Drumplay founder James Onysko has laid the skin of his palms on a huge variety of percussion instruments, mostly from cultures outside of North America. "I took a lot of grief in the beginning," he admits. "Like "Hey, what are you doing with that drum, white man?' I happen to think music is not about the color of your skin."
Founded in 1992 as a traditional percussion trio, Drumplay has evolved in size and scope to include a loose roster of as many as eight musicians -- mostly percussionists, with a sax, hammered dulcimer, and poet Daniel Thompson occasionally thrown in. All of the eclectic collaborators will be on hand Saturday at Cleveland Public Theatre for a performance marking the release of the new Drumplay CD, Pyramid People.
Saturday evening's lineup includes Warren Levert -- one of Drumplay's longest standing members, who studied with the famed Nigerian master drummer Babatunde Olatunji -- on congas and miscellaneous African percussion instruments, while veteran congero and bongero Sam Phillips will present his mystifying percussion shtick (as seen on Real TV) that involves only his hands -- no instruments, just shaking his hands in the air.
Then come the melody makers: Matthew Abelson, who has an extensive career on the folk festival and college circuit, adds interest as a guest collaborator on hammered dulcimer, and sax man Joshua Smith of Birth also romps melodically over the Drumplay percussion.
Melodic improv, as Smith says, "adds another dimension to the groove." He finds playing with the ensemble feels natural. "I guess I try to approach playing sax rhythmically. Melody is inherent in the instrument, but I'm a rhythmic player. Most of the communication between me and other players is rhythmic, and that's the key in improvising."
The variety of instruments and the fact that the players listen to each other distinguishes the ensemble from the chaos-with-a-downbeat noise so common in drum circles. "I want it to be more than just bam bam boom boom on the drums," says Onysko.
"James approaches everything from a listening standpoint," agrees member Tim Stralau, by day a percussionist for the Ohio Chamber Orchestra and other classical ensembles where improvisation is not so welcome. Still, percussion remains at the core.
Or, as Abelson says, "The center, the grounding force, the backbone, the rhythmic thrust, the heartbeat of the creation comes from the drums. The melodic instruments just color it in." And make it easier to hum along.