Out of the blue one day Chi said that he wanted me to learn to play the congas, and would I play through a couple pieces with him when he practiced hand percussion that evening after our Panache rehearsal.  I thought that sounded like fun, and it was. 

Listen while you read to “Selemat Jalan!” (=~ “Bon Voyage” in Bahasa Indonesia). We hope to remix this piece that appeared on Chi and my first collaborative project — an EP titled “Neo” — with lots of percussion. I had a hell of a time with the syncopated rhythmic figures when we originally recorded it in Tokyo back in late 1998, so I’ll get a chance to redress that in the remix.

ca. late November 2012

I had a cursory background in hand percussion already, having taken an African percussion workshop for a month or two just before I moved to Tokyo in late 1997, but had forgotten most of it by this point. Nevertheless, having any base at all was helpful. Chi’s rationale was that if I were to become able to navigate and get comfortable working in the complex polyrhythms of the Cuban music he’s been working out with every day in his personal practice since taking a percussion seminar in Cuba in summer 2011, it would do much to stabilise and enhance my own internal rhythmic sense, which would free me up to push my limits more when I’m improvising while playing violin since I wouldn’t have to concentrate so hard on staying with the rhythm when he took it more abstract. That made perfect sense to me. I have always struggled with rhythm, as do many melody-specialised players (most notoriously singers!).

I have never had any rigourous training in rhythm, and even as a bassist, my foundation was a bit rickety since my teachers had always been so excited about my highly advanced left-hand technique and melodic sense and overall musicianship from being a violinist that they worked more on flashy playing than fundamental rhythm, so I never developed a solid sense of core time or rhythmic steadiness.

Something I found particularly challenging, especially as Chi introduced more advanced new vocabulary with accented beats in places I wasn’t accustomed to was developing independence of hands. I had the same issue trying to learn to play kit drums many years ago since independence of limbs is not my strong suit. That was one of the first things Chi and I ever did together when we had just met at the beginning of 1998 in Tokyo: I went over to his place one snowy day in mid-winter and since we couldn’t really talk because he spoke no English at all and at that time (I had just moved to Tokyo about four months before that) my Japanese that had got quite proficient several years earlier while I was at university had degraded to the point that I could only manage the bare essentials of getting around, he took me down to the rehearsal studio in the basement and gave me a drum lesson! Off the subject, but it was quite comical when we went on our first dinner date: all we could do was sit and look at each other across the table since we couldn’t have a conversation!

As the weeks went by, Chi taught me various techniques to produce particular sounds and effects with the drums while working on training me in the fundamentals of being a rhythm player: developing sufficient control to be able to consistently accent certain notes and shift the pattern around without falling out of the pocket; and consistently produce a good, deliberate tone (as opposed to a dull thump!) with the correct approach. It’s not just about hands. The entire body is involved. Chi has developed a specific way of moving while playing in order to be able to easily reach all the drums while maintaining a vibrant, animated groove. He kept the pace of introducing new material quite brisk, and I often got overloaded and confused trying to process and integrate it all.

Video of Chi demonstrating his approach as a percussionist

According to Chi, I have been making rapid progress that he was highly pleased with, and I am enjoying working with him on this sub-project. I would speculate that my rapid progress speaks more highly of Chi’s mastery as a teacher as well as a player, rather than any particular aptitude on my part. It worked out just as Chi intended. I noticed that my core time and rhythmic sense did improve, and I felt more free when improvising to focus more on what I was playing rather than how I was playing it. Well, of course I remain aware of the “how”, since I still have a lot of work to do in repairing my dodgy intonation and remembering the fingering for scales and modes in various keys.

Jaco decided this looked like fun, and after awhile decided to try it himself. Unfortunately the live stream program didn’t save the recording of the session when Jaco stood up on Chi’s chair and put his hands on the drum in front of him to have a go.

Jaco in training to be Conguero #2

Jaco in training to be Conguero #2

An example of a lesson/practice session: