THE ARTS

Drums across the planet

NICHOLAS JENNINGS February 29 1988
THE ARTS

Drums across the planet

NICHOLAS JENNINGS February 29 1988

Drums across the planet

THE ARTS

For Toronto percussionist John Wyre, the idea had the resonance of a well-struck gong to draw together the rhythms of the world's best drummers and create a unifying pan-cultural beat. Vancouver's Expo 86 offered him the first opportu nity to test his concept on a global scale. There, assembling 250 performers from four continents, Wyre organized a two-week festival that featured drum-

ming on instruments ranging from the Inuit kilautik to the West African talking drum. And he planned to bring all the drummers together for a grand finale. The complexity of such an undertaking almost thwarted his dream, but in the end Wyre succeeded in creating a stunning explosion of rhythm that has been captured in World Drums, an hour-long documentary produced by Toronto’s Rhombus Media for the National Film Board. The film, which drew standing ovations at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals last fall, airs on CBC Sunday, Feb. 28, at 2 p.m. As Wyre says, it proves that drums do make it possible to “sound the pulse of the planet.”

Since the success of the World Drum Festival at Expo 86, Wyre has sent global rhythms pulsing through political and sporting events alike. For the

meeting of the Commonwealth heads of state held in Vancouver last October, he staged an eight-day festival that combined tribal and contemporary drumming. And last week he orchestrated a similarly exotic program for the arts celebration at the Calgary Winter Olympics. Now Wyre, a member of the acclaimed Nexus percussion ensemble, plans to take a select group of international drummers around the world. The first stop will be Brisbane, Australia, in August for Expo 88. Said Sal Ferreras, a Vancouver percussionist who has often worked with Wyre: “In creating a world music ensemble, John acts as musician and statesman. And he’s very good at both.”

As World Drums reveals, Wyre had to quickly develop the skills of a musical diplomat during the planning for the show at Vancouver’s Expo. After 18 months of scouting the globe for talent, he was faced with such a diverse range of drumming styles that he had to scrap his score for the final concert. In the end, he improvised a simpler layering of rhythms. As well, he found that too many drummers wanted to perform solo in the show. But the film, directed by Niv Fichman, shows how the sixfoot, three-inch, bearded Wyre managed to harness the individualism of the

performers. “We’ll have wonderful ideas that we’ll feel strongly about,” he told them through translators. “Please keep them to yourself.”

The film’s strength lies in its glimpses of the musicians —both onstage and off—that show drumming to be as natural as a heartbeat. Along with close-ups of gnarled hands beating stretched skins, the camera captures the animated expressions of Gamelan players from Indonesia and the dramatic stick-swinging drummers from Senegal. World Drums also offers warmly humorous and gently political moments. In one offstage scene, a female dancer from the Ivory Coast, once a bastion of colo-

nial slavery, performs a mocking imitation of the stiff Queen’s Lancashire Regiment Drum Corps. In another, three Pakistani musicians express their delight as they watch whales performing at an aquatic park. Those telling asides are the trademark of Rhombus, which specializes in humanizing difficult artistic subjects.

Wyre himself is a composer with a growing international reputation. Born into a musical Philadelphia family in 1941, he was a compulsive table-tapper as a child. Finally, when he was 14, his parents enrolled him in drumming lessons. After a stint playing in rock ’n’ roll bands, Wyre graduated from the Rochester, N.Y., Eastman School of Music and became a member of several American orchestras, before moving to Canada in 1966 to become principal timpanist with the Toronto Symphony. Pursuing his taste for improvisational and ethnic music, he formed Nexus with five fellow percussionists in 1971.

Wyre’s interest in creating a crosscultural beat dates back to a 1961 party he attended in Beirut, where he says he “jammed for hours on a pair of bongos” with two local drummers. “Drummers have a love affair with rhythm,” he added. “They tickle it, they push it, they kick it, and if you put a group together in a room they’ll find a way of relating.” When they do, as in the final scene of World Drums, the sound can have the delicacy of a baby’s breath—or the strength of a thundering locomotive. It is the sound of global walls crashing down.

NICHOLAS JENNINGS