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"John Bergamo: Percussion World View"

By N. Scott Robinson
from Percussive Notes 39, no. 1 (February 2001): 8-17.

John 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?

JB: My 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 Mass in B Minor, 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 1964-1966. 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?

JB: In 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 at CalArts.

NSR: When did the world music boom begin? Were you primarily doing new music there?

JB: It 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?

JB: Collin 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?

JB: At 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 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 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?

JB: I 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 Unit.

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?

JB: Well, 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?

JB: Exactly! 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?

JB: When 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 and improvisation?

JB: That's 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 Bole. 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?

JB: If 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 improvised.

NSR: Can you tell me a little more about your current percussion group Hands On'semble?

JB: It's 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!

For more, please see Robinson, N. Scott.  "The New Percussionist in Jazz: Organological and Technical Expansion." M.A. thesis, Kent State University, 2002.

John Bergamo Discography

Stephen Addiss & Bill Crofut
Eastern Ferris Wheel LP 1968 Columbia CS 9746

Gustavo Aguilar
Dreaming with Serpents CD 1999 Acoustic Levitation Al-100

Herb Alpert
Rise CD 1979 A&M 75021-3274-2

Angels of Venice
Angels of Venice CD 1999 Windham Hill 11440

John Bergamo
On the Edge CD 1986 CMP CD 27
Cloud Hands Cassette 1988 Interworld Music C-903

Chris Blake
Apartment CD 1999 CNR CNR 1012

The Vermilion Sea CD 1994 Gyroscope GYR-660602

Bracha CD 1988 CMP CD 34

Russell Brower, Derek Duke, Matt Uelmen
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade Soundtrack CD
2007 Blizzard Entertainment S7262414

John Cage
First Construction in Metal 7" LP 1973 Dolor Del Estamago (no #)

Johnny Clegg & Savuka
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

Morton Feldman
The Viola in My Life LP 1972 CRI CRISD276

Hands On’semble
Hands On’semble CD 1998 Tala Mala 1414
Shradhanjali CD 2001 Tala Mala 1415

Lou Harrison
La Koro Sutro CD 1987 New Albion NA015
Music for Guitar and Percussion CD 1985 Etcetera Records
KTC 1071

Howdy Moon
Howdy Moon CD 1974 Universal UICY 75315

El Equilibrio de los Jaguares CD 1996 BMG U.S. Latin

Ali Akbar Khan (John on drumset!)
Journey CD 1990 Triloka 184-2

Gene Koshinski
Klung CD 2008 Equilibrium EQ91

Brent Lewis
Jungle Moon: Site of the Sacred Drum CD 1996 Ikauma
Records IRD-0006

Mokave (Glen Moore, Larry Karush & Glen Velez)
Afriqúe CD 1994 AudioQuest Music AQ-CD 1024

Harry Nilsson
Duit on Mon Dei LP 1975 RCA 0817

Van Dyke Parks
Discover America CD 1972 Warner Brothers 26145-2

Houman Pourmehdi (John on drumset!)
Syncopation CD 2000 Liän 112

Repercussion Unit
Repercussion Unit LP 1976/1978 Robey Records ROB 1
Christmas Party Cassette 1980 Robey Records ROB 2
Turkey in the Grass/Startime/Barf on a Ghoul 7" EP 1983
Robey Records ROB 3
In Need Again CD 1987 CMP CD 37

Arthur Russell
Love is Overtaking Me CD 2008 Rough Trade RTRADCD481

Ron George
The Floating Bubble CD 2008 Innova Recordings 215

Folk Songs for a Nuclear Village CD 1988 Capitol CDP 7
46924 2
The Odd Get Even CD 1990 Atlantic 20652P

Robert Shaw
The Robert Shaw Choral on Tour LP 1963 RCA LSC 2676

Julie Spencer
Ask CD 1992 Interworld Music CD-20002

Ringo Starr
Vertical Man CD 1998 Mercury 314 558 400-2

Tim Timmermans
Life as We Know It CD 1995 Higher Octave 7972

Hideaki Tokunaga
Midnight Rainbow CD 1998 Midi Inc. MDCJ-1006

Various Artists
Lenox School of Jazz Concert 1959 CD 1959 Jeal Records RJD 513
Extended Voices LP 1968 Odyssey 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
CalArts Women’s CD 1999 CD 1999 California Institute for the Arts 1999
CalArts Women’s CD 2000 CD 2000 California Institute for the Arts 2000

Asura CD 1997 Samsung Music SCO-144 WIN

Charles Wuorinen
Chamber Concerto for Flute LP 1969 CRI CRISD230

Frank Zappa
Zappa in New York CD 1977 Barking Pumpkin D2 74240
Studio Tan CD 1978 Rykodisc RCD 10526
Orchestral Favorites CD 1979 Rykodisc RCD 10529


Film Soundtracks with John Bergamo

A Reflection 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 Video)
The Bad News Bears go to Japan (1978 Paramount Home
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 Video)
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)



John Bergamo
The Art & Joy of Hand Drumming 1990 Interworld Music
Finding Your Way with Hand Drums 1991 Interworld Music
Hand Drumming with John Bergamo (book/CD/video) 1997
Tal Mala

Repercussion Unit
R.U. Nuts: Repercussion Unit Goes Abroad 1991 Pal

Various Artists
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 SPACE thavil on accompanying cassette].

________. "New Sounds in Percussion Ensemble: On the Edge." Percussioner International 1, no. 3 (1986): 83. SPACE[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 SPACEcassette].

________. "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 1991): 36.

________. "More Hand Drum Fingerings." Drum! 1, no. 3 (January/February 1992): 34-35.

________. "Speed Through Precision." Drum! 1, no. 6 (July/August 1992): 40, 42.

________. "My Life in a World of Hand Drums." Crafton Percussion Works Catalog (1996): 2.

________. "Transferring the Chops: Hand Drumming for Stick Drummers." Modern Drummer 21, no. 4 (April 1997): SPACE128, 130-132, 134.

________. Hand Drumming with John Bergamo [book/CD/video]. Piru, CA: Tala, Mala, 1997.

Bergamo, John with Janet Bergamo. "Exploring Tambourine Techniques." Percussive Notes 28, no. 3 (Spring 1990): SPACE12-14.

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, SPACE39.

Pershing, Karen Ervin. "Repercussion Unit: The Indigenous Music of Newhall." Modern Percussionist 2, no. 3 SPACE(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): 38-41, SPACE66.

Williams, B. Michael. "John Bergamo: Percussive Renaissance Man." Percussive Notes 50, no. 6 (November 2012): SPACE8-13.


Published Compositions by John Bergamo

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, 1964.

#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, 1983.

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.

Piru Bole. Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1978.

On the Edge. Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1982.

Blanchard Canyon (5 amplified cymbals). Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1985.

Little Smegma, Son of Toe Cheese. Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1986.

5x5x5. Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1986.

Totally Hip. 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, SPACEVT: Smith Publications, 1988.

Frembe. Sharon, VT: Smith Publications, 1997.

Tulumbaz (timpani solo). Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 1997.

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, SPACEVT: Smith Publications, 2000.

Hands On'semble. Hands On'semble Songbook. Piru, CA: Tala Mala, 2002.


Commissioned Works by John Bergamo

Entrada Siete for Maelstrom Percussion Ensemble, 1988.

Havoc in Heaven for Bill T. Jones and the Berkshire Ballet, 1990.

Amiyada (2 tubas, 3 percussionists) for Donaueschigen Festival in Germany, 1998.

©2000 - N. Scott Robinson. All rights reserved.


© & ℗1999-N. Scott Robinson/New World View Music-BMI. All rights reserved.

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N. Scott Robinson -