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Participants in the informal drum boogie for Ulster Magazine included percussionists, from left, Karl Berger (back to camera), Garry Kvistad, Leaf Miller, Malik Andrews, Evry Mann, Gopal Harrington, April Traum and Karen Levine; behind them are Fre Atlast and Nathan Brenowitz. Missing from this photo are Nick Attanasio, Peter O’Brien, Justin Guip and Harvey Sorgen.

The power of percussion

Drum Boogie Festival offers a chance to connect, unify and heal

By Deborah J. Botti

Photos by Michael Bloom


Harvey Sorgen on the drum set laid the foundation. Karl Berger on the vibraphone (or vibes) – a percussive instrument similar to the xylophone or marimba – supplied the melody. Garry Kvistad, founder of Woodstock Percussion Inc. in Shokan, the site of this recent informal jam session – arranged for Ulster Magazine – rounded out the central trio, playing the hang drum handmade in Switzerland.

Still, that visceral, palpable energy when almost a dozen other percussionists jumped in, fueling a wave of exhilaration, was nothing short of magical.

How could they possibly sound as if they had been rehearsing for weeks when this was the first moment they’ve played together? And many didn’t even know one another.

“There’s a common thread of musical knowledge,” says Peter O’Brien of Saugerties, who has toured all over the world and has played with such greats as Orleans and the Edgar Winter Band. “It’s easy to communicate if you listen to one another.”

“The ear is most important when drumming,” agrees Nathan Brenowitz of Woodstock, who met a Cuban man in Brooklyn 35 years ago and tossed aside his piano and trumpet for Latin percussion. “Drumming is a conversation.”

“There’s a common heartbeat and pulse to plug into,” says Evry Mann of Stone Ridge and founder of POOK (Percussion Orchestra of Kingston). “It takes forever to master, but there’s not an extreme learning curve.”

“You can play (a drum) immediately, but then it can be taken to the X limit. With a violin, for example, you have to play a long time before you can play something that someone wants to hear,” says Kvistad, who points out the diversity of percussive instruments. “We do all the sound effects (in a classical piece). If a bird call is needed, it’s us.

“And when locked in,” he adds, “where you are is in a state of bliss.”

This informal drum circle illuminated the power of the drum and gave insight into the circles that have encircled the Earth for centuries. Drums have called to neighboring villages and communicated battle plans. Their sound frequencies have been associated with healing. And few can resist bopping to the beat, becoming absorbed by the moment.

Percussion is as individual as it is unifying, and the reasons for heeding the call are as individual as the fingerprints left on the drums.


Drums as a calling

The drums call some to play professionally. Jerry Marotta of Woodstock knew by the time he was a teenager that the drums were the ticket to his future. His older brother, Rick, on whose drum set Marotta taught himself to play, was an extremely successful drummer; a band he recorded with opened the door for Marotta’s first tour, which he took before he even graduated high school.

“My teachers let me take my finals on the road,” he says. “Growing up, people thought I was hyper. But when I sat at the drums, all four limbs were moving. It was beyond music; it was like a medicine.”

His remarkable fortune didn’t stop there. He came to Woodstock to audition for – and was then welcomed by – his favorite band at the time, Orleans. Two years later, at age 20, he was touring with Peter Gabriel in England. Most recently, Marotta has been playing with Joan Osborne and Linda Eder and has opened Dreamland Recording Studios in a church in Hurley.

Justin Guip is not only passionate about drums  – the three-time Grammy winner is also a recording engineer.Drums also have introduced three-time Grammy winner Justin Guip to the studio and into another passion: that of a recording engineer. Guip, who lives in Clinton, worked directly with Levon Helm from 2004-12; Guip sat in on drums for the Levon Helm Band, was production manager for Helm’s Midnight Ramble and senior recording/mix engineer at Levon Helm Studio in Woodstock.

However, Guip has not completely swapped the sticks for the soundboard. He continues to drum for the Dirt Farmer Band and the Midnight Ramble Band, offshoots of the Midnight Ramble tradition.

“The Beatles drew me to the drums,” says Guip. “I’d race home from school, put on the headphones and play on the drum set in my room.”

For Guip, it was a quick leap from the high school band to a year of music school to playing professionally, and he’s hit the ground drumming ever since.

“There’s a total transcendence when I drum. I’m in that absolute moment,” he says.

Peter O’Brien, whose dad was a drummer, says there are baby pictures of him with sticks in hand.

“It’s a natural state of being,” says O’Brien, who’s toured all over the world with too many bands to name. “I played Woodstock ’94 with Orleans. That was a highlight. But I could only see the first couple of thousand faces. ... In Japan, I played a smaller venue, and it was a magical show with the audience.”

Valerie D. Naranjo understands the power that percussion holds.

“I’ve been singing and drumming since time immemorial,” says Naranjo, who says her home is the world, with specific addresses in New York City and near Woodstock. “I think I was in second grade when I was over at a friend’s house and asked, ‘When are we going to sing?’ It was then I realized that a family like mine was a rare privilege. Most families don’t stop to make music when someone comes over.”

Naranjo, whose father is Southern Ute, grew up near the Southern Ute reservation in Colorado. She’s in her 19th season playing with “Saturday Night Live” and 16th with “The Lion King.” She performed at the 2010 Winter Olympics and at the White House two years later.

“I’m also Buddhist ... so I put it out there to see what happens,” she says of her serendipitous path, which even included meeting the “right” people while busking for change in Manhattan to supplement her then off-Broadway income. She met her husband, Barry Olsen, 32 years ago, the second day after she moved to the East Coast. “I moved to New York City to study with a particular marimbist. A fellow marimbist arranged a roommate for me in the building where Barry lived.”


Drums as a means of healing

The drums call others with restorative frequencies.

“Some of the tremendous progress made by Gabby Giffords was linked to music therapy,” says Kvistad of the Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head.

“Sound vibration has the power to change the life of an individual and a community. It’s a powerful, potentially healing and unifying sound vibration, that comes with a responsibility and privilege,” says Naranjo, whose graduate thesis in the early ’80s was on the gyil, a xylophone-like instrument used in healing rituals by the Lobi nation in Ghana. A person with a physical or psychological illness would dance before the musician/healer on the gyil.

“How that person moved would define what was troubling them,” says Naranjo. “And then they would dance to health.”

Closer to home, Fre Atlast of the TRANSnDANCEnDRUM Center in Rosendale says she’s seen music work miracles. Atlast has played with diverse cultural and age groups. Through the Elders Drum Project, she’s brought drums into nursing homes, even making drums out of recycled materials if there was a shortage of instruments.

“And they woke up,” says Atlast of many of the residents imprisoned by dementia. Atlast remembers her father waking up the household with Babatunde Olatunji’s “Drums of Passion.”

“Drumming is part of our natural heritage. It cuts across all ages, cultures and walks of life. It’s one of the essentials to our well-being.”

“Who doesn’t respond to rhythm?” says Leaf Miller of Saugerties, whose day gig is that of an occupational therapist. “I work with kids with special needs, and I wanted my drumming program to include all kids – even those who couldn’t hold a drum – so they could experience the community of a drum circle, its heart and healing energy.”

In collaboration with Pauline Oliveras’ Deep Listening Institute, Miller developed AUMI – Adaptive Use Musical Instruments – a software interface that tracks movement – even breath – to produce sound. For some children, it’s the first time they can independently make a percussive sound and contribute to the circle.

“Drums are not about me, but in a big way about bringing people together,” says Miller.


Drums as a way to connect with youth

Karen Levine of Kingston started performing a year after taking lessons as a young mother.The drums call some to span the generation gap. Evry Mann’s introduction to percussion was somewhat culturally based.

“Marching bands are a big deal in the rural South. I was divinely ordained by the crusty old junior high school band teacher, who mentored me,” Mann says. “He pointed to me and then to the drums.”

Mann’s professional playing sparked an interest in African music. He studied percussion in West Africa and was moved by the power of 25 drummers.

“That inspired me to start POOK,” he says. “It would be difficult to re-create that in our culture, but you can do it with kids.”

The Center for Creative Education seeks to empower youth through the arts. It is home to three dance ensembles, including the Energy Dance Company and POOK. Malik Andrews, 18, whose father is a dancer and founded Energy Dance, was introduced to the drums by Mann.

“I was skeptical because I’m into dance. But the drums interact with dance, and I have a knack for them,” he says. “I just feel the beat and groove to it when I’m playing the djemba.”

Twelve-year-old Gopal Harrington has been with POOK for less than a year. He drums twice a week, and the recent jam session was his first.

“It was fun, open,” he says. “I felt free.”

April Traum of Bearsville, the daughter of acclaimed folk musician Happy Traum, shares Andrews’ perspective: “I feel that groove and lock into it.”

Traum was destined to be musical.

“Music has always been part of the household. And playing with the family is great. ... I was drawn to the drums, loving the feel,” says Traum, for whom they’re a passion, not a career. “I do play with POOK.”

A parent also was responsible for Chris Earley’s introduction to the drums. He was coaxed by his mother, who heard a rumor that band members got better teachers.

“And to me, it seemed like the coolest option,” says Earley, who teaches at SUNY Ulster and discovered early on that he had an innate ability. He took lessons with a college professor who allowed him to perform with the college band, thereby sealing Earley’s future.

“My interest in teaching was sparked by my college and high school teachers. They gave me great opportunities. I hope I’m having the same impact,” says Earley, who has performed with Kvistad at Woodstock festivals.

The right teacher also inspired Karen Levine of Kingston. A teacher was willing to work with Levine as a young mother; the demands of a pastry baker conflicted with raising her daughter.

“I loved the production of drumming,” she says. “It was like making a croissant, repeating the task, aiming for perfection. ... There’s a similar rhythm in baking.

“Within a year (of taking lessons), I was performing. There are so many opportunities,” she says. “I played with Garry in a Balinese percussion orchestra. ... He’d bring Balinese players and dancers to perform with us – and my daughter would dance with them. That’s not something you typically see in a small town.”

SEPT./OCT. 2013


Percussionists speak

Valerie D. Naranjo

New York City and the Catskills

The mission of Mandara, the band that my husband and musical partner, Barry Olsen, and I formed 29 years ago, is to unify the world’s people through music. We blend West African origins, as well as parentages in jazz, Latin, Native American and R&B. The instruments we play are just as diverse – from marimba, hand drums and vibes to trombone, piano and bass.

Although Mandara is technically a quintet – drummer, bass and three vocalists – that’s an anomaly. We’re really multi-instrumentalists who sing and play, sounding more like eight or nine performers rather than five.

From “Saturday Night Live” to “The Lion King” to Mandara and making music around the world, it’s been a very fortunate and wonderful time for me. During one of my trips to Ghana to study the language and the traditional xylophone or gyil, I learned women did not play this instrument. But upon my performance, the chief danced. I later learned the chief only dances when he has an important announcement to make. He announced from that day forward that women would be allowed and encouraged to play.

The Drum Boogie is a lovely outdoor festival of dance and percussion. I believe in the Japanese concept of cho no ichinen – the spirit of the leader reflected throughout. We owe it to Garry.

Nathan Brenowitz


When I play the conga drums, which are Cuban – most of the other drums are African – I go inside myself. I become present. My body tingles. My hands vibrate and change color. I see colors. I love the meditation. If I’m tired, it wakes me right up. It’s almost as good as a nap.

Drums have a sound that talks to each other. In Cuba they say, ‘Talk. You speak.’

Along with being a freelance percussionist, I started Woodstock Rhythm Circles more than a decade ago, through which I bring drums to various venues such as corporate offices, schools, retreats, and I do a drum-circle workshop. The rhythm circles do so much: They help to de-stress, build teams, foster creativity and focus, energize – plus it’s fun.

A recent extension of that is my latest project, “You’ve Got Rhythm.” I take 40 drums with me and give them to everyone in a club, such as Café Mezzaluna in Woodstock. Then I teach some simple rhythms.

Karl Berger


I’ve always been living a double life – that of music and philosophy/sociology. I grew up in Heidelberg, Germany, and played piano. The vibraphone, while percussive, is still a melody instrument. I joined a group in ’65 and was in New York full time by ’66. By ’72, I revisited Woodstock. We didn’t want our children to grow up in the city.

Creative Music Studio grew out of a need, and its mission is the same for the new generation: to experience and express our connection with the transforming energies of music, our universal language.

Some 40 years ago, I met an avant-garde musician, Ornette Coleman, who felt musicians needed to take things into their own hands. Creativity was not supported unless it could sell, and there was little education available for great musicians who wanted to continue to improve.

I was also concerned with the common element rather than focusing on individual styles such as jazz, classical, etc., to emphasize that which allows us to play together. After all, musicians have only been “rehearsing” for thousands of years.

Under Creative Music Foundation, I’ve just started workshops again in New York City. There are thousands of musicians with fewer and fewer opportunities to play. We used to live in affordable lofts where it was easy to connect our mutual heartbeats and feel for sound. Now, musicians live in $1,500-a-month cubicles and rent expensive space to rehearse for the next gig. There is a huge need for musicians to get together, but because of cost, communal music hardly happens.

The man behind the beat

Garry Kvistad, a Grammy Award-winning musician, instrument designer and founder of Woodstock Percussion Inc. – which has been creating the musically tuned Woodstock Chimes since 1979 – remembers the night that Jack DeJohnette knocked on his door. Kvistad and his wife, Diane, had relocated to West Hurley from the Midwest several months earlier, wending their way from Woodstock, Vt., to Woodstock, N.Y., well aware of Woodstock’s long-standing commitment to the arts.

“‘Hi. I’m Jack. I’m interested in expanding my drum set.’”

“I was from Chicago. I knew his reputation,” says Kvistad.

“He took an instrument like a playable wind chime into his arsenal. ... Jack is a favorite son, and not just as a drummer or jazz musician.”

Kvistad figures DeJohnette, who’s as dedicated to local food kitchens and world peace as he is to the drums, learned about the new instrument maker in town through Karl Berger, who in the early ’70s founded Creative Music Studios, a haven for artists to hone their craft, not fill their promoters’ pocketbooks.

“As soon as we moved here, we looked up Creative Music Studio,” says Kvistad, who later taught there. “Karl has attracted a lot of musicians to attend or teach.”

Kvistad attended Interlochen Center for the Arts private school in Michigan and has been a member of NEXUS, the internationally acclaimed percussive group from Toronto, since 2002. He formed his own percussive group after college in Buffalo in the early ’70s, at the same time NEXUS started.

“We ran into each other. There were only two major percussion groups at the time,” Kvistad says. “It’s almost one degree of separation to almost any other percussionist.”

Percussionists often meet at Percussive Arts Society International Conventions.

“I saw superstar Nick (Attanasio) at a PASIC in Ohio in a Revolutionary War show. He was in his early 80s then and drove the place crazy. He developed a style that people imitated. I couldn’t believe he lived in Lake Katrine.”

Kvistad subsequently studied rudimental drumming with Attanasio, now in his 90s.

Valerie Naranjo was introduced to NEXUS at that same convention, and then met Kvistad quite accidentally at a warehouse sale of chimes off Route 28.

Percussionists also often find their one degree of separation in Woodstock, drawn not only by Creative Music Studio or Woodstock Percussion but also by a seemingly unending stream of musical events. And just as there’s community in drumming, many drummers are committed to their larger community, often contributing their time and talents for the greater good.

One such happening is the third Drum Boogie Festival, which takes place 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sept. 7 at Andy Lee Field in Woodstock. It’s a free event that Kvistad has been orchestrating. Thanks to his charitable arm, Woodstock Chimes Fund, and other sponsors, not only is the community treated to an energetic festival, but also Family of Woodstock receives a donation for the cordon of volunteers it contributes that will benefit programs that combine the arts and youth.

The day begins at the Artists Cemetery with NEXUS performing some of George Hamilton Green’s ragtime favorites atop his grave.

Performances by world-class dancers and percussionists follow, including Jack DeJohnette; Nick Attanasio; POOK and Energy Dance Company; Valerie Naranjo and Barry Olsen’s band, Mandara; and the Midnight Ramble Band.

“Like an athlete, we train and train and train and then we’re ready to go,” says Kvistad. “Practicing is wonderful, but magic happens when you perform. It’s almost an out-of-body experience.”

Harvey Sorgen


My uncle played the sax. He heard me pick up an accordion, and then bought me a piano. But I was social. I wanted to play music with other people. The piano is more solitary, so I took up the drums.

When I play, I’m very conscious of my breathing and the breathing around me. I’ve played with many greats around the world ... Hot Tuna, Paul Simon, Bruce Hornsby, Jack DeJohnette, Levon Helm, Carlos Santana and many, many, many others. But highlights of my life? The birth of my two kids ... getting married to my wife in Lisbon while on tour.

In my mind, there’s little distinction between who’s making the music and who’s listening. We’re all in this together. Drumming is an absolute form of communication. And it’s physical – almost as important as growing vegetables. I also like wood, because it grows, so I love being around wooden instruments. I’ve even built some furniture.

When my daughter was in high school, she told me that she wished she was more like me because there was no question about what I wanted to do: play the drums. I told her it’s really the other way around – that I wished I was more like her. I didn’t know there were options; it wasn’t a conscious decision for me. But she has everything in the world open to her.

I’m very thankful to be doing what I’m doing. I’m a lucky guy, no doubt. But touring is not the glamorous life that many perceive it to be.

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