again." He did this
incredible thing. He mapped out bar lines, and then he literally
started drawing. And while he was drawing he would sing
to himself. Mike is a wonderful guy. I was looking at it,
thinking, "What the hell is this?" Once in a while
he would put in a couple of sixteenth notes, or an accent,
or a crescendo. He just sketched out, literally, the piece.
Then he would go in later and fill it in. Then maybe go
back and take out all the stuff that was not necessary.
So he taught me this way of composing, from singing inside,
thinking about almost the whole piece at once, like from
"How is it going to start," and "How is it
going to end." When I studied with him, I wrote this
one piece called "Interactions," for vibraphone
and six percussionists. That was my first official piece.
It was in a classical/new music genre. I used something
he showed called "reflective groups." It was almost
like twelve-tone music, but I used three notes; upside down,
backwards, augmentation, diminution; that kind of thing.
I went through a whole piece, with that.
And then I didn't
study with him anymore, and I investigated a lot of books
about composition; I read a lot of stuff about composition.
And of course I listened; I always listened to music, and
I read scores. I was fascinated by following Bela Bartók.
So I just started writing more. And then, by the time I
got interested in Indian music, and I realized that, in
a way, they also have compositions, maybe not exact copies
of, like our compositions, but they do compose. And they
compose songs, they compose tabla compositions,
or whatever. I just started, once again, without a demarcation
point, like saying, "Now I'm going to do that;"
it just kind of like crept in. And then, at CalArts, when
Ed Mann was a student, he wanted to do a piece that was
like an Indian-type piece for his graduation recital. So
I wrote "Piru Bol." I admit, once again, that
it was one of those things where if I had known then what
was happening, I don't know what I would've done differently,
but that piece has been played hundreds of times. I can't
believe how many people have played that piece. It's loose,
no specified instrumentation, you can play it on a variety
of instruments. We did one performance with ten drumsets.
So you can do it with anything at all, you can play it on
garbage pails. I just started writing more music that had
that kind of tala, using Indian syllables; the idea of Indian
drumming; the idea of Indian rhythm. My approach to improvisation
is completely dependent on the musical situation and the
instrument I’m playing. Whether or not I’m playing
in a jazz situation, an Indian situation, or a free improvisation
with Repercussion Unit. The instrument I’m playing
is also a factor. It’s different from a guitarist
or pianist because they’re always working with the
same instrument but sometimes I’m playing a mallet
instrument, or a drumset, or a hand drum. In terms of an
approach to what I do in specific moments of improvisation,
I really don’t have one. When the moment happens,
that’s when I have one. I remember having a great
time in Ireland at a late night jam and there was no drum
for me to play. A guitar player gave me his case, and we
had a great time! It became a great drum but I never played
that as an instrument before.
NSR: When you're called to do studio
work in a creative situation, how do you choose what instruments
you're going to use, and how do you deal with the openness
of a creative situation? When somebody calls you in to play,
how do you decide what you're going to play on what instruments?
it's a situation like that, and I have done a quite a number
of those. I don't just go to the date, and then they say,
"This is what you're going to do." If I know in
front, I try to always have them send me some kind of skeletal
recording of what they're going to do. I'll sit at home,
and I'll work with it, and then I'll figure out what I'm
going to do from there, according to what the tune is. Now
I did two recordings with Shadowfax, and both times they
wanted tabla. What they did was they had some kind
of bogus tabla sound from a synthesizer. They put
the tune on tape and sent it to me. So that way I had the
tuning, because that can be a pain in the butt. If you're
not in tune, you can take an hour to get the thing in tune.
So I had the tabla already tuned, I knew the piece
we were going to play, and I was playing on tabla;
I knew I had to do some improvising, I went in there, and
the session was over in an hour. We were in and out. And
it was great, that’ s the best way to work. That's
what I ask people to do, to send me a sketch, or whatever
they have. I always ask the composer, whoever's in charge,
the producer, what they hear. So it's always a combination
of what they hear and what I hear. If they say, "Oh,
it's up to you," then I need to hear something before
I get there. The only session that I've ever just improvised
for was The Island of Dr. Moreau film. It came
out in 1996, and starred Marlon Brando. I actually got credit
on that one. I played some frame drum stuff and just basically
NSR: Can you tell me a little more
about your current percussion group Hands On'semble?
another one of those things like the Repercussion Unit,
where all of a sudden we had a group, but we didn't know
we had a group. What happened was, a few years in the past
we did Randy Gloss' graduation recital, Austin Wrinkle's
graduation recital, and Andrew Grueschow's graduation recital.
But we did it as tabla players, because we all
played a tabla piece together. Then we just started
doing other stuff. The next thing you know, we said, "Hey,
let's do something." Austin and Randy and I got together
first, and we started making pieces. Andrew had gone to
the Ali Akbar school for a year; he came back, and we said,
"Hey, man, do you want to play in this group? Let's
do it." And he started writing music, and Randy was
talking about how he wrote music; Austin's written this
one piece, and we're bugging him to write another one. And
it was just one of those things, again, that just all of
a sudden it was there. We had a group, but what were we
going to call it? And I thought, "You know, "Hands
On" is pretty nice, the "Hands On'semble."
Thank God for CalArts, because I really owe a lot to that
school, just because of the way it is: the looseness of
it, the availability of it twenty-four hours a day. We had
a place to practice, and we had a place to rehearse. We
recorded our whole album there; no recording studio fees.
We did it ourselves, the whole thing. Randy did the graphics.
It's been, once again, another impetus for me to write music.
I wrote this piece, "Frembe" based on the drum
circle. In the early days, when we used to get together
to do drum circles, it was quiet, mostly frame drums and
stuff. Then the djembe guys came. I have nothing
against djembe, I love it. But you know how it
is. One djembe player will wipe out twenty frame
drummers in five seconds. And that used to freak me out.
And I thought, "There's got to be some common ground
we could come to." Because you don't always have to
play the djembe like they do in Senegal. You can
actually play it with your fingers, you can play harmonics,
you can play with a superball; you can do all of this stuff.
So I wrote a piece for two frame drums and two djembes
called "Frembe." The title is a combination of
the names of the two instruments. That was because of this
group. Because we all like to play djembe, and
we all like to play frame drum. It was just another one
of those things. Like my whole life has been, in a way,
music was never really like a big conscious decision: "Okay,
now I'm going to do this!" It was like this little
door opened, and I looked inside, and said, "Oh, hey,
that's interesting; let's go there." And it was like
that kind of thing, like with tabla, with everything.
I've just been lucky; really, really lucky! On our new CD
Shradhanjali, I have a piece called "Shradhanjali,"
which I actually wrote sketches of years ago. "Shradhanjali"
means "thanks to the teachers." So it's going
to be a "thank you" to all of my teachers. I mean,
when I look at the list, I can't believe that I've actually
had a chance to study with these people!
& Bill Crofut
Eastern Ferris Wheel LP 1968 Columbia CS 9746
Dreaming with Serpents CD 1999 Acoustic Levitation
Rise CD 1979 A&M 75021-3274-2
Angels of Venice CD 1999 Windham Hill 11440
On the Edge CD 1986 CMP CD 27
Cloud Hands Cassette 1988 Interworld Music C-903
Apartment CD 1999 CNR CNR 1012
The Vermilion Sea CD 1994 Gyroscope GYR-660602
Bracha CD 1988 CMP CD 34
Derek Duke, Matt Uelmen
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade Soundtrack
CD 2007 Blizzard Entertainment S7262414
First Construction in Metal 7" LP 1973 Dolor
Del Estamago (no #)
Heat, Dust and Dreams CD 1993 Capitol 98795
You Tell Me CD 1989 Ochimancia Records 108754
Continuum CD 1995 Ninewinds Records NWCD0166
Passages CD 2000 Ninewinds Records NWCD0213
The Viola in My Life LP 1972 CRI CRISD276
Hands On’semble CD 1998 Tala Mala 1414
Shradhanjali CD 2001 Tala Mala 1415
La Koro Sutro CD 1987 New Albion NA015
Music for Guitar and Percussion CD 1985 Etcetera
Records KTC 1071
Howdy Moon CD 1974 Universal UICY 75315
El Equilibrio de los Jaguares CD 1996 BMG U.S.
Khan (John on drumset!)
Journey CD 1990 Triloka 184-2
Klung CD 2008 Equilibrium EQ91
Jungle Moon: Site of the Sacred Drum CD 1996 Ikauma
Moore, Larry Karush & Glen Velez)
Afriqúe CD 1994 AudioQuest Music AQ-CD 1024
Duit on Mon Dei LP 1975 RCA 0817
Discover America CD 1972 Warner Brothers 26145-2
(John on drumset!)
Syncopation CD 2000 Liän 112
Repercussion Unit LP 1976/1978 Robey Records ROB
Christmas Party Cassette 1980 Robey Records ROB
Turkey in the Grass/Startime/Barf on a Ghoul 7"
LP 1983 Robey Records ROB 3
In Need Again CD 1987 CMP CD 37
Love is Overtaking Me CD 2008 Rough Trade RTRADCD481
Folk Songs for a Nuclear Village CD 1988 Capitol
CDP 7 46924 2
The Odd Get Even CD 1990 Atlantic 20652P
The Robert Shaw Choral on Tour LP 1963 RCA LSC
Ask CD 1992 Interworld Music CD-20002
Vertical Man CD 1998 Mercury 314 558 400-2
Life as We Know It CD 1995 Higher Octave 7972
Midnight Rainbow CD 1998 Midi Inc. MDCJ-1006
Lenox School of Jazz Concert 1959 CD 1959 Jeal
Records RJD 513
LP 1968 Odyessy 32 16 0156
CMP Records Music By: CD 1987
CMP Records CD 5001
The World of Drums and Percussion,
Vol. 2 CD 1987 Times Square Records 9905
CD 1999 CD 1999 California Institute for the Arts 1999
CD 2000 CD 2000 California Institute for the Arts 2000
Asura CD 1997 Samsung Music SCO-144 WIN
Chamber Concerto for Flute LP 1969 CRI CRISD230
Zappa in New York CD 1977 Barking Pumpkin D2 74240
Studio Tan CD 1978 Rykodisc RCD 10526
Orchestral Favorites CD 1979 Rykodisc RCD 10529
with John Bergamo
of Fear (1971 RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video)
Scarecrow (1972 Warner Home Video)
The Possessed (1977 Unicorn Video)
The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977 Warner Home
The Bad News Bears go to Japan (1978 Paramount
Chapter Two (1979 Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment)
Altered States (1980 Warner Home Video)
Popeye (1980 Paramount)
Tarzan the Ape Man (1981 MGM/United Artists Home
National Lampoon's Class Reunion (1982 Summa Video)
Acts of Violence (1985 Cinema Guild)
Crossroads (1986 Columbia TriStar Home Video)
Project X (1987 CBS/Fox)
Who's Harry Crumb? (1989 RCA/Columbia Pictures)
L.A. Story (1990 DVS Home Video)
The Perfect Weapon (1991 Paramount)
Sniper (1993 Columbia TriStar Home Video)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996 New Line Home Video)
- (John Bergamo, frame drums in soundtrack)
The Art & Joy of Hand Drumming 1990 Interworld
Finding Your Way with Hand Drums 1991 Interworld
Hand Drumming with John Bergamo (book/CD/video)
1997 Tal Mala
R.U. Nuts: Repercussion Unit Goes Abroad 1991 Pal
World Drums 1986 National Film Board of Canada
Bergamo, John. Style
Studies for Mallet Keyboard Instruments. New York:
Music for Percussion, 1969.
"Indian Music in America." Percussionist
19, no. 1 (November 1981): 5-8.
________. "The Indian
Ghatam and Tavil." Percussionist 19, no. 1
(November 1981): 18-23.
________. "The Thavil
of South India." Percussioner International
1, no. 1 (June 1984): 21, 30, 38. [Also performs on thavil
on accompanying cassette].
________. "New Sounds
in Percussion Ensemble: On the Edge." Percussioner
International 1, no. 3 (1986): 83. [Also performs excerpts
from "On the Edge" on accompanying cassette].
________. "Rhythm Scale."
Percussioner International 1, no. 4 (1987): 32-
35. [Also performs bols on accompanying cassette].
________. "The Sound
of a One-Hand Paradiddle." Drum! 1, no. 1
(September/October 1991): 34-35.
________. "More Hand
Drum Fingerings." Drum! 1, no. 2 (November/December
________. "More Hand
Drum Fingerings." Drum! 1, no. 3 (January/February
________. "Speed Through
Precision." Drum! 1, no. 6 (July/August 1992):
the Chops: Hand Drumming for Stick Drummers." Modern
Drummer 21, no. 4 (April 1997): 128, 130-132, 134.
________. Hand Drumming
with John Bergamo [book/CD/video]. Piru, CA: Tala,
Bergamo, John with
Janet Bergamo. "Exploring Tambourine Techniques."
Percussive Notes 28, no. 3 (Spring 1990): 12-14.
Brooks, Iris. "Global
Beat: World Drum Festival." Ear: Magazine of New
Music 2, no. 3 (November 1986): 8.
"The World Drum Festival." Modern Percussionist
3, no. 1 (December/February 1986/1987): 14-17, 37, 39.
Hands On'semble Songbook. Piru, CA: Tala Mala,
Pershing, Karen Ervin.
"Repercussion Unit: The Indigenous Music of Newhall."
Modern Percussionist 2, no. 3 (June/August 1986):
14-17, 39, 41.
Robinson, N. Scott.
"John Bergamo: Percussion World View." Percussive
Notes 39, no. 1 (February 2001): 8-17.
Sampson, Chris. "John
Bergamo Tribute Concert." Percussive Notes
46, no. 5 (October 2008): 50-51.
Sofia, Sal. "John
Bergamo: Rhyme, Rhythm, and Raga." Percussioner
International 1, no. 4 (1987): 50-55.
"The World Drum Festival." Percussioner International
2, no. 1 (November 1987): 66-72.
Stasi, Carlos. "John
Bergamo & Hands On’semble." Batera &
Percussão [Brazil] 4, no. 39 (November 2000):
by John Bergmo
Three Pieces for the Winter Solstice
(vibraphone solo). Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1960.
5 Miniatures (4 percussionists).
Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1960.
Four Pieces for Timpani. New York:
Music for Percussion, 1961.
Interactions for Vibraphone (and
6 percussionists). New York: Music for Percussion, 1963.
Tanka (solo). Piru, CA: Tala Mala,
#33 (5 percussionists). Piru, CA:
Tala Mala, 1970.
Duets and Solos (vibraphone and marimba).
Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1970.
Like Be-Bop. Piru, CA: Tala Mala
Little Smegma, Son of Toe Cheese.
Piru, CA: Tala Mala (year unknown).
Piru Bole. Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1974.
Foreign Objects (mallets, drumset,
bass). Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1975.
Remembrance (vibraphone and baritone
voice). Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1978.
Gupta Sloka Chand (2 marimbas, 2
vibraphones, xylophone, and improvised solo). Piru, CA:
Tala Mala, 1978.
On the Edge. Piru, CA: Tala Mala,
Blanchard Canyon (5 amplified cymbals).
Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1985.
5x5x5. Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1986.
Faropace (2 or more percussionists).
Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1987.
Grand Ambulation of the Bb Zombies
(percussion ensemble). Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1987.
Different Strokes (snare drum). In
The Noble Snare: Compositions for Unaccompanied Snare
Drum, Volume 3. Sharon, VT: Smith Publications, 1988.
Frembe. Sharon, VT: Smith Publications,
Tulumbaz (timpani solo). Piru, CA:
Tala Mala, 1997.
Totally Hip. Piru, CA: Tala Mala
5 Short Pieces for Marimba. Sharon,
VT: Smith Publications, 2000.
Movements 1, 3 & 4 from 5 Short Pieces
for Marimba also published in the collection Marimba
Concert. Sharon, VT: Smith Publications, 2000.
Commissioned Works by John
Entrada Siete for Maelstrom Percussion Ensemble,
Havoc in Heaven for Bill T. Jones and the Berkshire
Amiyada (2 tubas, 3 percussionists) for Donaueshigen
Festival in Germany, 1998.
©2000 - N. Scott Robinson. All rights reserved.