Four time Grammy Award winner and founding father of the modern frame drum movement, Glen Velez shares his rich experience in our discussion.
Listen to his unique drumming style and get to know what he created together with Steve Reich and the Paul Winter Consort. Glen has been performing with my MegaDrums group, together with Zakir Hussain, Airto Moreira, Leonard Eto and several others. He is specialized in frame drums from around the world. Velez’s virtuosic combinations of hand movements, and finger techniques, together with his compositions have opened new possibilities for musicians.
“Is that you say tambourine and most people say “oh you go like this, you shake the thing” and then when they see what’s possible on the tambourine, it’s just mind-blowing for people because they see that this very simple instrument is capable of big expression.”
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Transcript of this Episode
REINHARD: Hi and welcome to episode 31 of my podcast. Today it’s time to welcome a truly legendary drummer. He’s a four-time grammy award winner and he is considered to be the founding father of the modern frame drum movement. He was a member of Steve Reich and musicians and the Paul Winter consort amongst many other groups and he brought drumming in general and frame drumming specifically to a completely new dimension never heard before. His virtuoso playing with hand movements, finger techniques along with his composition style which incorporates stepping, drum language and overtone singing, has opened new possibilities for musicians around the globe resulting in a shift in modern percussion. He played in two tours of my MegaDrums group where he joined the lineup with Zakir Hussein, Airto Moreira, Kodo drummer Leonard Eto and many others.
Welcome GLEN: Velez.
GLEN: Thank you. Glad to be here.
REINHARD: Yes! It’s so good to see after a long time.
REINHARD: In the meantime I joined a little bit towards the symphonic music but I’m certainly contemplating reviving the MegaDrums idea.
GLEN: Oh my god. That’d be great, fantastic!
REINHARD: I would love to start our journey today with a dialogue between Zakir Hussein and you. You playing the riq and him playing the tabla. Just you know to get us started.
GLEN: Okay, okay [Music]
REINHARD: Well if this is not groove I don’t know what is. That was a great time. Now, are you currently in New York?
GLEN: Well I’m living in New Jersey now, so just outside of New York, about 40 miles outside of New York.
REINHARD: How is it there right now in all this crazy time at the moment?
GLEN: Well, it’s you know, I think it’s the same as most places around the world where you’re just… The whole life has changed. No traveling, especially for musicians of course. No traveling for me. I haven’t been on an airplane in a year and so a lot more teaching, a lot more zooming like this with group classes and classes of various kinds. We moved to this new place because it’s a little bit more isolated. We have various horse farms in this area so it’s very nice, very nice vibe.
REINHARD: So let’s go back to where you started. Actually you started with a drum set, right, at the Manhattan Music School?
GLEN: Yes. Well, when I was a kid, I have an uncle who’s a drummer and so he was my first influence and my first teacher. He was the brother of my father and he was the first one to show me how to play. I was about seven or eight and then I just kept on going to lessons in Texas where I’m from. Then I went to New York and when I was going to Manhattan School of Music I studied more classical percussion. You know the timpani and the vibraphone, xylophone… all that stuff. But about a few years after I got out of school I discovered the frame drum. So that caused this quite a dramatic shift in my attention and my focus and my energy and that’s the way it’s been ever since.
REINHARD: Do you remember what was the moment where you discovered the frame drum? How did you discover it?
GLEN: Yes. Well, when I was playing with Steve Reich, and I was playing mostly marimba with him, there were two other players in that group who were very involved back in the 70s in the study of Indian music. Bob Becker and Russ Hartenberger. Bob studied the north Indian tabla and Russ was studying south Indian mridangam. So Russ’s teacher was in New York one time and I said “well i’ll take a lesson” and I wanted to study the mridangam. I started out that way. One lesson after a few months he saw a tambourine on my wall, an orchestral tambourine, and he said “we play that in south India”. I said “oh really?”. I had no idea what you would do with it. So he picked it up and started to do the kanjira style, south Indian tambourine playing, of course that’s an amazing style. So I saw that and I really immediately liked it. I said “let’s study that”. I really like that sound, the size of the instrument, everything about it. So that’s the way it started and that was in 1977.
REINHARD: Wow, quite some time ago.
GLEN: Yes. And so we started to study that and then I said “well I know that they’re into the tambourine in the middle east”. So being in New York there were a lot of concerts of all kinds. So I started to go to middle eastern concerts and I saw a guy playing the riq. Very nice style, beautiful style, and I just went up to him and said “can I study that with you?”. And that’s how the whole thing started. I started to study the different styles: the middle eastern, the south Indian then there was the Italian and there was the central Asian. Went from there. I just was finding out more and more about all these different ways of holding these drums and the techniques involved. And as an offshoot of that, for some reason, I got very interested in the history. Very early on I thought I know that they played… I always remembered seeing pictures of tambourine players in renaissance paintings so I started to look at those and go to the library and look at those and so. That interest also has continued all this time so I have these thousands of depictions of frame drums from cultures all over the world and from all different time periods. So that’s been an ongoing interest of mine and I think that for me that really ties into my feeling inspired by seeing these ancient frame drummers and seeing how they’re holding the drum and it looks exactly like what i’m doing. So it feels a real connection you know.
REINHARD: Yes! You definitely have become an archetype because you have really created something new out of it and in the first collaborations you also played with Youssef Charonik and with Shane Shanahan, right?
GLEN: Yes, yes.
REINHARD: And how did you meet them actually?
GLEN: Well, they’re students. There was nobody doing frame drums back in when I started. So I started to teach people to play frame drum and every one in a while there’d be a really good student. They would come along, they could really pick it up fast and so I started to create pieces for more than one person. Initially I was just doing solos and stuff and playing with other musicians, but just drum and trumpet or drum and other instruments. So very early on I think that also the frame drum lends itself to group playing, more than one player, it really has a good quality about that. So I started to compose pieces that had more than one player playing and when Youssef started, probably around in the early 90s and Shane started in the late 90s, so i’ve been playing with these guys for over 20 years. I taught him my style and of course the other thing about frame drumming is that once people get involved with it they really start to create their own version of it. It happens very readily so they also teach and Shane plays with the Silk Road Ensemble with yo!yo! mon. So he’s very active. Has been very active over the years doing frame drumming in a lot of different situations and Youssef also plays with a lot of different groups.
REINHARD: There is a composition called Coba that you brought out and there are several tars on it. Then there’s a tupan which is like this big bass drum and the riq. Now I have a question about the tars. A tar and a bodhran look kind of similar. One is from Ireland, one is from the middle east. What’s the difference?
GLEN: Well, you have this. This is a typical tar drum. One type of tar drum and basically the way this is played is like this. So you have one hand underneath, another up here. Now these are found all over the middle east a lot of different versions and even in India and using the Arabic style of playing. Now the bodhran is an Irish drum and mostly it’s played with a stick. Mostly traditional Irish playing. But the reason…
REINHARD: You don’t play with the stick, right?
GLEN: No, I can but that’s not really what I’m a specialist in. Basically I saw back in my early days, with research, I had been studying for a couple of years, and I saw a Nubian frame drummer that was in a book, just a picture from the 70s, and he was playing the drum like this. And I had never seen that before so I said “hey i’ll try that”. And basically I just said “well, I can use all these techniques from Arabic and south Indian etc. But I can do it in this style” because the bodhran is a larger frame drum that was the one I started doing that style but you can do it on any frame. But basically the bodhran is an Irish word for a large frame drum.
REINHARD: Right. So basically that combination of so many styles made also this unique way of you playing and then you’re bringing of course in the overtone singing. So maybe we should listen to this first sound, a song of Coba. Is it the right way I say it… “Coba”?
GLEN: Yes, Coba.
REINHARD: Okay. Let’s listen to it. [Music]
So Coba, composed by GLEN: Velez and the other musicians Youssef Cheronik nick and Shane Shanahan. The voice was with you from the very beginning, right, in your compositions?
GLEN: Yes. And really I picked that up first of all from the Arabic a little bit. They certainly used the “doom” and the “tak” and they sang the rhythms Dum ta ka Dum tu ka ka Dum…in a specific way to represent the sounds of the drum. But then when I started to study the south Indian it was even more extensive of course. The drum language that’s used in south India is just very inspirational because it is so extensive, it’s like you know just they’re covering anything they can figure out and rhythmically play, sing it. They have a vocalization that allows for the singing of it and of course they have it in north India too. But the thing that differs in the south Indian style is that it’s an ensemble oriented style. So there’s usually two or three drummers playing together. That’s one of the reasons I think that the unisons are so beautiful, the south Indian drummers. Because they’re going inside their head with the same vocalization so they have a drum language that’s very specific. So that really has been a big influence once I realized that I could use that in the compositions and also in the teaching style that i’ve developed. Then that has sustained me all the years. I keep discovering new aspects of that.
REINHARD: But here you really use it as kind of a creative element just playing a pulse with “ta, ta, ta”, very beautiful. And this Indian drum language of course brings us already to your beautiful wife Loire. Did she study this before she met you or…
GLEN: No. Her background was as a jazz singer. She went to Berkley and studied jazz singing and she was always very interested in rhythm. As a jazz singer you are. And when I first met her I was giving a class at one of the universities in New York and she was in the music therapy department in this new school. So I was doing my thing with group drumming and the vocalizations for the music therapists and the woman who directed that program said “well, you should meet Loire because she’s a vocalist and she’s very interested in rhythm and what you’re doing seems like a good connection”. So we started to connect. She gave me a cassette of one of her recordings and I immediately heard how she was so attuned to rhythm and so energized by the rhythmic aspect of her jazz singing. So I said “I bet you could get into this style of things that i’m doing which is very rhythmic and also this drum language” and she had obviously heard tabla and heard the tabla drum language but she hadn’t been exposed to the south Indian style. We just started to do it together and I showed her more and more about it and then I started to incorporate that more and more into the compositions because she became very fluent at it. Then she started to study with Subhash, Subhash Chandran, who passed away within the last year, I think. But he was a great exponent of the konnakol, the south Indian style, and so she studied with him for a while and he really gave her a lot of new material, a lot of things to work on. And so when we do compositions that’s a key element because she is so fluent in it. It’s really nice to incorporate that in the composition style.
REINHARD: I have never heard someone so eloquent. This blows my complete mind. I listened to quite a lot of your recordings in various videos yesterday in the preparation of this and it’s unbelievable how you can get that fast and that precise.
GLEN: Yes, she’s really good. And one of the things that we realized is that the south Indian drum, the mridangam for instance, is kind of a low end drum. It’s kind of lower in pitch so it contrasts somewhat with the tabla in that sense. And the tabla has these high ringing overtones and both the kanjira and the mridangam have low low, lot of low end. So when the south Indian singers interpret their konnakol they’re kind of imitating the sound of the mridangam and the kanjira. So it’s a little bit more guttural, whereas with Loire we’ve been doing a lot of riq, and the sound of riq is so high and so articulate….you heard it in dialog with Zakir. She imitates that sound and that sound is so much more tight and articulation oriented… So that’s really where she got the unique way that she articulates the konnakol.
REINHARD: I think in the next track which is called Pythia. Do I pronounce this right, Pythia?
GLEN: Pythia, tes.
REINHARD: Can you say what the name means?
GLEN: Pythia is a greek word and it’s one of the ways that the oracles translate their material into language.
REINHARD: So she’s already in there, right? So let’s listen to that, okay? MUSIC
Pythia! With GLEN: Velez and Loire Cotler. We have a tar drum, clappers and really very mesmerizing triangles. They are kind of like a completely different layer in this whole thing. And that reminds me of one of our first rehearsals where we had this multi-layered rhythm and you put a rattle into your sandals. What you play, all these polyrhythms, that’s so amazing. When did you actually meet Loire? What year was that?
GLEN: That was 2002. So it was right after the 2001 events. 2011, I’m sorry. Let’s see… when did the 9/11…it was 2001.
REIHARD: 2001, yes.
GLEN: Yes, 2001. So we met right after that and we just started collaborating within about six months.
REINHARD: Wow! And what is your most recent project together?
GLEN: Well, we put out a duo cd and that was about two years ago. That was the last cd that was in 2019 and that is just duo’s and it’s material that we’ve been playing for a number of years in a duo format. Some of the pieces were actually composed for a larger ensemble but we will do them in a dual context kind of rearrange them and I think one of the pieces that I sent you is the Miriam’s Prophecy, which really has a lot of her konnakol in it.
REINHARD: And yet before we go to that there is something called the Hittite Prana. What does that mean?
GLEN: Okay. The Hittites were an ancient people in ancient Anatolia. Actually there’s a famous bible story of Bathsheba. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Bathsheba but she was a woman who was married to a man and she was desired by king David, the famous king David from the bible. He wanted her but he knew that she was married to this lieutenant in his army. So he said “well i’ll send him to war and probably he’ll be killed and then I can have Bathsheba”. And that’s what happened. He sent him to war and apparently that was not in… looked upon well by the higher powers. But anyway that’s the story and this man who was killed was a Hittite.
REINHARD: So there’s a lot of ancient knowledge and wisdom and where you have the sources of your frame drums as you have already said, right?
GLEN: Yeah. I get a lot of not only inspiration from just looking at a picture of someone from greek times playing a frame drum on a vase or Egypt…. All these ancient cultures had the frame drums. Not only that but also the idea that their ancient stories, their ancient literature that have frame drums in them.
Miriam from the bible also played the frame drum so there’s also stories from the ancient world about frame drums. So those are also inspiring and I use a lot of those in my way of thinking about compositions and titles for pieces.
REINHARD: Most of your compositions are multi-layered in one or the other way. Kind of sometimes polyrhythmic, sometimes differently. Was this from the very beginning? Well you started with …..drum. At this time probably was not yet there but when did it come in that you went into this multi-layered composition?
GLEN: As I said, when I started I was just playing solos but as soon as I started to teach I started to hear what the sound of two frame drums was like. And then when there are more students I’d have groups and then it just became apparent when you get a lot of frame drums together there’s a lot of melodies that start to emerge from the interactions between the drums. And then I just translate that into other instruments…triangle or whatever instruments. Whatever colors I want to involve.
REINHARD: So, Hittite Prana
That is Hittite Prana. On the drums, bodhran, tar and riq is GLEN: Velez and the voice, Loire Cotler. It’s amazing. This is a kind of… You see the jazz influence, then you hear all this incredible rhythmic voice in it but it also has a connotation of middle eastern singing, right? It’s something very new. I’ve never heard this. Has she ever get in contact with middle eastern singing or…?
GLEN: Just, you know, when we’ve traveled around over the last 20 years and done festivals and stuff she’ll be exposed to all kinds of singing.
Because she’s jewish she has also the tradition of Nigun which is a middle eastern style of chant from the jewish tradition. So she has that element of Arabic middle eastern background also.
REINHARD: It’s such a creative brew you know. And still like, for example, some people say okay the tradition of a drum has to be given to the next generation and so on but what you really did, you revived in my opinion, and the many frame drums and brought it to a completely new level where now it’s for many people something that’s so common. You really brought even in Europe, here you know, frame drums to common knowledge. People say “ah yeah GLEN: Velez, is a frame drum”.
Like 10 years, 20 years ago this was not the case at all.
GLEN: No. When I started it was really an exotic instrument. It was like “what do you do with that?”. And the other thing that also has given me a lot of joy, a lot of wonderful feedback is the quality of the tambourine that is stigmatized in western culture. Is that you say tambourine and most people say “oh you go like this, you shake the thing” and then when they see what’s possible on the tambourine, the kanjira, the south Italian, all the different styles, it’s just mind-blowing for people because they see that this very simple instrument is capable of big expression. So I mean that’s always a big eye-opener and a lot of fun as the person giving to see how much a surprise there is when they see what’s possible.
REINHARD: Yes! You’ve been teaching like thousands of students over the world. Are there some names that I would recognize that you have been teaching or initiating into drumming, in frame drumming?
GLEN: Well, yes. There’s Andrea Piccioni. He’s a well-known Italian frame drummer. Zohar Fresco is a fantastic Israeli frame drummer and he came to New York at an early stage of his involvement with frame drums and checked out what I was doing and we took some lessons and stuff. But each of these guys have really developed their own whole pathway because, as I said, when you get into it you can really…you just carve a new road you know. Each player, really. And that’s the beauty and the power of this drum. You can see that there’s this basic vocabulary of “dums, taks and pas” and whatever but then there’s an endless way of negotiating how you play that. So, there’s so many players now that are creating and doing their own thing with it and figuring out ways to incorporate it into lots of different styles of music also.
REINHARD: You have been kind of associated also with Remo?
GLEN: When I first… let’s see in 1983 I’d been playing the frame drums by that point about five or six years and already had developed a style with which I combined a lot of stuff. And there was a big percussion convention called P.A.S every year in the United States because of Art Society Convention, where thousands of drummers come together, and teachers and manufacturers all come together, a big convention. And Remo came to my workshop that I did in Dallas where it was held that year in 1983. Remo Belli
REINHARD: Yes, Remo Belli.
GLEN: He came and he saw what I was doing and he said “we could make that kind of drum very easily”. They were making drum heads and so he just saw “hey we just put a drum head on a frame and we got a frame drum”. So he said “we could make that drum using synthetics”. Because at that time I didn’t have any synthetic headed drums. Everything was skin drums and I had heating pads, heat lamps and all kinds of craziness to keep the drums in a playable condition. So he saw that and said “we could make different versions” and so I said “wow that’s great, let’s do it”. And so I went out to California in his factory and we started to develop the ideas about different kinds of. And I still have a lot of the prototypes that we made back in 19 in the mid 80s of the very first versions of the frame drums and he was a big proponent of music as a healing modality.
Drumming as a healing modality and drumming as a way for communities to come together. So he was really into that. And so he saw the frame drum as really fit into that category of drum that could be available to more people and not such a scary instrument like a drum set or a timpani or whatever. Something you could hold.
REINHARD: Yes! He was a good friend of mine too and I visited him many times in his factory there. He was a very very remarkable man who did a lot for the community and for drum building in general.
REINHARD: So with the next track called Miriam’s Prophecy we hear Loire even more in the foreground.
Let’s listen and then talk.
Miriam’s Prophecy, composed by GLEN: Velez. GLEN: here on this high, sharp sound of the riq and Loire with the voice, with the wonderful rhythmic voice. How did you come up with the blueprint of this Miriam’s Prophecy. How did you start?
GLEN: The pieces often start with the rhythmic contour. So this was a 10. There’s a 10 beat rhythm in the Arabic music called Samai. 3 3 2 2 3 rhythm. And this is the beginning. Is kind of a take off on that rhythm but with a little bit of twist to it and then one of the things that also happens with frame drum, because it’s such a melodic drum and it has so many overtones when you’re playing it, that often you play a rhythm over and over again you start to hear melody. And that’s where the melodies come from and originally this was created for instrumentalists. So there were various flute players that have played this piece. Various other instruments. So the thing about Loire’s skill is that she’s able to sing instrumental music very well because she’s got a very clear vocabulary of scat and so she can kind of negotiate her way through material that is not really written for voice. It’s written for her instruments but she can articulate it nicely. So that’s where the structure came from and then the different sections are, some a couple of the sections are about different ways of subdividing five, because the ten is the initial one and then five comes in and then there’s one section in three. So a lot of times it comes from one contour and then i’m taking it apart and looking for ways to play with it.
REINHARD: Yes! These additive rhythms and overlays that are both our favorite things to play around. The bridge that Loire can kind of span from just pure jazzing to this very very amazing konnakol. I saw a video yesterday of her which is just doing konnakol. How can you do this with your tongue so long you know, without getting exhausted. It’s amazing.
GLEN: Yes. She’s great.
REINHARD: So did you ever have contact together with our friends of MegaDrums like Leonardo Eto or Airto?
GLEN: Well, I saw Leonard at a festival in Hawaii a number of years ago. It must have been 15 years. It was a while ago. And Zakir, I’ve seen a couple of different times and in different situations.
Airto, I saw once since then. So a couple of times I’ve come in contact with those guys, yes.
REINHARD: So i’m curious maybe I can kind of inspire you to join in other MegaDrums, if I can revive it once everything opens up again.
GLEN: Of course. Yes! I mean, it was great, great fun and obviously when you bring together such fantastic talents as those guys and the people that you invite it’s a big learning experience and you really pick up a lot of wonderful ideas and attitudes that are a lot of fun too.
REINHARD: Yes! Now let’s dive into one more memory of that time if you may.
REINHARD: So that was MegaDrums with GLEN: Velez, Zakir Hussein, Milton Cardona, Airto Moreira, Valerie Naranjo, Wolfgang Pushnig and I also was in this band. It was a great time. Have you heard about Valerie Naranjo? She’s in New York I guess…
GLEN: Oh, yes. I’ve seen Valerie many times because she’s in New York and I’ve seen her at percussion conventions over the years so yeah, i’ve been in touch with her.
REINHARD: So if you see her again please convey my love to her.
GLEN: I will give her your regards, for sure, yes.
REINHARD: So GLEN:, I thank you so much for your time. I’m so happy to see you again.
GLEN: You’re welcome REINHARD:. Pleasure to see you man. Thank you for inviting me.
REINHARD: Yes! And so when the time changes and you come over to Germany again, teaching hopefully…
For our listeners, where can they find you exactly on the internet?
GLEN: I have a website www.GLEN:velez.com and then I’m often connected with Tamburi Mundi in Germany. So Marat Koshkin, so that whole arena, I’ve done a lot of teaching there over the years.
REINHARD: Thank you for sharing the abundance that you are and thank you listeners for going with us all the way. If you like the podcast visit at www.powerofrhythm.com/podcast. Leave a comment if you like. Many more very interesting guests coming up. Have a great day and keep on groovin.
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