Inside the Arc
“This Is Your Brain On Drums”

| |

Percussion General Effect has been around a long time. In his book “The World in Six Songs”, Daniel Levitin (“This is Your Brain on Music”) poses the following scenario describing why our ancestors who could drum held some distinct advantages:

A small group of early humans are asleep in the pre-dawn, near the embers of the fire circle. A distant sound arouses some of them – boom, boom, ka-boom – and gradually, inevitably, draws nearer, the intensity increasing like some synchronized stampede of a malevolent herd.

And malevolent and terrible they are as they grow ever louder, suddenly cresting the nearby hill, pounding a frightening coordinated rhythm. They are, of course, raiders from a rival tribe, descending on the terrified group, intent on slaughtering the men and carrying off the women, food and anything else of value. Any cohort that can synchronize in tempo in this way is bound to exhibit well-coordinated and highly refined battle skills. The sleepy tribe is doomed, and they know it.

It’s accepted that much modern rudimental drumming was codified from Renaissance through Colonial times by the French, Spanish and English. But none of them invented it. Picture a Phonecian warship of the type described by Homer, with triple rows of oarsmen port and starboard, maneuvering in battle to the signals of the stern drummer, sweating profusely as he beats out distinct patterns for “ahead”, “turn to port”, “reverse”, “ramming speed” and other required moves.

The raw power of drum rhythm has been ingrained into the human psyche since the beginning of time, resonating with the memory of our first subconscious physical sensation, our mother’s heartbeat in utero. That visceral power manifests itself each time we hear a drum line in a parking lot, or jamming beats into an on-field feature or in the solos of corps alumni like Steve Gadd, Billy Cobham, Max Roach, Russ McKinnon, Curt Moore or Tommy Igoe.

Those beats and patterns so deeply penetrate that we simply have no choice but to respond in a physical way, like the crowd in a rave club. And this would hold true for any species. (It always puzzled me that the screenwriters of “Close Encounters” suggest that a 5 note melodic motif might be the universally understood medium of communication between humans and space aliens. A much more logical choice would be the 5 stroke roll, I think.)

The audience reaction this summer to the Boston Crusaders is a case in point. Jay Kennedy’s brilliant arrangement of “Bacchanal” was the deepest groove to come out of that team since Gerry Shellmer defected there from the Cambridge Caballeros in the ‘60s. (The groove from a marching drum line was never common , Anaheim, Bridgemen and a few others excepted, and had become an endangered species in recent years. Jay seems to have pulled it back from the brink of extinction.)

Certainly the exquisite exotic dancer, guard theatricality and a familiar infectious melody were factors that helped grip the crowd, but it was the drum line that whipped everybody into a frenzy. With a groove like that, Boston could have sold “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”.

As we all rocked to the pulse in Indianapolis, somewhere deep in our collective genetic memory, a rival campsite was being attacked. Boom, boom, Ka-boom.

About the Author:
Frank Dorritie is one of the legends of the activity .... a performer, instructor, arranger, adjudicator, and observer over the past 5 decades. Frank has been playing the bugle and trumpet since the 1960s, and has performed with artists like Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson. He has instructed and/or arranged for the Blue Devils, Cadets, Santa Clara Vanguard, Cavaliers, Chesterton and Tenri High Schools, the Bushwackers, Bridgemen and a host of others. His audio production honors include 9 Grammy Nominations, 2 Grammy Awards and membership in both the World Drum Corps and Buglers Halls of Fame. He is active internationally as a clinician and adjudicator, holds the DCA Soprano/Trumpet/Tenor Individual titles for 2003, 2005 and 2006. Frank also chairs the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College. His popular brass method book, “Power and Endurance”, is available from The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.

Posted by on Monday, October 5th, 2009. Filed under Inside the Arc.