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Exploring the art of primal percussion with Jim McGrath

As Jim McGrath sees it, we Western folk are just a little too stiff and "in our heads." Coming from a man who believes he was born to shake, rattle and hit things, that's more than a casual observation.
"Urban people have lost touch with Mother Nature and their own bodies... Western ideology has been so intellectual," theorizes McGrath, a professional percussionist who grew up in New Jersey and now resides in suburban Los Angeles.
"Even dance has been rigidly structured," he says. "But contemporary dance and formal and informal drum circles have begun to introduce free expression, which in itself is striving to become less intellectual."
The idea of "going with the flow" is inherent to this new-found freedom, a concept vividly illustrated by the practice of therapeutic drumming and its value in easing the emotional constipation of modern life. "Many people are at an age of being reborn culturally, while getting in touch with their roots,"McGrath observes, stressing that 'everyone is moved by the primal nature of the drum."
For McGrath, drum music encompasses more that mere entertainment, though his three solo releases on the Talking Drum Records label-Percussive Environments, Drum Spirit and Soul Dancer-are enjoyable unto themselves.
Soul Dancer,his latest, is a versatile recording that connects on multiple levels of listener participation, serving the mood of the moment. It suits as ambient background fare. Or, you can pump up the volume and let the rhythms carry you away.
The disc contains five compositions ranging from 11 minutes to 16 minutes. All achieve a percolating flow along McGrath's veritable river of percussive devices - African talking Drum, djembe, djun djun, Middle Eastern dumbec, tar, rik and darabouka, the Irish bodhran, the Moroccan bendir, congas, bongos, cajons, water drums and rainsticks, not to mention an array of bells, shakers and chimes. Lilting female voices from Irish, African and South American traditions accentuate the tribal-ambient grooves to hypnotic effect.
McGrath has used his music in workshops for healing, meditation and movement instructions, where participants immerse themselves in rhythmic bliss for 10 hours daily over three days.
"There is anywhere from 20 to 50 people in these groups. We begin with ambient percussion and go on to intense movement over a long period of time, where people would have time to really let go," he says.
Jim McGrath says it's incredible "to experience the energy of a group of people feeding off the energy of a couple of drummers who, in turn, are feeding off the people."

McGrath sees drum circles as vehicles for developing technique and for cultivating the inner self..That's also when he developed the nuances of soft playing and explored the myriad dynamics of sounds. Taking the process a step further, McGrath began making his own hand drums and percussion instruments.
What's a drum Circle? "It's a bunch of people with drums sitting in a circle...and letting it all hangout. It's pretty exciting to see people react to drumming and react to each other. Drum circles are proliferating. I am just guessing, but I think it all started with Micky Hart and the Grateful Dead Concerts. Drum circles are made up mainly of amateur players," McGrath says. "But, if you hang in long enough, it will get to a point where everything locks into a rhythm.
"This always happens. It's the law of entrainment, where it takes less energy for more forms of energy to perform the same task at the same time than to go against each other. When everyone locks into playing the same rhythm, there is that power you feel running through your body..."
Getting out of one's head into the visceral, rhythmic trance of drumming can generate altered states of consciousness. Practiced regularly, it can lead to a happier, more meditative state of being, a happier, more meditative state of being, McGrath says.
"Complete feeling gives a more true sense of being. I found I could alter my state {of consciousness} almost instantly through drumming," he says. "In certain tribes in Africa, the doctors are drummers. They hold drum sessions and dance sessions and they see, by the way a person dances, if there is something not right.
"They can often tell what it is that is not right with them, and they will go up to them and drum directly to them and intensify the drumming to make them move and dance the illness out of them."
McGrath hopes his recordings will have similar effect on people, which is why his compositions tend to be lengthy. "I want to see people dancing, playing along and listening to the rhythms. Just listening to the rhythms will get you there," he says. "It still gets me there."



This article appeared in:
Progression Dec. 97
Spirit of Change Nov.97

*Photo courtesy of
Robin Brennan

"These experiences totally changed the way I thought of myself and of being a drummer. I realized the power of drumming and where it cam from. Drumming is an integral part of life for many cultures, and is used to connect, heal, travel, celebrate, mourn and communicate. Before these workshops, I had never experienced the energy of a group of people feeding off the energy of a couple drummers who, in turn, are feeding off the people. The dynamic is incredible, and shows how powerful we are and how tuned in we can be. Drumming is not just for performing and entertaining."
McGrath's fascination with percussion began as a child and showed career promise in his twenties, when he performed with rocker Jon BonJovi in the early 1980's. He subsequently became a drum clinic junkie, following the likes of Billy Cobham and Glen Weber, who ran the New Jersey School of Percussion.
Ultimately, McGrath became enamored of percussion as opposed to mere drumming - the difference being that percussion involves an infinite array of exotic rhythmic devices requiring a literally hands-on approach.
"I remember it was very hard to make the transition from drum kit {Playing with sticks} to playing with my hands. When I first started doing it I used to bang on them and really beat the crap out of my hands. I had no technique," he recalls. "My first lessons showed me how to make the "pop" sounds, the "slap' sounds, all those basic sounds, without hurting myself.
"The hardest thing to do, and it took me years to do it, is to relax. I got to a point where I really wanted to play percussion and there were a lot of instruments to learn. So, I just had to stop playing the drum kit in rock bands," McGrath says. "I told people I didn't play the drum kit anymore, I play percussion."
In New Jersey, percussion enthusiasts - as opposed to standard drum kit drummers - were few and far between, McGrath recalls. There were no ensembles, no drum circles; the only opportunity to play was with rock bands. So he moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and played percussion with anyone and everyone. Back then the folk scene was enjoying a revival, and the acoustic movement was developing, so McGrath got a lot of gigs
First 1970s rock'n'roll, then the '80s revival of acoustic/unplugged music. Now we're almost through the '90s, which has seen an explosion of interest in percussion with the emergence of a new "tribal" music movement - where drum circles are vital laboratories for amateur players and professionals alike.
"Contemporary dance and formal and informal drum circles
have begun to introduce free expression. Everyone is moved by the primal nature of the drum."
- Jim McGrath