"Glen Velez: A World of Sound in His Hands"

By N. Scott Robinson
from Modern Drummer 24, no. 4 (April 2000), 72-76, 78-80, 82, 84, 86.

Glen Velez, a gifted musician with a deep philosophy about music and drumming, chose to play tambourines and frame drums when his career as a first call New York City classical percussionist had blossomed. As a classical percussionist, Glen worked with the ETC Company of La Mama, Orchestra of Our Time, Parnassus, Israel Philharmonia, Brooklyn Philharmonia, Opera Orchestra of New York, Group for Contemporary Music, New York City Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet Orchestra, Nancy Laird Chance, Doris Hays, Orchestra of St. Luke's, Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and Steve Reich. By the early 1980s, his interest in percussion shifted dramatically to hand drumming and specifically to tambourines and other frame drums. He studied traditional styles from Egypt, Persia, India, Italy, Brazil, Morocco, and Ireland and unified the various individual techniques into a composite vocabulary for frame drums. Glen’s unified technique was a more flexible style rhythmically that lead to his success at using primarily frame drums in a recording career with diverse jazz, pop, and world music artists such as ADC Band, Manzanita, El Luis, Charlie Morrow, Paul Winter, Peter Griggs, Trio Globo, Mokave, Rabih-Abou Khalil, New York’s Ensemble for Early Music, Suzanne Vega, Pat Metheny, Trapezoid, Mike Cain, Kimberly Bass, Malcolm Dalglish, Arthur Lipner, Richard Stoltzman, Alhambra, Jonas Hellborg, David Lanz, Patty Larkin, Suso Saiz, Benjamin Verdery, and Badal Roy. Glen Velez has studied with Fred Hinger (classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music), Ramnad Raghavan (mridangam & kanjira), Hanna Mirhige (riqq), Dom um Romão (pandeiro), Erasto Vasconcelos (pandeiro), Zevulon Avshalomov (ghaval), Trichy Sankaran (kanjira), Michel Merhej Baklouk (riqq), Alessandra Belloni (tamburello & tammorra), Ed Harrison (Joropo maracas), Kepa Junkera (Basque panderoa), Ephat Mujuru (mbira dza vadzimu), and T.H. Subash Chandran (solkattu).

A Mexican-American from Texas, Glen’s roots are in jazz drumset and if you’ve seen him play solo at PASIC, Modern Drummer Festival Weekend, Perc Pan, or percussion festivals in Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, or Europe, his advanced drumset-like independence is evident. By the 1990s, he expanded his approach to frame drumming with the hands to incorporate sticks, brushes, polyrhythmic independence, and a high-medium-low approach to instrument choices such as shakers, maracas, caxixi, low frame drums, cymbals, and high tambourines. This led to his own frame drum-drumset and his performing more in music that had a stronger jazz feel, which can be heard on his recordings with Mike Cain, Mokave, and Trio Globo. With his performance on over 120 recordings, ten of which are of his own music, and ten video releases, Glen Velez continues to develop his music and drumming to new levels of virtuosity and creativity. As I entered his tiny studio New York City apartment, frame drums, shakers, and other exotica fill every space on the walls and floor. An attempt to make room for me to sit only led Glen to cheerfully opening some cases to show me drums he just got from Spain, Italy, and Turkey. Taken in by his quiet, unassuming personality, I asked him about his early days with jazz drumming, Fred Hinger, and world music . . .

NSR: How much training or experience did you have on drumset before you went to Manhattan School of Music?

GV: My first teacher was a drumset player, my uncle. I was going with him to gigs when I was eight. He played with big bands and small combos. There was a pretty wide range of things he did, you know, social music, and Mexican dances, that kind of thing. Then there was jazz, Swing Era music. My father was a musician, and he was really a big jazz fan. He loved Louis Armstrong, and all the guys from the 1930s, and the 1920s. I got to know a lot about the musical styles, Sid Catlett, all the different drummers that were popular, and their stylistic differences. I was getting hands-on material about it by learning the drumset, and seeing what it's like to imitate these guys and their styles. From the time I was about seven or eight to the time I was eighteen, I was doing a lot of that by listening to bebop stuff and studying from the Jim Chapin [drumset] book, that kind of independence material. I’d would do that kind of thing, and play along with recordings. I was around it a lot.

NSR: What prompted you to get away from playing jazz drumset and get into studying classical percussion?

GV: That's a good question. I'd have to really kind of meditate on what was going on, exactly, when I was eighteen. There was a track that I felt was the track that you get on if you want to become a musician, a professional musician, and that track went through music school. I looked at the choices that I had like Oberlin, all the conservatories here in New York; and then I looked at some of the schools out in California. Number one, there was a real attraction to New York and the environment, in terms of the other players, and the people I would be around, would be the highest level.

Another thing was the legitimacy. I wasn't so interested in just going out and playing and being in bands, and just learning by doing. I really felt that I wanted to get this training, and then I’d figure out where it would lead me. So the track led through New York, and it led through one of the conservatories here. So I went to Manhattan School of Music and studied with Fred Hinger. Growing up, I was always reading Down Beat, and material about the music business and stuff, and it just seemed like that was the most highly skilled training that you could go for. So that's the way I went. I was very interested in new music; I was reading about John Cage and that was part of the attraction because I knew that New York City was where I would find out more about that. I wouldn't find out about that in California. So I think that was a big attraction, and Paul Price was teaching at Manhattan. He was someone that was very closely associated with percussion music and how it's used in new music. That was for me a very far-out kind of fringe thing to find out about, how percussion was used. I had seen some articles about some pieces by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, I was very fascinated by that, and I wanted to find out more about that stuff. So that's why I went in that direction. I'd never even thought, "Well, exactly what am I going to learn at these schools?" I didn't really think through that it's going to be mostly orchestral music, I had no idea about that, but it worked out okay; I was glad that I did it.

NSR: Did you abandon pursuing drumset?

GV: Yeah, as soon as I came up here! I was going to some clubs when I first came to New York, and one of the first things that I kind of realized internally was that there were so many great drumset players. To be a drumset player would be me among thousands of very talented people, especially here. And it just didn't seem like I wanted to be swimming with a whole bunch of people doing the same thing. That's been a theme, my natural inclination is whatever the majority of people are doing, I incline to do something else. That’s part of the process for me. I just kind of go off to the side and find something that not a lot of people are fooling with. It helps me be creative in that I don't have so many people doing the same thing around me, and then I can just do my own thing more clearly. I don't get confused by seeing so many other people who make brilliant choices and do great things, and then get very influenced by that, and not know really what I wanted, what my choices are. So when I go off and do these kind of fringe things, it’s because of that, then there’s an open field, and the choices I make, I don't have models to follow, and I can just kind of do what I want. That was all part of it but definitely moving away from drumset happened as soon as I came up here. Then I started to focus on new music and mallets.

NSR: And that was in the 1960s?

GV: Yeah, I came up here in 1967-1968, that period. Now, it only lasted four months; I was only here for one semester. It was kind of a culture shock, and plus the fact, which I look back on and realize, is that I'm not really a school person. The school format, it just was very hard for me to get into. I was going to school, but not really wanting to go, and I kept cutting down how many days I would go. And after a while I realized, "Look, there's no point in me doing this," because I wasn’t really going to the school. I'm was going to my lessons, spending time practicing, and all that, but every time I had to go to a classroom, I was trying to figure out how to get out of it. So I went back to Dallas in January, and then just practiced and hung out for a couple of months, and then I went into the Army Band for two and a half years. Which was a very good period for me also, because I got a chance, again, to be very isolated, in that there was nobody influencing any choices I was making, and I was just looking at this material that Fred Hinger had showed me, and trying to understand it, just by practicing it, and seeing what would happen if I followed the ideas that he was talking about. That was a very, very good sequence of events for me.

NSR: What were some of the ideas Hinger showed you?

GV: Circular motion; Fred Hinger was a very, very deep thinker about percussion, and he was able to kind of distill certain ideas in a very practical way; the idea that all the strokes are basically circular, and that if you follow that form of circles, when you're playing, then there's an efficiency, and a potential for a lot of expressivity that you're not going to get from this idea of "up and down," which is superficially what you think percussion is about. You raise a stick up, and bash that thing, but his idea was all about circular motion, and it was more of an Eastern idea about how you would approach movement. I really just liked the concept, and so I just worked a lot on trying to figure out, how this really worked, or how does it relate, and does it work, and is it a satisfying way to play? Hinger was also influenced by George Hamilton Green, the xylophone player in ideas about squeezing the stick: instead of making a big wrist motion. You squeeze the stick, and that produces a curve in the stick. So just by these squeezing motions, you would be able to do this circular thing, and wouldn't be doing a lot of up and down movement but you'd get from point A to point B in a way that would be potentially very musical, and have a lot of practical use. So those kinds of ideas were the things that were influencing me. Hinger really was the first one to point out the idea that the words you use to describe your action are very insightful, in terms of what you're trying to do, and if you want to change what you're doing, you can change the words. And you'll start to get a whole other perspective. Instead of using the word "hit," he used the word "touch." So the word "touch," and the implications of that…you're touching the instrument, you know, on every stroke. You're not hitting the instrument on every stroke. And so the connection between what that does in your whole image of what is happening, physically and in all other ways, then that puts it in another sphere, you know, of sound making. And so those kinds of ideas about where the surface is. Where exactly is the surface? If you're thinking "hit," then you're giving yourself the illusion, or the kind of preconception that the surface is in exactly one spot, and you're going to strike it, and then the stick is going to bounce back up, and that's going to be the action that takes place. But if you think of the word "touch," you're thinking of what is really happening, and I think much closer to reality, is the fact that drums and percussion have malleable surfaces. The stick is malleable and the surface is malleable. So that the contact time is very much your choice; how long you want to leave the stick there. That issue, of how long the contact is, is a very, very big one in terms of how many variables you can get, in terms of sound.

One of the things I've never really talked about that much, and people haven't asked me about it, and I haven't even articulated that often, was these things about Hinger and the influence that he had on me. I guess because a lot of people don't even know that I have that background. I get this all the time [in a surprised tone of voice]: "Oh, you read music!" Or, [surprised]: "Oh, you speak English" [chuckles], that kind of thing because I have much more notoriety as a world music musician than I had playing in ensembles and stuff with classical music. The thing is that a lot of people don't even know I did that. They don't really know that I have that Western background before I had this.

Even Hinger doesn't see the relationship! [chuckles]. He thought what I was doing was nuts! I didn't hear that from him directly but several people told me that. Russ Hartenberger and John Wyre of Nexus, they keep in contact with Hinger and me. Russ was saying, "Fred was saying, 'What is Glen doing? He was really good playing the mallets, and all this stuff. He threw it all away, just to play the tambourine!'" From where he's coming from, this is nutty. Why would anybody waste their time doing this? You can only study orchestral tambourine a certain amount of time, and then you move on with it. I don't think he really ever got it. It's not easy to see the relationship between the classical stuff that I did and what I'm doing now.

NSR: You’re not just copying the traditional elements that you've studied; isn’t there a point to be made about foundation?

GV: I would think it'd be very hard if right from the beginning you say, "Here are these thousand choices that I have;" you could study African drumming, and then you've got all this, you can go from one to another without getting really deeply into any one of them. I think that could really be a problem. Because you can wind up just with a superficial knowledge about a lot of different things. I think whatever you're doing, as far as getting early training, is do one thing really, really intensely. Even if you're doing a lot of things, but there's has to be one thing that you really spend a lot of time to get deep into, and figure out really what's going on with it. Whether it's snare drum playing, or whether it's South Italian tamburello. I can see that it could be easy to just skim over everything because there are so many things, and if you really started out with the idea, "I want to be a world music percussionist," it'd be a lot of stuff.

NSR: What happened that attracted you to hand drumming, to get away from the classical percussion?

GV: I think it was twofold, and it's only in hindsight, looking back on it, that I'd created the picture of what I thought happened. One was, I was really missing improvising. On the drumset, improvising is such a big part of what you do; the material is not written out, and you're using models that you've heard other players play, but then you kind of do it your own way, and part of it is adding your own taste, your touch, to it. So I'd grown up doing a lot of that, and I enjoyed that a lot. In the classical realm, even with Steve Reich, there was zero improvising. Most of the stuff I was doing was reading.

So that was one thing that there was starting to be a frustration about. Another thing that, only in hindsight did I realize, was how much I wanted to be in contact with the drum, with the instruments, by not having a stick in my hand. Of course, I didn't know that because I hadn't tried to play any hand drums before. But as soon as I started to do that, I realized how much more satisfying that was for me, personally. Looking back, those two things probably were the biggest issues. And the first one, improvising, is connected with the reading. Because I was reading so much, instead of improvising. The balance there was off for me. The other thing was that I was playing everything with sticks! I discovered gradually that it was much more satisfying for me to play with my hands. All the tactile association that comes from that was much more fulfilling for me than doing things with sticks.

NSR: Did you discover tambourines right away or did you start on congas?

GV: No, the first thing was mridangam. Even when I was a kid, I liked Indian music. I had Ravi Shankar records, other Indian records, and I would just really get off on listening to those. There was no way for to find out more about it, besides just listening. But when I came up here, I knew that Wesleyan University [CT] was going big guns at that time, in the 1960s, with performance in their world music program; it was one of the most pioneering world music programs in the United States. They had Sharda Sahai, Ramnad Raghavan, Balinese musicians, and Abraham Adzenyah from West Africa. Later, when I was with Steve Reich, and playing with Russ Hartenberger and Bob Becker, great percussionists that play in Nexus, I knew that they were studying at Wesleyan. Russ and Bob were going to school there. When I started playing with Steve Reich, I came in contact with them, and was hearing stories about their studies, and what they were doing, and I knew that Russ had studied South Indian music, and I wanted find out what that was about. Ramnad Raghavan was living in New York, so I just called him up and started to take lessons from him on mridangam, the big classical drum of southern India. And then he saw my orchestral tambourine on the wall, and he said, "Oh, we play that," you know, kanjira [South India’s classical tambourine] style. And he started to play that, . . . I immediately thought, "You know, that's great, it's amazing! You're doing all that on tambourine!" I said, "Let's study that, I want to find out more about kanjira," and that's how the whole thing started. I started to study the kanjira, the vocalizations, and I was still doing mridangam.

Within six months, I started to think about the Middle Eastern tambourine, the riqq. I knew that people were into it in the Middle East, and so I started to go around and look for Middle Eastern concerts. I finally saw Hanna Mirhige play, and studied with him. When I was doing kanjira and the riqq, there was really, an unconscious awareness: "Okay, these are the same style drums; they're kind of different versions of the tambourine, . . . how many more of these are around?" I started to look around more for other ways of playing the tambourine. It quickly became apparent that there are all these individual players, in the different communities here that were playing great, in different styles. But they had no contact with each other. It was very isolated, and the whole thing of frame drum as a category didn't exist. The German ethnomusicologist, Curt Sachs, thought of the name "frame drum" [rahmentrommel]. So those were the only people that knew what that was, at that time. But once the awareness of different styles started, then it became a different kind of study, it became all the cross-fertilization.

NSR: What is it that led you to combine these styles to make a unified technique? Did your teachers support this?

GV: I wasn't interactive with them, in the sense of asking permission to do that. Ramnad Raghavan was coming here and giving me South Indian drumming lessons. And we didn't talk about, "Well, what are you going to do with this? Are you going to play with my South Indian friends?" What, in a practical sense, would I do with this material besides just play it over and over again? We didn't really discuss that. With the Arab tambourine, there was not really much discussion about that except that I would go to the belly dance classes and play along with Hanna when he would play. He would ask me to go sometimes and hang out with him. But it never got to the point where I was really seriously thinking about immersing myself in that scene. From the instrument’s standpoint, I was interested in that instrument, and what you could do with it, sonically. And, in a sense, taking it out of the context of what it traditionally was played in; the kanjira, riqq, pandeiro, tamburello, bodhrán, and all those drums. At first, they were isolated. I was playing kanjira, and I didn't think about playing a kanjira thing on the riqq, I wouldn't have even thought of that. Because the riqq you play a certain way, and a kanjira you play a certain way. The key component of changing that was starting to play with improvisers, in the area. And these were people [chuckles], who had no formal thing of, "We're doing New York style improvising." This was through Charlie Morrow, he was strategically very important in the stage of all this for me because we were playing together [in the Horizontal Vertical Band], and we just became friends. We would start to improvise, and he had set up little communities of improvisers. That was a very good situation for me. Because there was no judgments going on. No one was saying, "Hey isn't that kanjira, and you're playing South Indian style but you're doing it on a North African tar drum, that's not right!" Those kind of judgments. In that context, you have the riqq, or whatever, and somebody's making certain kinds of sounds, and "Oh, that would go good with the jingles," or "Well, what if I do my hand like this?" So there was just a lot of freedom, you have all this information—all this technical information about the way to play these drums—and here's a situation where you can use any of that body of information in any way that you want to. It's all about your own creativity. And that's a unique thing. It's a discovery thing, always, that situation was all about discovery.

NSR: Did you have any influences from other percussionists?

GV: No, because I didn’t really hear them. I wasn't the type of person that goes out and listens to a lot of recordings. For me, makes it more complicated to find my own voice. I've only heard a couple of recordings of Collin Walcott. I went to hear him one time with Oregon in the late-1970s. He was playing tabla and triangle, and doing various things. And the other concert that I went to, Naná Vasconcelos was playing at. I'm sure both of those things influenced me, to some extent, to see those guys play live. It was before I was really playing out, I had just been studying this stuff, but I wasn’t playing with many people. I was just playing with Charlie Morrow. So I saw a few things like that. But recording-wise, I didn't hear much. It was much more a thing of just finding my path, of combining these things. I was looking for things that would inspire or stimulate me to create material. That material was coming from traditional studies of frame drums. When I was studying South Indian and Arabic, all this material that could be used, for your own creative purposes, in different contexts. It was all material that gave you insight into the nature of a specific drum. How to handle it, and what was possible on it.

NSR: Your work has brought you into contact with lots of different cultures, kinds of music, instruments, and drummers; has that had an impact on you to continue adopting material from various places?

GV: Oh, yeah, a big impact! Doing these "world drum" festivals that have been set up by John Wyre, I'm around Abraham Adzenyah, Trichy Sankaran, these various musicians that are amazing players! Ninety-nine percent of what they're doing is their traditional stuff. So to be around it, feel the power of it, and to feel the energy that it generates, that's continuing inspiration. And it doesn't even mean that I'm going to try to duplicate that. It just means that, "Well, there's some amazing ideas in the construction of what he was just doing, and how can I incorporate that into my daily playing that I’m doing?" Just being around great musicians, whatever they're doing, and getting influenced in that way. You absorb the qualities that you really admire that you want to emulate, in that way you get inspiration. I like it because it gives me more stimuli to create new things.

NSR: Why do you suppose that it’s so common now for Western percussionists to approach percussion globally?

GV: I think it's the nature of who we are; we're a patchwork. We chose to be born in a place that is not ours. The USA, this place that we're from, we all have roots from somewhere else . . . just about everybody except for the native people that are from here. Most native people are still very closely connected with their traditional materials. But we don't have that. And I think that that really creates a situation where we reinvent ourselves, that's what we do. You know, we reinvent who we are, and we patchwork all these things together, to create something that that has an integrity to it.

If I had grown up in South India, and I had lived there all my childhood, and had been immersed in that music, it'd be a totally different thing. I'd probably be so enamored and so steeped in the beauty of playing music that way that I wouldn't really stray that far away from it. Because a lot of these things are so powerful; Brazilian, South Indian, Ghanaian . . . all of these traditions, they’re so powerful, if you just get a taste of it as a child it probably lasts your whole life! You don't need to be looking to create this patchwork thing that we have to.

NSR: What led you to develop your current style that uses shakers and advanced independence, brushes, and drumset-like set ups of frame drums on recordings by groups like Mokave and Trio Globo?

GV: Definitely those ideas are from drumset. I think a big part of it was looking at frame drums as tools. Sometimes you have a wrench and it's not the right size for what you're trying to turn. Sometimes the frame drum is not exactly the right tool if you're playing it in the traditional style with the hand. It took me a long time to get that idea, the notion that it didn't work a hundred percent of the time. I was so identified, so attached to them, and so immersed in the style, that I had the blinders on in terms of, "Well, is this really the best drum for this situation?" I started to expand that and let go a little bit, I realized, "Well, I need to expand my notion of, how I can use these." And one expansion was using the brushes. And that was kind of an intermediate thing, because it wasn't sticks. It wasn't like going all the way back to sticks, and touching them with sticks. It was just kind of an intermediate thing, and it also fit because I was doing brushing sounds already with the fingernails. I like the brushes a lot; I like that quality that they have, of not being so pointed in their sound. They upped the ante in terms of volume that you can get. I started to think about frame drums in terms of the drumset that I used to have. And another thing was playing in situations that were obviously jazz-oriented, like Mike Cain, Mokave, and Trio Globo. When you're playing with players that are so immersed in jazz styles then their style brings up the instrumental responses that you've been hearing all your life. Glen Moore has that playing bass, Larry Karush has that on piano. Howard Levy is the same way. It was getting more and more a thing of needing a sound there if I needed it. I added a cymbal, which was a huge thing for me! [chuckles]. I couldn't even stand the sound of cymbals for a long time. The ride cymbal, for me, what that meant was that you couldn't hear anything I was doing. If I was playing with a drummer, and they were real into riding their cymbal, forget about any of the hand drumming. You couldn't hear it, you know? So I didn't want to hear anything about a cymbal going on while I was playing. But I started to realize that to have small cymbals would be nice. Then just taking the idea of the frame drum, which is three sounds: low, high, and a slap, and using three drums. I'll have a high one, a medium, and a low one. That sonic material was enough to simulate the feel and kind of the atmosphere of a jazz drumset. It was going back to all that early stuff that I did when I was a kid, because I did it a lot. I really enjoyed doing it, and it was a lot of fun. I developed a certain amount of expertise on it and it was a natural progression because I allowed myself to open up to additional sonic possibilities of the frame drums. Another offshoot of that were the shakers. It gradually dawned on me for recording that, "If I did a frame drum track and then a shaker track, that's a great combination. It'll always work; it'll always fit." And the shakers are in such a different sonic realm, they allow for very nice layering, and everything can be heard, regardless of how complex because there's enough textural difference. I really started to get into that from studying the Venezuelan Joropo maracas and started to apply that to some drumset ideas, like limb independence.

NSR: How do you approach composition, and how do you approach improvisation?

GV: I think that for most people they're very close together. I never thought of myself as a composer. I started to realize that these improvisations that I was doing had a form that was naturally emerging out of doing them repeatedly. I started to think of them as compositions, this happens to me a lot, that I do something, understand it later. I don't tend to understand something, and then do it. It doesn't work that way for me. I do it by instinct, and then later on I look back and say, "Oh, this is what I was doing, and I put that together like that." And then I'll start to play with it based on that insight into what was initially going on in my instinct. And that's what happened with composition, I started to play with it more, and started to get more serious about the elements that I'm putting together when I do these improvisations? What are the issues, and what are the questions? How do I start playing with them, and what happens when I turn it upside down, or start fast, instead of starting slow? Also getting structural ideas from the traditional material because in Arabic and Indian styles of playing, there are so many ideas about structure inherent in their way of teaching and in the compositions that you have all these lessons that you can get out of that. I was inspired by South Indian ways of density, how do you play with space and density? Those things are very key issues in whatever style of music you were dealing with. I wanted to construct structures that would facilitate and inspire improvisation, not only for me but when there's a melodic player involved, something that would spur them to be creative, and to have fun improvising. I took the idea of cues from African drumming. There was a master drummer cueing things, and everybody else would change.

NSR: Do the different traditional materials that you combine come together to give you a broader vocabulary for improvising?

GV: Oh, yeah! Yeah . . . oh, huge. I mean, that's really the basis for what I'm doing. If I didn't have the source material, and the source inspiration, of South Indian drumming, of Arabic drumming, of the Central Asian drumming, or the South Italian . . . if you took that away from my repertoire of material, I don't know what I'd be left with! You know, maybe there would be very little there. I don't know! [chuckles].

NSR: Maybe you could say you'd be left empty-handed?

GV: Yeah, you could! [chuckles]. Those are the threads that constitute the things that I'm weaving together from just the standpoint of where do those techniques come from? You know, just the idea that there's doum, tak, and a slap—I didn't invent that. TA-ka-ta-ka DOUM na-ka TA-ki-ta-ta KA-doum . . . I didn’t invent those things. You know, [taps foot for three steady beats while enunciating syllables in a rhythm of four against three]: DOUM, ta-TA doum TA-doum; the idea of three against four, all these things, they've been around, and they've been used in an extensive way in these cultural materials.

NSR: Why do you suppose it’s so common for percussionists involved in Western creative music to develop the "global" approach to percussion with diverse set-ups of instruments?

GV: Well, I think there's two things; the urban environment, in the sense of me being in New York, and I've always said this: I don't think I could've done what I'm doing anyplace else. I think that the fact that I was able to hook into all these different communities, and find five or six very proficient frame drummers, specifically, in one place . . . back in 1977 or 1978, I don't know that there was anyplace else you could've done that. Maybe you could've done it in Paris or London . . . I don't know, but I doubt it . . . certainly the only place in the United States that you could've done that then. The urban environment, in that sense New York City, definitely contributed to what I'm doing. It made it possible for me to be in one place, and to find these source materials. It's an interesting question about how the setup of all these different percussionists are quite different. The second thing, I think, is that it's because the range of percussion is so huge, that individuals who really seek their own voice in percussion are going to find some unique combinations. I mean, you're not talking about one instrument, like piano or violin; you have a range of things that still is probably limitless. People will invent things. It's just like that, we're a "world." There is this kind of feeling, with percussionists, that you're dealing with the whole world, sonically, in terms of your source material. Because these instruments are all over the world; found in all the cultures, and in such a wide array, and in such fantastic, ridiculous technical possibilities of all these different things. I mean, you can just get into maracas, you know, and spend the next ten years just studying that! Or güiro, or something like scrapers. And it's just outlandish for us, because we're not steeped in a culture that reveres percussion. But I don't think it's so outlandish, if you grow up around it. But for us it's an expansive idea. But I just think that the range of instruments is so wide that individuals who are creative, and seek their own voice in it, their choices are so broad that they . . . if you have a million choices, then ten people are going to come up with very different things because the choices are so big.

NSR: How important do you feel it is to study a traditional music, today, if the goal is to develop your own kind of global style? Is there enough crossover material now, for teaching and study, that negates the need to seek study of traditional materials?

GV: No, I think that direct study of traditional music is really crucial because of the lineage and the accumulated wisdom that you get from being around someone who's very, very immersed in a traditional way of doing things. Those things, in particular, are important for Westerners, especially Americans, because there's so much information floating around, and there are so many choices. It's important to have the experience of focusing very closely on choices that have been made from the accumulation of wisdom from the past, from each particular tradition, and being a part of that, and absorbing that, and understanding that, maybe you don't get the wisdom, and the beauty of it, at first, but with immersion, and with a deep absorption of it, then you start to understand the whole way of looking at a particular set of musical values and choices. And that's very, very valuable. It's one of the most valuable things that you can get, in terms of studying. With world drumming, you have these different styles that are very deeply rooted in long traditions. To benefit from that knowledge means that you need to be close to someone who is immersed in it, and who has a mastery of it. There's no other way around that, so I think it's a very, very important aspect of things. And I don't think that it's a full way of doing it, by just absorbing the various composite things that are going on.

NSR: How do you deal with amplifying your instruments when you are performing and recording? Do you have special microphones or placements that you use?

GV: I'm very low-tech as far as all the recording equipment goes. Basically, my main concerns are positional. If I have the drums as close as possible to the microphone, without hitting them, that's one thing that I'll tend to do from the front. The type of microphone that's used, I know that there's some nice AKGs that are good for percussion but beyond that I think it's so much dependent upon the ear of the person that's controlling things. You could have a great microphone that could sound bad; you could have a lousy microphone, and it could sound good. So it's really those issues; there are probably very good strategies that I don't use, like haul your own equipment. Have your own sound system; your own soundman. Then you really do control those issues. But I don't like to carry too much so I don't want to get into that.

NSR: You leave it up to the soundman to deal with?

GV: Definitely, I'm at their mercy, in that sense. I think part of it is, if you produce a really fascinating sound, then chances are somebody's going to try to reproduce it. They're going to feel an obligation to.

NSR: How has tuning been a problem with the pitch of the frame drum when you do session work?

GV: That is an important issue, because the lower frame drums tend to ring a little bit more, and if there are any other bass instruments, you get interference and cross tension. Because the frame drum is just one pitch. You can get around that; one way to get around that is, if you're using a drum that has a changeable pitch, like a tabla or a talking drum for pitch bending. Because once you do the pitch bending, then the ear stops interpreting it in the same way. Then it's just a sound that's moving around, and you don't hear a pitch center. So that's one way to get around it. There are new generations of drums now that are tunable. That's a big, big step forward for frame drums, because then you can retune them. You can find pitches that are compatible to the overall tonality.

NSR: And these are your new Signature Series drums?

GV: We have a tunable bodhrán, tar, a riqq, and various drums. So it's like an upgrade in terms of the versatility of the drums. It’s a more important issue as to the lowness of the drum opposed to the highness of the drum. So if you're using a higher pitched frame drum, like a riqq, then chances are you're going to have much more flexibility, and that won't be such a big pitch issue.

NSR: Is there a process that you use for choosing instruments when you do sessions? How do you balance expectations, or suggestions, from an artist, with your creative freedom, for session work?

GV: When I'm going into the studio, and doing things with artists that I'm not really familiar with their music, involves taking a range of frame drums. I'm dealing with a very specific area. I take a range, in terms of the different qualities of the drums, for instance, the pitch, some low, high, and middle ranges, so that there's a big range to choose from, depending on what's going to happen in the session. And also articulation range so that there are some that ring, and there are also some that can be dampened. I think those are two big issues for the frame drum because number one, the pitch is very strong on a lot of frame drums, so it's important to get a pitch that will work with the music. And, number two, the ringing quality of the drums, frame drums have a particular amount of ring to them. So, addressing that issue of articulation, and how long an appropriate ring will be, in terms of whatever the music is, that's another thing, I try to have a variety of choices, so that I'm not limited in terms of what my choices are. So I bring an array of things that cover these issues. I always have shakers that complement the frame drums that I'm taking. And then how that relates to the creative expression, I think that it's a great discipline of attitude to surrender to the music, and surrender to someone else's vision. Out of that can come a lot of creative freedom. This is a process of letting go of your own desires, if you can let go of those, and get input about what is possible on the drums, that you wouldn't get from yourself. So it's a question of opening up to other influences from outside ourselves. That relates to being in a studio, and somebody saying, "Well, I want this to happen." And then being open enough to surrender to that concept, of whatever they want. Then seeing how close you can come to it. I think that's an important process. Definitely, it's not the only process because you want to, in your own playing, cultivate your own unique style, and your own unique voice. But just doing that all the time is not enough, either. You have to have both situations, where you're flexible enough to surrender to somebody else's vision, but also, you can, if you need to, bring out your own voice, and your own particular vision.

NSR: Do you have any thoughts on what the attraction is, for many percussionists today, to a multicultural approach?

GV: I think one of the things is that drumming is a real crossover kind of thing. All drummers are dealing with similar issues, about time, space, flow, and about density. These are issues in whatever kind of drumming you're involved in, in all kinds of different ways. But they're the same issues, really, that are going on from one culture to another. I think that, for any drummer, there's a real strong attraction to seeing all the other flavors of these same issues. There's many, many different ways to approach them. Each culture has dramatically, different ways to approach the same issues. So this is a very, very powerful learning thing, to see other angles of the same issues that you've been dealing with, time, flow, swing, groove, and all that. So it's a very natural process, I think, for drummers from one culture to be attracted to others, and say, "Oh, there's another way of looking at this, something I've been working on all my life, and let's see if it's complementary. Let's see if it increases my own awareness in the area that I'm in." These traditions, especially with the hand drumming, are very old traditions. So there's a lot of accumulated wisdom that's there that we can benefit from. So I think that the crossover, and that attraction to the same issues that are going on in all kinds of drumming, and seeing the different flavors of it, is really why drummers are so multicultural.

NSR: What led you to develop a whole body approach to frame drumming with the use of walking, and vocals, while you're playing?

GV: It was definitely teaching, and, in the teaching process, trying to understand more of what I'm doing when I'm playing. Just from intuition, and having good guidance about ways to do things, I was able to develop a certain flow of energy, and a certain approach that really worked well for me, and was a good match with what I needed to express. When people would ask me in lessons, "Well, how do you do this? How do you do that?" I had to backtrack and decide what were some of the elements that I think were at the basis of the kinds of things I'm doing that help me to play in a way that is effective for me, and for the people that are listening. In doing that I really came upon the ideas that using the lower body, in this walking kind of way to experience pulse flow; and using the body memory for these big movements really seemed to be a thing that I was doing. Also using inner vocalizations my breath to align with what I was playing, and to create a feeling of singing, and bigger shapes to the phrases. Because the breath naturally wants to have these shapes, just like when you're singing. I think those two factors were out of that, and out of my experience with the various traditional ways of playing . . . ones where they did a lot of vocalizations and seeing how that affected what you play, and how effective that was as a means to generate all kinds of unique articulations, and things that are very particular to your own sound. All of that combined to start to codify in a way that I felt would be simple for people as a doorway to get into drumming, and to find out what drumming is about.

NSR: Do you have any extra-musical influences?

GV: One is meditation. The different ways of meditating are very important in finding out about the way the mind works, and to get more insight into the way thought flows, and to help with self-understanding. If you're very, very troubled with your thoughts, then it's hard to play, to really use your energy to focus on music, and focus on playing. I think meditation is a really powerful way to face all the things that are going on inside of you. Also yoga has been a big influence on me, in terms of increasing body awareness and getting the energy flow throughout the body. Drumming is about energy flow, and the more aware and sensitive you are to the way that the energy is flowing through your body, the more powerful your drumming will be.

Glen Velez Selected Bibliography

Velez, Glen. "The Tambourine in Ancient Western Asia." Ear Magazine East 5, no. 5 (1980): 3.

________. "A Monograph on the Frame Drum, Ancestor of Our Modern Tambourine." Ear Magazine East 7, no. 3/4 (1982):  SPACE 8-9.

________. Handance Duets for Frame Drums. New York: Framedrum Music, 2001.

________. Handance Method with Cueing and Performance Guide: An Introduction to Frame Drumming. New York: SPACE SPACE Framedrum Music, 2002.

________. Bodhran Manual Vol. 1: Introduction—Frame Drumming "On The Knee Position". New York: Framedrum Music, SPACE 2004.

________. Tar Drum Manual. New York: Framedrum Music, 2004.

________. Shakers Manual. New York: Framedrum Music, 2004.

________. MediterrAsian Tambourines: An Introduction. New York: Framedrum Music, 2004.

________. "'Mediterrasian' Tambourine." Percussive Notes 44, no. 5 (October 2006): 34, 36-27.

________. Bodhran Manual Vol. 2: Snapping—Frame Drumming "On The Knee Position". Montclair: Framedrum Music, 2013.

________. Bodhran Manual Vol. 3: Ki Ta Ta Ka's—Frame Drumming "On The Knee Position". Montclair: Framedrum Music, SPACE 2013.

________. Bodhran Manual Vol. 4: Snap-KiTa-Pa—Frame Drumming "On The Knee Position". Montclair: Framedrum Music, SPACE 2013.

________. 13 Solos for Bodhran. Montclair: Framedrum Music, 2013.

Glen Velez Selected Discography

Rabih Abou-Khalil
Nafas CD 1988 ECM 1359 835 781-2

ADC Band with Kaiya
Week End (Funky Friday) 12" LP 1980 Sue International R-1126

Mike Cain
Strange Omen CD 1991 Candid CCD 79505

El Luis
Gitano Soul CD 1981 Sony Music Media SMM 498902 2

ETC Company of La Mama & Ben Johnson
Carmilla: A Vampire Tale LP 1972 Vanguard VSD-79322

Eugene Friesen
Song of Rivers CD 1997 New England Town Media NECD-3102

Jonas Hellborg with Glen Velez
Ars Moriende CD 1994 Day Eight Music DEM 034

Horizontal Vertical Band (Charlie Morrow & Glen Velez)
Spontaneous Music 45 1980 Other Media 80-7-1
Direct to Disc LP 1981 Other Media 5681

Patty Larkin
Running Angels CD 1993 High Street 72902 10318-2

Arthur Lipner
Portraits in World Jazz CD 1998 Jazzheads 9508

Talco y Bronce CD 1981 Columbia 494262 2

La Quiero a Morir LP 1985 CBS S 26716
Echando Sentencias LP 1986 RCA PL 35603

Pat Metheny
Imaginary Day CD 1997 Warner Bros. 9 46791-2

Mokave volume 1 CD 1991 Audioquest AQ-CD 1006
Mokave volume 2 CD 1992 Audioquest AQ-CD 1007
Afriqúe CD 1994 Audioquest AQ-CD 1024

Orchestra of Our Time
Four Saints in Three Acts CD 1982 Nonesuch 9 79035-2

Orchestra of St. Luke's/Gregg Smith Singers/Robert Craft
Igor Stravinsky The Composer, v. 2 CD 1992 Music Masters 01612-67086-2

Orpheus Chamber Ensemble/Gregg Smith Singers/Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Robert Craft
Les Noces/Symphony of Wind Instruments/Chant du Rossignol LP 1974 Columbia M 33201

Ura CD 2000 Elkar KD-556

Parnassus/Anthony Korf
Parnassus Plays Works by Stefan Wolpe, Mario Davidovsky, Charles Wuorinen, Erik Lundborg, and David Olan LP 1980 New SPACE World NW 306

Javier Paxarino
Temura CD 1994 Act 9227-2

Steve Reich
Drumming/Six Pianos/Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ CD 1974 Deutsche Grammophone 427 428-2

Richard Stoltzman
New York Counterpoint CD 1987 RCA 5944-2-RC

Trio Globo
Trio Globo CD 1994 Silverwave SD 806
Carnival of Souls CD 1995 Silverwave SD 904

Suzanne Vega
Days of Open Hand CD 1990 A&M 7502-15293-2

Glen Velez
Handance CD 1983 Nomad NMD 50301
Internal Combustion LP 1985 CMP LC 6055 (differs from CD)
Internal Combustion CD 1985 CMP CD 23
Seven Heaven CD 1987 CMP CD 30
Assyrian Rose CD 1989 CMP CD 42
Doctrine of Signatures CD 1991 CMP CD 54
Ramana CD 1991 Nomad NMD 50309
Border States CD 1993 Interworld Music CD-21907
Pan Eros CD 1993 CMP CD 63
Rhythmcolor Exotica CD 1996 Ellipsis Arts CD 4140
Rhythms of the Chakras CD 1998 Sounds True M006D
Breathing Rhythms CD 2000 Sounds True MM00120D
Glen Velez + Handance Collection One CD 2000 Besen Arts
Elephant Hotel CD 2003 Daftof GVLC03
Rhythms of Awakening CD 1995 & 2005 Sounds True M923D
External Combustion (remixes) MP3 2005 Schematic SCH032
Rhythms of the Chakras Volume 2 CD 2008 Sounds True M1283D
Solo CD 2009 Daftof Records
Breathing Rhythms Duo CD 2009 Daftof Records

Paul Winter
Canyon CD 1985 Living Music LD 0006
Noah and the Ark CD 1991 Rabbit Ears RCE 74041-70515-2
Spanish Angel CD 1993 Living Music LD 0027

Selected Videography

Malcolm Dalglish
Hymnody of Earth (revised) 1993 KET

Glen Velez
Drumbeats 1989 REMO HD-7514-DB
The Fantastic World of Frame Drums 1990 Interworld Music Associates
Handance Method 1 1996 Interworld Music/Warner Bros. VH0284
Handance Method 2 1996 Interworld Music/Warner Bros. VH0285

Various Artists
Modern Drummer Festival Weekend 1998 (Sunday) 1999 Warner Bros.

Paul Winter
Canyon Consort 1985 A&M/Windham Hill Video

Frame Drums of Glen Velez

Adufe - Square frame drum from Spain.
Bendir - Moroccan buzzing frame drum by Cooperman.
Bodhrán - Originally a stick-beaten Irish frame drum but Glen plays a large synthetic version with his hands, or a brush and SPACE hand technique, by Cooperman.
Doira/Ghaval - Central Asian tambourine with rings on the inside of the frame from Azerbaijan.
Kanjira - Tambourine of South India.
Mazhar - Large Arabic tambourine from Egypt.
Native American Frame Drum - Generic hexagonal frame drums from USA.
Pandeiro - Tambourine from Brazil.
Pandero - Large frame drum from Spain.
Pandereta - Frame drum from Puerto Rico.
Panderoa - Tambourine from Basque Country in Spain.
Riqq/Deff - Arabic tambourine by Kevork from Lebanon.
Tamborim - Small stick beaten frame drum from Brazil.
Tambourine - Red plastic Yamaha generic tambourine with a clear mylar head tuned very low, used for Mediterr-Asian styles.
Tamburello - South Italian tambourine.
Tar - North African frame drum by Cooperman.
Thon-Rammana - Thon is a goblet drum of clay and rammana is a wooden frame drum, both often played simultaneously by a SPACE single player, from Thailand.

Other Percussion

Buzz Sticks - Also called devil chasers, from the Philippine Islands.
Caxixi - Brazilian shakers made by Peppe Consolmagno from Italy.
Foot Bells - Ghungroo from India.
Jingle Ring - Like a tambourine but without a skin, by Yamaha.
Maracas - Joropo maracas for hands or feet made by Maximo B. Teppa, from Venezuela.
Mbira - Generic gourd resonated lamellophones and a Shona mbira dza vadzimu from Zimbabwe.
Singing Bowl - Quartz crystal bowl rubbed for drones while doing Tuvan overtone singing.
Steel Pan - Pentatonic version made by ECS in Germany.
Wood Drum - One piece, all vermillion wood (frame and skin) frame drum made by Ryphon Gray.

[Glen also regularly uses a variety of generic shakers, brushes, and Paiste cymbals].

[For more on Glen Velez, see:].

©1999 - N. Scott Robinson. All rights reserved.


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