On Where I Began

My parents have always been the biggest supporters of my music career. When I was ten, they bought a 2nd hand drum kit in Melbourne and had it shipped 12,000 kilometers to Yemen. A ‘Boston’ branded drum kit with ‘Dolfin’ cymbals was, in hindsight, a pretty laughable start but enough to kick me off on a life-time of weird experiences (ps. that’s me in the center of the photo up above).

I have this theory with the young students that I teach, that a love of instrument or even a love of music isn’t important. It’s incredibly helpful, but by no means the defining factor on whether they will improve their skills and/or turn it into something more than a passing phase.

The kids who don’t love it, but have parents who push them to practice are the ones who improve. It’s a simple formula. Five minutes a day is genuinely enough to make a lasting difference for a kids’ musical ability.

Kids’ love is fleeting (hence we see them drift through the passing phases of Fidget Spinners and Fortnight, Pokemon and Pogs), but the stuff that sticks with them is the stuff that educators keep forcing them to learn, whether they like it or not.

We don’t allow kids to give up on maths or reading, but we expect that a musical instrument will be something that they love enough to dedicate hours of their young lives to. Little consideration is given to the mental ability and focus to stick with something to the point where it starts sounding and feeling good. Thankfully drums can sound ok from the get-go, we are just hitting things after all. In one school band program I was involved with, several year 7 boys attempted to play the flute week after week for five weeks. They literally never learnt to make a sound (and I never learnt to help them), but the percussion section up the back was a joyful cacophony. Imagine a group of boys half-heartedly spluttering into flutes up the front while the stereotypically ADD boys up the back hit everything in sight with gusto. This is most band programs.

My mum was a defining character in my young musical career. She tuned the guitar in my first rock band (‘can you get your mum to tune my guitar again? It always sounds better when she does it’). She made me practice fifteen minutes a day (usually just enough to get through two Green Day songs and something by Sum 41). She kept me in lessons.

I learnt to play drums through tuition with an enthusiastic Iraqi violinist, probably not the most auspicious start, but you get what you get. Many years later I had my first lesson with an actual drum teacher in Melbourne and he examined my technique with some alarm… ‘have you had lessons before? There are some interesting wrist movements going on’. Well yes, I’m applying the finest Iraqi violin bowing techniques to the drum sticks, what else do you expect?

One particular exercise consisted of taking a pair of drum sticks and, starting on the tiled floor, tapping my way around the terracotta walls of my room. We never addressed the reasoning behind this activity, but I’m sure I could find a way to address rebound and mechanics in it now. If I had the years back, I’d explain to my young self the focus is on ‘getting out of the way of the stick’ (thank you Dave Elitch) but again, you get what you get.

You read musician’s biographies and they wax lyrical about how their dad’s vinyl collection was the defining moment of their preformant life. ‘I grew up with the sounds of the 60s, Van Morrison gave a soundtrack to my childhood, ra ra ra’.

My start was lacklustre in comparison. From memory, we had one comedy tape of Ray Stevens (listening back to it, this was the racist sounds of the 1960s), and a series of Christian gospel songs. (Dad may not have given me music, but he gave me an entrepreneurial spirit, something to address in a future post)

My brother introduced me to a set of slightly rockier religious songs, in the form of DC Talk, and a primary school friend gave me a burnt copy of Blink 182 and my teens were spent in pop-punk bliss.

The local Yemeni population were into the vocal stylings of Diana Haddad and the best of Egyptian soap operas. My drumming thundered through the neighbourhood, further ‘othering’ myself as a young white male in an overwhelmingly Arab neighbourhood within an overwhelmingly Arab city on the bottom of the Middle East. As a side-note, there exists a wonderfully vibrant pirated cassette tape market in Yemen. Local street vendors would display the pride of their collections: badly photocopied covers of all the latest 90s boy bands (for the mid-2000s, anything from the last 20 years was quite current) clustered around badly dubbed cassettes (often starting midway through a song, and ending midway through another with vast periods of silence in between). It brings me some sense of comfort that at a time when most of the world was embracing CDs I was still fast-forwarding tapes and attempting to make my own mix-tapes via an aux cord from my computer’s headphone jack to the input on a Sanyo tape deck.

The local ‘dabbab’ drivers (mini-buses, the main form of public transport throughout most of the third world) would trade dubbed tapes with a sense of pride little seen in any other aspect of their work. Tyres screaming as they slam to a halt in the middle of an intersection, arms waving tapes out the window at the hawker on the side of the road. I’ve seen street kids running along side a dabbab with a handful of tapes and a kebab, attempting to garner a pocketful of change from the mildly focused driver. I also saw one driver disgustedly fling the wrong tape into a passing vehicle, then realising his mistake, pull a swift U-turn and drive his passengers two kilometres in the wrong direction in an attempt to get it back.

I moved to boarding school in Kenya at the age of 14, and high-school brought new friends and new music and a high-school band program. Still no real drum teacher as such, but an introduction to the world of performing, playing ‘big-band-jazz’ (ah that bastion of the ill-understood kids of high school). We performed such hits as the Pirates of the Carribean theme song and Bilbo’s Song from the LOTR soundtrack. I took my first drum solo (16 bars over ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing’), and if memory serves me correctly, flubbed it totally. Soloing still isn’t where I find my joy as a drummer.

One final thought. Yemen has been in a state of chaos for the last 10 years. Decimated by civil war (spurred on by a much deeper disagreement between various other states and ongoing arms sales from countries such as the US and Australia).

Millions of people are displaced. Millions more are starving. Schools, hospitals and essential infrastructure across the country have been closed (and often bombed).

There have been some small steps in the last couple of days, but this is a country and a generation that may never fully recover.

One of my friends (who lived in Yemen at the same time as me) has started a funding campaign for one of the groups doing essential work with children in Yemen. If you felt like passing some Christmas money on to someone less fortunate, it would be greatly appreciated.

Read about it here

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