Beat poets 

The drive to hang with the West African rhythm

Perhaps the best way to describe the evolution of the present Drum Brothers’ sound is to tell the story of Mathew Marsolek’s meeting and relationship with his teacher, Malian drum master, Abdoul Doumbia. Like most pivotal moments, at least the most believable ones, the event itself was simple. Mathew began playing drums in the late ’80s. Following the inspiration of his brother Patrick he began making drums for sale. In the mid-’90s the brothers opened their store in Arlee. It was there that fate, chance, or divine inspiration took hold. Abdoul Doumbia was on his way to Seattle when he stopped in at the shop. He spoke with the people in the store for only a short while before picking up a drum and inviting Mathew to play along with him. It was, for Marsolek, “an initiatory experience.” Marsolek says he began to play a very simple West African drum accompaniment, but Doumbia’s playing was like nothing he had ever felt before. Doumbia’s rhythm was strong. “He was pushing against the beat,” says Marsolek. It was a challenge to hang with it, to stay on the beat, not to lose the thin thread that held their music together. “It cooked me in a way,” says Marsolek, “and I needed that.”

A large part of the Drum Brothers’ sound, as evidenced on the group’s newly released second CD, Remember, is a strong yet ever developing West African rhythm. But there is more. “We don’t pretend to be West Africans,” says Marsolek, acknowledging that each of the four members of the ensemble brings his own musical traditions into the music. Naturally, all the members of the group play a wide variety of percussion instruments. Michael and Mathew Marsolek also have years of choral music experience from their high school years. Mathew Marsolek received voice lessons in high school, courtesy of an anonymous donor. Beginning at age 18, he sang solo baritone for three years with the Helena Symphony productions of Handel’s Messiah. He has also performed both classical and jazz guitar professionally, and was trained in Hindustani vocal techniques. Michael Marsolek studied didgeridoo and Native American flute. Lawrence Duncan has performed classical music on a variety of woodwind instruments and vocally for much of the past 25 years. Nathan Zavalney plays a variety of wind and string instruments, and sang as a member of the Helena Boys Choir. The Drum Brothers’ sound is a uniquely kaleidoscopic mix of streamlined West African rhythms steeped in long experience with western scales and harmonics, much of it from the classical and choral traditions.

West African drumming is an ancient and venerable tradition, and Marsolek makes no pretenses to having mastered it yet. On the contrary, in an interview with the Independent he seems humbled by the depth of skill and sheer strength necessary to “hang” with the master drummers, his teachers. His admiration for the strength and knowledge of his primary teacher, Abdoul Doumbia, is palpable when Marsolek speaks of him. “Abdoul Doumbia is called Waraba—the big lion,” he says. Doumbia is indeed a big man with solid, graceful hands. In the CD’s liner notes, Marsolek says, “You know when you’re outside with your friends and you begin to play [the drum] for fun, but suddenly a large crowd is drawn in toward the music? Then you need to be responsible for what you are creating.” Watching Marsolek in concert, it’s evident that he has aspirations to the role of the big lion himself, but in conversation he makes it clear that he has a long way yet to travel.

The rhythms on the new recording are as masterful as any the Drum Brothers have made. Most of the tracks were recorded live in the studio with very few overdubs. Streamlined and bright, the playing is steady and balanced, the strike of the drums is clean. Abdul Doumbia’s accompaniment, on four tracks, was dubbed in. Nevertheless, he sounds like he was having a really good time.

Five of the tracks on the new CD showcase Drum Brother arrangements of traditional West African singing. The lyrics are traditional, sung in the Mandinga and Bambara languages, but the arrangements are unique. Owing to the fact that none of the group’s members speaks those languages fluently, the core verses of the songs have been arranged as chants. The singing on the medley “Yancadi/Macru” is a very sweet choral harmony that refrains, in English, “I’m not gonna fight anymore. I’m tired of fighting.” Traditional West African singing is usually very improvisational. Marsolek describes a voice singing over the drums as being able to cut across the rhythms. This, he says, leads to a soprano sound. Marsolek admits this soprano style can be difficult for his alto/baritone voice. Nonetheless, all the vocals on Remember are performed with extraordinary elegance and clarity.

As well as being fine musicians, the Marsolek brothers have shown themselves to possess refined entrepreneurial skills. They are successful drum makers and known by many across the United States as educators in the rhythmic arts. Mathew Marsolek speaks of rhythm and music with alacrity. He has several West African teachers and describes them as being part of a long student-teacher lineage. Marsolek seems committed to the path they continue to show him, both humbled and proud to be part of what he respectfully refers to as a “living tradition.” 

The Drum Brothers will demonstrate their skills as musicians, drum makers and as teachers at a series of workshops called the Rhythm Roundup in Choteau on July 25–28. For information or to register, call (406) 466-2203, e-mail sgl@3rivers.net or visit www.drumbrothers.com.

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