The local jazz group Drumplay has played around town for the past 25 years. But it hasn’t played the Bop Stop since the Music Settlement took the venue over and turned it into the vibrant jazz club that it is today.
That will change when the group makes its debut at the club at 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 7. The concert will serve as a benefit for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless
The band’s been through many incarnations over the years. In addition to founder James Onysko, the current lineup includes several great local musicians, including trumpet and fluegelhorn player J. Scott Franklin, djembe and percussionist Tony Handy, conga player and percussionist Tim Lane, upright bassist and singer George Lee, drummer John Stebal, and gong and singing bowl player Paul Stranahan.
“My previous band, Samba Scouts performed at the first two Bop Stops,” says Onysko one afternoon from the Scene
offices. “I think Drumplay played at the second incarnation, which became Bank Street Cafe in the Warehouse District. The Bop Stop is where it's at as far as I'm concerned. I like their business model and intimacy. Plus, [booker] Gabe Pollack is the coolest guy around.”
Onysko became a musician rather late in his life. He worked as a court stenographer for many years before being drawn to music, first through a gig at college radio. He started studying percussion in the late '80s, and after Samba Scouts dissolved, he formed Drumplay on a whim in 1992 when it formed to fill in for the Samba Scouts, who had broken up, at a book launch party at National City Bank.
“I had a studio space in the Left Bank building on the Flats,” says Onysko. “We auditioned for that [National City Bank] gig, and I just came up with the name Drumplay there.”
Early on, the band’s ever-shifting lineup featured conga player Warren Levert, a relative of O’Jays icon Eddie Levert, and the first three Drumplay albums included contributions from drummer Joe Tomino, who would later go on to join Matisyahu and form Dub Trio.
In 1996 for Cleveland's Bicentennial celebrations, the band gave a multi-media performance with D'Cuckoo, a women’s electronic percussion group from San Francisco. In 2002, Drumplay teamed up with marimba player Benoit Moerlen (Gong, Mike Oldfield Band) and embarked on a European tour with him, and the group also completed a trilogy with Daniel Thompson, Cuyahoga County's Poet Laureate, who passed away shortly after the album's release in 2004.
Over the course of five European tours, Drumplay has performed live on national radio in France and Luxembourg as well as on a pirate radio program in Amsterdam.
“It was a very prolific time period,” Onysko says when asked about the ’90s and ‘00s. “I look back at it, and it was like the golden age.”
Keeping the band going all these years hasn’t been easy, especially since Onysko’s battled health issues since 2010 when he suddenly started bleeding profusely from his nose and was diagnosed with Naso-Maxillary cancer (Stage 4).
“I was in India when I had my first surgery,” he says “I had no health insurance.”
After several surgeries, Onysko’s cancer is in remission, and he’s as focused on Drumplay as ever. Recently, the band got a boost from the movie Among the Shadows
, a Lindsay Lohan flick now streaming on Amazon that features the group’s music as part of its soundtrack.
Next up, the band will record music for All Terrain
, a La Femme Nikita
-like story about five female assassins who've been tasked with killing their trainer. Directed by Ross Otterman, it was shot in Oklahoma, and there may be a video game version of the film too. It stars Marshall Bell (Starship Troopers
, Total Recall
, Stand By Me
“Ross [Otterman] called me, and he wants us to compose some stuff for it specifically and then use some things he already used in Among the Shadows
,” says Onysko. “I’m excited to work on it."
Ultimately, Onysko says his love of music is what keeps him going.
“I had music programs when I worked in radio,” he says. “I listen to lots of music. When I was a kid, I worked the radio room at West Tech High School, and I tuned in to all the local radio stations at the time. [DJ] Billy Bass had his great programs. I would walk to the Smiling Dog Saloon and get in there with a fake ID when I was 16. I just love music. I think it’s a past life thing because I have such an affinity for the drums.”
Drumplay, 7 p.m. Sunday, July 7, Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., 216-771-6551. tickets: $10, themusicsettlement.org.
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