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Percussive Arts Society makes noise with convention, exhibit


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  • Dave Windisch

A paradox surrounds drumming, at least in Western culture. Despite its status as the most essential and versatile of instrumental pursuits, the percussion field in general seldom gets the respect it deserves.

Remember Animal, the shackled, barely verbal house drummer for The Muppet Show? What about mock-rockers Spinal Tap and their parade of anonymous timekeepers dying under strange circumstances? Or Ringo Starr, long ridiculed for the crime of playing in the world's greatest pop group?

"Drummers get a bad rap sometimes," says musician-composer Glenn Kotche, best known for his inventive drum work with rock band Wilco. "It's good to know there's an organization out there that is showing the good side of percussionists."

That organization is the Percussive Arts Society, which moved its headquarters to Downtown Indianapolis and opened its Interactive Rhythm! Discovery Center museum in 2009. And PAS is enjoying a very busy November, which happens to be International Drum Month.

The society's 38th annual International Convention, known as PASIC, runs today through Saturday at the Indiana Convention Center. The gathering will draw world-class players and thousands of other visitors to the city for concerts, clinics, a gear and services expo and other free and ticketed events with appeal for both full-time musicians and casual fans of all ages.

On Thursday, the Rhythm! Discovery Center will open its most ambitious exhibit to date, DRUMset: Driving the Beat of American Music. Scheduled to run for two years, the first-of-its-kind attraction will trace the evolution of the drum set – a truly American creation – from its Civil War roots to the latest high-tech innovations. Featured items will include kits played by jazz-era legends Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and rock icons John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Neil Peart of Rush, among others.

The exhibit reflects the society's effort to reach beyond its core constituency of teachers and performers and to touch the general public with its message about the rich history, the intriguing future and the physical, mental and spiritual value of the percussive arts.

"I think this exhibit will appeal to the masses across the board and will bring people to the center, where they can experience the hands-on portion of it and learn about rhythm and all the other things that are related to the excitement of seeing those drum sets," says Jeff Hartsough, a PAS staffer for 11 years and its executive director since February. "We're talking about a huge range of importance as to where rhythm and drums and percussion come from and where we're headed. So the Percussive Arts Society and the Rhythm! Discovery Center in general try to encapsulate all of that, at least at some level."

Founded in 1961, the nonprofit PAS is the world's largest percussion organization, with 7,000 members and chapters in nearly every U.S. state and about 30 nations. Its mission is "to promote percussion education, research, performance and appreciation throughout the world" with offerings that include two bimonthly publications, Percussive Notes and Percussion News; various online resources; a broad menu of events and outreach programs; and a physical archive of instruments, recordings, scores and other materials, many rare and unusual.

One of the group's active members is Kotche, who joined the PAS board of directors a year ago but joined the society in 1983 as a middle-schooler. Its publications appealed to the young player's appreciation for the broad scope of percussion.

"A lot of the kids who played guitars in rock bands just hung out at the music store, and the kids who played French horn and clarinet hung out in the band room," he says. "I liked hanging out at both, and I didn't see the need to have this division there. And PAS offered that to me. Ultimately, it was just a resource that made me a much better percussionist."

Attending the International Convention became an annual tradition for Kotche, who will present a clinic at 5 p.m. Saturday about his new instructional book. Another regular is Valerie Naranjo, now in her 19th season as percussionist for the Saturday Night Live band. She was a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma when she attended her first PASIC in 1977.

"At the time it was more classically oriented, and I was more classically oriented," she says. "Since then, it's just totally busted out" into styles from rock to funk to world music.

Scenes from PASIC in years past - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Scenes from PASIC in years past

The annual convention taught Naranjo, "a kid from a little town in Colorado," how to network in the music industry, and it introduced her to the West African traditions she has studied since the 1980s. She went on to perform and arrange percussion for the Broadway production of The Lion King, and she still serves as a musical advisor to the show. Making her ninth PASIC appearance this year, she will present a clinic Thursday morning showcasing the gyil, the West African predecessor of the modern marimba.

"I'm definitely a PAS baby," she says.

The convention is returning to Indianapolis this year after being staged last year in Austin, Tex. Looking ahead, the intent is to have two years in Indianapolis, every third year elsewhere.

The event's centerpiece is the International Drum and Percussion Expo, which hosts more than 100 percussion-related manufacturers, publishers and organizations exhibiting and demonstrating the latest instruments, sticks and mallets, accessories, music and related products and services. Visitors can try out the equipment and buy it on the spot, if so moved.

The daytime clinics, which often turn into jam sessions, are followed by evening concerts. Friday brings acclaimed jazz-rock vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and drummer Peter Erskine with local pros Steve Allee on piano, Brandon Meeks on bass and Rob Dixon on sax. Saturday will see drummer Dave Weckl with guitarist Oz Noy and bassist Michael Rhodes.

"There's something really for everybody, whether you're a jazz fan, rock and roll, country," says Matthew Altizer, marketing and communications director for the society and the museum. "Basically, any kind of music, we have something."

Though once limited to PAS members, the convention was opened to the general public a few years back, with single event tickets at $20 as well as a $40 combo pass that provides entry to two events plus the expo.

"That's relatively new in the last few years, and that's really helped us reach out to the community," says Hartsough, who hopes folks will approach the event "with the same kind of idea as the Home & Garden Show or the Boat Show, that people just look for something to do and they come down and they walk through the expo."

Because, after all, making and enjoying music shouldn't be some exotic novelty. It's as natural, and nearly as important, as breathing.

"We have a quote on one of the walls, 'Rhythm is the soul of life,' and I think that really draws everything together," Altizer says. "What we're trying to do is show that rhythm, and drumming in particular, truly is more than just a musical idiom. It's life-changing and life-altering, whether it's through education or health and wellness or just through music. It's something that's very powerful."


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