A Conversation with Drummer, Rufus Glassco
Toronto. It’s mayhem outside. The traffic is terrible. The snow is falling and the wind is blowing: a polar vortex afternoon. Inside, it’s warm like we’re all in a giant womb. The drum as our heartbeat is making all of us breathe and pulse together.
Rufus Glassco is holding a drumming circle with DAREarts kids from 19 elementary northwest Etobicoke schools. These children were chosen by their teachers to attend the DAREarts all–the-arts Program to help them reach their potential. Today, they sit in the circle, all eyes on Rufus as he takes tambourines, shakers, and claves out of a box. They will be going through some exercises before they are allowed to handle the drums, which have been placed behind their chairs.
Rufus hands out shaker eggs and tells them that he’s going to empower them though drumming. Shake, pass. He has an Indian jingle on his ankle. The kids shake and pass to the kid next to them and the pass goes faster and faster until uncontrolled giggles break out. It’s an exercise that encourages communication through eye contact and listening. Then they graduate to shake, shake pass. Then, they do it with eyes closed! They are introduced, through music, trust, leadership, the idea that if you make your partner successful, you become successful.
“A lot of childhood games are based on eliminating people which unfortunately prepares them for the workplace where mistakes are usually punished. This stifles creativity and a willingness to try new ways of doing things. When I ask the students what should happen if someone drops their egg, the usual response is “They’re out!” I tell them, “You have to leave the shaker where it is, and keep on passing the shakers without interrupting the rhythm of the group. This game only works when we all work together in unison.” The students will go back to their classrooms and peer-teach about what they learned here. Risk-taking, drumming techniques, and how polyrhythms represent community.
He explains that our bodies were our first percussion instruments. Ask any mother what game she plays with her baby and she’ll tell you, “Patty Cake.” Clapping games that engage mother and baby are used all over the world. Kids grow up and do body percussion, experiment with popping noises made by patting their cheek or stomping their feet. Perhaps this experimentation is lost in a North American computer generation, but one hopes not.
“People are always surprised at how amazing they sound, even without drums, and this gives them an early feeling of success, which only encourages them to engage more as we move forward through the workshop.” This meshes with the DAREarts value of Action, and how children can empower themselves to take the risks needed in order to succeed in their lives. The kids are attentive, respectful and intrigued by the games and then…the drums!
They pick up the West African drum that’s set behind them. The drums are stretched with goat skin. Rufus explains how drums are put together, how much pressure is used to stretch the skin. The physics of the drums is explained. The goat has a second life through the voice of the drum.
He shows the young people the respect he has for the drums. He shows them how to handle them, hold them and get different tones out of them. He speaks of the number one rule that came from the first drum teacher, Babatunde Olatunji or Baba, who came to North America from Africa in 1959: “If you can say it, you can play it.” Rufus does another circle game, wherein the kids say words and turn them into a rhythm. The pattern is working out of what the kids are saying. They communicate with eye contact and collaboration and learn about percussion notation.
The walls echo with the sound of their voices and the drum beats. They do a “follow me” exercise, where they pass a drumming pattern around the circle.
The kids quickly pick up a Nigerian greeting song, with a Fanga rhythm and hand gestures.
“Benga alaffia, ashey ashey.” Glassco’s teaching reinforces the universal idea that the first sound a human hears is the mother’s heartbeat. As the grade 7 children learn this afternoon, the sound of the drum is a call to create a community. We drum together, we survive together.
When asked what has been his favourite place to travel, he replies, “I lived in the bush in Mali for 8 months in the late 1990’s, where I discovered drumming. (He was working as an anthropologist on a research project funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.) “When I lived with no electricity, no running water, no flush toilets, no refrigeration, no internet, no movies or possessions (other than my guitar and my notebook), I realized what really gave my life meaning: the relationships I maintained with my friends and family through letter writing; my health; and the quality and the value of the work that I did, and the interactions with others that came from that work. Beyond that, everything else just distracts you from what is important in life.”
While in Mali, he discovered an interesting instrument that reminds me of a game we played in the 70’s. “Clackers,” we called them. They were two plastic balls on strings that, when you moved your hand up and down, they clacked against each other in a quick rhythm. Kashakas, “literally grow out of the ground” in West Africa. They are gourds that children collect, fill up with pebbles and strung together. For many children in Mali, a Kashakas, is their only toy. When Rufus played them, out came fascinating polyrhythms that transfixed the teens. If I attempted to play my Clackers the same way, I would have lost an eye to broken acrylic, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable sounding as these shakers.
When asked if he were a little kid, picking up a drum for the first time, what would be the song he’d drum to, Rufus responds, “A song I love. I always tell young people who are learning a new instrument to play the music they enjoy listening to. But don’t try to copy it exactly – have fun with it, change it up a bit, and make it your own. Sometimes the covers we hear are far superior to the original song. The most interesting rhythms I heard when I was young came from Bob Marley songs. I’d probably want to play along to ‘Jammin’.’ I wish I had a drum back then!”
You can learn more about Rufus’s instruments and his company, Rhythm Kingdom here.