CongaDr+ Tony's Conga Adventures: January 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

African Drum Repair for CK Ladzekpo, a resurrection

There are some projects that are like honors.

And this last month, two such projects rolled in... from two very different, and very talented Maestros.

The first daunting challenge was this Ghanian Atsimevu beauty in need of major surgery. 

C.K. Ladzekpo is a Ghanian and Nigerian Master who is known for his deep knowledge of several incredible folkloric traditions from Central Africa.

CK had this drum he hauled direct from Africa, a large banded drum nearly as tall as the Maestro himself.

The drum is thin, made of a soft wood, and the bands were not hammered tight as right. The drum was yet to actually be born, never actually playing a tone as one instrument, up to this point. 

Last go, I was asked to do specific work on the drum, was told about a soaking in water process before playing, so I wasn't sure how live it should actually sound... but it was flat cake dead, sounding more like a bundle of collected sticks than an actual drum.

Last time I saw the drum, I repaired a few cracks and had my brother Irish Rick skin it for him.

Rick skins Haitian drums for the Haitianos and sèvitè's of the area.. its a similar process to skin both the Haitian folkloric peg drums, and these African Atsimevu drums.. so he did a nice job skinning the drum with a thin skin.. just as CK had instructed.

So, job well done the first time, but wasnt happy with having a drum so dead leave the shop... but I figured, if the Maestro was happy, it must be all good.

A few months pass, and CK calls with a semi-shocking request..

'So Tony, will you take 10" off the top?' he asks.. he is so to the point.. gotta love it..

I was like.. 'sure CK.... why would we do that?'

As it turned out, the drum has not spoken a word since its arrival here in the states, and something had to be done about it.

"It needs a bigger mouth"  he states.

...this could have been a frightening thing.. lopping a foot off the top of such a beautiful instrument..

But it was rather shocking how quickly I went at it with the saw.. like Ive always wanted to do that for some reason.. it was all rather traumatic. years past, I would have walked around the drum 20 times and thought about it for an hour....

Today, I laid it on its side and eyed the line I scribed... used a straight carpenters saw, which turned out to be a great choice.

A jig, or a pull saw would be too wavy.. a miter would have worked, might have been better with the fine teeth, but didnt go deep enough to to guide the cut, or so it seemed.. so the saw we all used as a kid to cut 2x4s was the tool for the job.

It is always fun to do work when you cant make any mistakes..

It reminds me of performing.. up on stage.. no messing up there and then.

.. or extreme skiing.. on an icy cliff on some face.. no mistakes there....

So, off with her head! As the British were fond of saying..

.. and so it was.. lopped off unceremoniously...

.. rolling away on the floor.. unattached, unwanted.. summarily discarded.

.. kind of sad, and had to remind myself I was saving the drum rather than sacrificing the virgin Atsimevu.

All was well.. it came out relatively clean and level, cut it a half an inch long to hand finish the bearing edge.

Perhaps we can make use out of her head as a flower pot ?? Cant see throwing it away.. We'll see.

Back the the drum...

So, I drilled holes for the pegs at just the right angle.. yet another job that required serious commitment more than effort.

I was much more gentile than it seems in the pics.. I was just being dramatic.. the bearing edge came out perfect.  I then refitted a band so it would be in just the right spot to protect the shell from the peg forces.

Hammered all the bands tight

.. fiber-glassed the inside around the pegs make sure the thin shell would hold up to the Maestros Horse-kick-like bass strokes.

Enjoying it's new, short cut, like a long hair joining the Navy.. this drum was ready to go to work.

Its going to be great to hear CK play this drum, to say the least. CK said he will skin it soon.

I can just hear the drum in his hands..

CK has some of the fattest 'drops', or bass hits, you have ever heard.. so freaking funky.. like slapping you in the back of the head with a pillow while kicking you in the butt with a hiking boot.

Its a matter of where he drops his bombs.. its so unexpected to the conscious mind, but so perfectly right to the subconscious.. somehow ancestrally familiar, but so unexpected to hear in this day and time..

Some hiphop dj is going to discover and sample these cats one of these days..

Carlos Aldama, Sandy Perez, CK Ladzekpo, Yagbe Oline.. these cats drop kicks that break your belt buckle.. leaving you holding your saggy drawrs up while trying to keep your mouth from hanging open, not to look completely dumbfounded... if you know what I mean..

Sometimes it will knock you clean off of a groove, when you are playing next to them... kicks so upside down and backwards, you think your clave must be wrong.. (ok, never happened.. ;)

You can hear some of CK's African Percussion and Song here. As well as recordings of Ewe drumming and ritual music for Central Africa

I had the grand fortune of playing next to CK last weekend, comping some African rhythms on the congas (gotta do what you gotta). What an amazing time that was. He is beyond incredible.

I have to say.. after 30 years as a percussionist... there are few cats with a more acute ear for rhythm, and CK is definitely a step or seven above this brother.

I was playing right next to him, thinking I was playing a simple part just as he had shown a minute before.. and he would insist on a very very very exact feel. much more accurate than anyone other than Sandy Perez.. around here.. just so acutely aware of nearly imperceptible variances in time... amazing experience to play at that level. Or at least attempt to, anyway.

When CK arrived here back in the 80's, if I'm correct, UC Berkeley helped facilitate the transportation and legal extraction of the Maestro to the United States, in order to snatch him up as a UC professor...

and many years later, he continues his tenure successfully teaching his amazing traditions to lucky rich kids at the university. African Music Ensemble 

Well, CK's drum finally is sounding like an instrument, after all the work, and it has yet to be skinned, soaked in water and played. Thats a good sign.

CK will skin it himself and has promised to invite me to see him play it. I am very much looking forward to that.

Read an article about C.K. Ladzekpo here

Here is a short clip of the Maestro at work at the UC

.. and from CK's website,

C.K Ladzekpo (Home Page) is the director of the African music program at the University of California at Berkeley. He has combined a brilliant career as a performer, choreographer and composer with teaching and extensive scholarly research into African performing arts. He is a member of a famous family of African musicians and dancers who traditionally serve as lead drummers and composers among the Anlo-Ewe people of southeastern Ghana in West Africa. C.K. Ladzekpo has been a lead drummer and instructor with the Ghana National Dance Ensemble, the University of Ghana's Institute of African Studies, and the Arts Council of Ghana. He joined the music faculty of the University of California at Berkeley in 1973 and remains an influential catalyst of the African perspective in the performing arts. In 1973 he founded the critically acclaimed African Music and Dance Ensemble. As the company's artistic director, choreographer, and master drummer, he has led in many pioneering African dance and polyrhythmic percussion ensemble music presentations at major venues in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He has been artistic director of the Mandeleo Institute in Oakland since 1986. C.K. Ladzekpo's modern concert stage rendition of Atsiagbeko, a traditional war dance drumming suite of the Anlo-Ewe is one of the features in the television documentary "African Dance at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival" which continues to be a popular broadcast since its national premiere in 1988 on PBS. CK has received a number of awards for his work including: National Endowment for the Arts Choreographer's Fellowship (1988-1989); Irvine Choreographer's Fellowship (1999); and Ruth Beckford Extraordinary People In Dance Award (1999). CK has been a member of the faculty council of the East Bay Center for Performing Arts (Richmond CA) since 1974.