Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Best books: The Essence of Afro-Cuban Percussion & Drum Set by Ed Uribe

Buy the book
Leafing through a copy of Ed Uribe's book The Essence of Afro-Cuban Percussion & Drum Set, you may be inclined to Google Map the location of the nearest bridge, and then drive your car off it, with you and your drums in it. It's about 325 pages long, with a lot of verbiage, and a bewildering array of drumming and song styles, terms, and instruments you are supposed to learn; and including several practice regimens of hundreds of systems each. Early in the book is this not-very-encouraging passage:

[In Latin American music t]here is no glory, no media glitz, or peer respect in being a lightweight player— like there often is in American pop culture. In this type of drumming the more prevalent attitude is that there are those who can play and then there's everybody else. You either play or you don't, and if you don't, you have nothing to say. This is not meant to intimidate. It is merely a fact to accept. 

It's not meant to intimidate, but it is nevertheless intimidating music to take up, with some big scary issues for the uninitiated:

  • Clave. What is it, how do you play within it, what happens to you if you violate it? Do you die? 
  • A culture of correctness-oriented musicians (that's my experience with a lot of Anglo-American practitioners, anyway) combined with a dearth of hard information. In conversations about this music, you notice a lot of talk about right and wrong; mysterious terms and concepts which are nevertheless enforced for correctness. 
  • Apparently much more demanding independence than is required for other types of music. In playing this music on the drum set, we are combining percussion parts which were not originally intended to be played by one person. 
  • Usually these groups have a percussion section. As the drum set player, you are the non-traditional odd man, and you must adapt to a variety of possible instrumentations, avoiding duplicating the other players' parts, and filling in whatever parts are not present.

Uribe addresses these issues, and prescribes a very intense, decade-long program just for acquiring the materials he gives you in the book. Fortunately, for jazz drummers like me, it is possible to engage it with a level of commitment balanced with all of the other things we are doing in music, and still get something out of it. This music is actually played by human beings, not all of them insanely gifted Latin American gods, so becoming reasonably competent with it should be possible for anyone with a little talent, and a normal-serious level of commitment of time, interest, and dedication.

So, this is a very serious, big book, if I haven't communicated that yet. Fortunately, you can algebra away quite a bit of it; there is a lot of redundancy— the same pieces of information may occur in multiple sections, which insures that you don't miss the really important things in the extremely likely event you are unable to ingest the book whole. There is also a lot of overlap in the drumming for different song styles— the basic Mambo and Cha Cha approaches, for example, each apply to several styles. And there are a number of obscure or folkloric styles you will probably will never be asked to play, which you can treat as optional— Cha Cha Lokua Fun, Abakwa (which is actually a hip thing to work on). If you stay based in reality somewhat— like, what am I listening to, and who is playing this music locally that I might be asked to play with— you can prioritize what you need to work on.

Like Uribe's other great book, The Essence of Brazilian Percussion & Drum Set, this book has the style of a professional field manual. He lets you know what is expected from you on a professional gig, and where you have some freedom, vs. where you need to play the parts. Playing through his practice systems you begin to develop some freedom within the complex coordination, and you are able to reorchestrate the parts and do variations without having the whole groove fall apart. There are two long chapters on clave, which gets into the finer points of what it is, and supports you in learning to trust your ears in finding it. Through all of this, you begin to find the special mindset of playing this music on the drumset, which is different from anything else in drumming.

I'm not a well-enough educated Salsa/Cuban music player to have serious criticisms about its correctness; as someone who knows how to be a student, I have one or two small reservations, or just open questions after having spent a year or two with it. But a book is not supposed to tell you everything, though, nor can it; nor is it supposed to replace interaction with human beings, so this is my fault for learning this music just through books and recordings, and a few gigs. It was obviously a huge feat putting together a volume of this size and completeness, and it's the best practical resource I've yet seen for approaching this very demanding field of music.

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