Kalimba Magic Interview

December 9, 2008

Volume 3, Number 11

Kalimba Magic NEWS

• Interview with Scholar and Mbira/Karimba Artist B. Michael Williams

B. Michael Williams is a lover of mbira, karimba, and traditional African musics.

KM: Here is your introduction to percussionist and scholar B. Michael Williams, in his own words:

BMW: I’ve taught percussion at Winthrop University for 22 years. I came to “world music” through John Cage, who was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Cage used percussion instruments from around the world in his early works for percussion. It was those pieces written from 1935 to 1943 that piqued my curiosity about percussion instruments from various world cultures, particularly from Africa.

I was in a group touring and performing Cage’s music when one of my colleagues showed me an mbira dzavadzimu made by Andy Cox. Andy was an art professor who had made an instrument from descriptions and photos in Paul Berliner’s book, “The Soul of Mbira.” I had taken Berliner’s course in jazz history while working on my masters degree at Northwestern University in the late 1970s and immediately recognized the instrument. I hounded Andy to make one for me, but time and again he refused. I think he wanted to test my sincerity. In the meantime, a local music teacher had given me a Nigerian lamellaphone with keys made of rattan. It had two ranks of keys set side by side. I was determined to figure out a way to alter the configuation so I could learn to play some of the karimba tunes in the back of Paul’s book. Looking back, it reminds me of the scene in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” where Richard Dreyfus’ character is carving the mountain out of his mashed potatoes. I took some toothpicks and used them as a secondary bridge so it raised a second manual of keys. I learned to play “Butsu Mutandari” on that instrument! When I played it for Andy, he agreed to make me a karimba.


Frame Drum: A Beginning…


I first heard a frame drum at the 1982 Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Dallas, TX. It wasn’t just the amazing variety of sounds Glen Velez got out of a single drum that riveted the audience in that memorable performance. I have never heard any musical instrument played more expressively. Glen’s performance that day raised the bar for me in terms of musical expression. To this day it remains one of the most memorable and inspiring performances I have ever witnessed.

It wasn’t long before Remo came out with a line of frame drums and percussionists started buying them up like hotcakes. My students and I got tars, bodhrans, and riqs and then wondered what to do with them! I began to keep a little notebook in which I notated grooves as I improvised on the drums.

My first composition for a frame drum was actually a transcription of an improvised performance. I had been invited to perform the prelude to a world communion church service. Instead of the usual organ prelude, I played an improvisation on a tar in a style I considered appropriate to the spirit of the occasion. Following the service, I remember one very large man who approached me with what I thought was an angry look on his face. I feared he was offended by my having played a drum in a church service. As he shook my hand, he moved closer and embraced me saying, “That was the most reverent thing I’ve ever heard!” Later on, I wrote down what I had played and called the piece Quatrinity. It was the first of what would become Four Solos for Frame Drums, to my knowledge the first published collection of solos for the instrument. The only work I know of that preceded it was John Cage’s Composed Improvisation for Frame Drum, written for Glen Velez in 1988.

My compositions for frame drums are informed by my experience in American rudimental drumming, some traditional Arabic rhythms, a little South Indian influence borrowed from Glen Velez and N. Scott Robinson, and my own experience with West African drumming. Quatrinity, for example, uses 5-stroke rolls, ruffs, and 11-stroke rolls (executed with the fingers) from rudimental drumming, one-handed kanjira “rolls” from South Indian drumming, and the ubiquitous gankogui bell pattern from West Africa. One of my most recent compositions, Rhythmic Journey No.1 : Conakry to Harare for tar, employs traditional djembe rhythms from Guinea, West Africa sandwiched around a brief reference to the traditional rudimental snare drum solo, Three Camps, before moving on to rhythms derived from a traditional kalimba tune called “Chigwaya” from Zimbabwe and a tune for mbira dzavadzimu titled “Kuzanga.” My first solo for riq, Another New Riq, was influenced almost entirely from the rhythmic feel of the Malinke dance rhythm “Manjani,” even though there aren’t any direct quotes from the original dance rhythm in the piece.
One of my favorite compositions that I don’t think has been performed very often is Etude in Arabic Rhythms from Four Solos for Frame Drums. It’s a great introduction to seven traditional Arabic rhythms: “Dawr Hindi,” “Malfuf,” “Maqsum,” “Saudi,” “Chiftetelli,” “Nawwari,” and “Masmudi.”

Nearly all my frame drum works were written for my students to play on their degree recitals. Way back in the ‘80s, when I was so enthralled with this amazing “new” medium of musical expression, I began writing pieces for the simple reason that my students and I didn’t have any pieces to play on these extraordinarily versatile instruments. I have since encouraged my students to transcribe rhythms, keep their own notebooks of grooves, and compose their own pieces. My best advice is, “If I can do it, you can do it!”

Playing frame drums for me is a visceral experience unmatched by any experience I’ve ever had playing stick drums. There is something about having direct contact with the membrane, and the feel of the various sounding areas of the drum, that seems to put my entire body into vibration. I wanted to give my students an opportunity to have that kind of visceral experience, so I wrote some pieces for them. In the process, I developed an eclectic compositional style that drew on my experiences as a percussionist playing a large variety of music from a wide cultural, geographical, and historical range. Come to think about it, maybe that’s what being a percussionist is all about.



Welcome to the B. Michael Williams blog


Welcome to my news page and blog.  Over the years I’ve had experiences or insights that I thought were worth sharing with a wider audience, but may not have been so significant or thoroughly researched as to warrant a published article. Perhaps this blog will be the perfect venue for little tidbits I’ve discovered about this and that.

I guess I’m a bit of an anomaly in the percussion world, but maybe not. After all, percussionists are by nature “jacks of all trades.” I began my career as an orchestral percussionist and high school band director, then did some research and writing on John Cage, wrote some pieces for frame drums, studied West African drumming, and later learned to play a lamellaphone from Zimbabwe. Some years ago I remember asking a colleague what he’d thought of an article I’d recently published about Stockhausen’s percussion solo No. 9 Zyklus. His response was, “You wrote that? I thought it was another Michael Williams.”

The fact is, diversity is what we percussionists do best. My teacher at Northwestern University, Terry Applebaum, always said, “Our virtuosity is our versatility.” I took that wisdom to heart and it is a major platform in my teaching philosophy. Anyway, I hope to engage you on these pages with some observations, experiences, and my own questions about a variety of topics; frame drums, djembe, contemporary percussion, percussion education, mbira, and my own musings about everything from Almglocken to Zen.

Thanks for visiting… and come back any time!