Glen Velez: Colors & Scents

The Los Angeles Reader calls Glen Velez one of the planet’s most versatile percussionists as well as a captivating composer. Yet his vast instrument collection doesn’t include a drum set. For the last 20 years, Velez has been performing on tambourines — large, small, circular, triangular, square, plastic, lizard, snake and fish-skinned, some with jingles and some without. This family of frame drums has become a powerful percussion arsenal in Velez’s virtuosic and sensitive hands. He’s introduced audiences to tambourines through his performances on five continents in clubs, caves, and concert halls.

“In this culture the tambourine is stigmatized,” says Velez. “Westerners haven’t done a lot of hand drumming. But within this family of instruments, the drums have great melodic potential and traditional sources create a wide vocabulary to draw from.” He has worked with these traditional sources, studying tambourine styles from Brazil, South India, the Middle East, and Central Asia. And after years of working with masters, Velez has created his own pan-global drumming style in which he incorporates techniques from his world music studies, his days at the music conservatory, and his own vivid imagination and creativity.

He rubs, taps, snaps, scratches, and strokes his instruments, coaxing a surprising variety of timbral possibilities from his portable drums. How he strikes the tambourines was shaped by his early studies with Fred Hinger at Manhattan School Of Music. Velez was profoundly influenced by Hinger’s “touch tone” system, which explores the relationship of pulsations. “Hinger had unusual and brilliant ideas about sound and about percussion,” Velez says. “He focused on the word 'touch' rather than 'strike.' Touching is very different than striking. That vocabulary creates a new approach and the sound relates to the touch.”

While studying with Hinger, Velez began an active freelance career as a multi-percussionist, working mostly with sticks. He performed and recorded with Steve Reich And Musicians, played symphonic music with the Israeli Philharmonic and contemporary chamber music with Parnassus, and did session work with Suzanne Vega, Eddie Daniels, and Richard Stolzman. Eventually he realized that the emotive part of his being wasn’t satisfied. In the late ’70s he started playing hand drums and studied the South Indian mrdangam (a two-headed barrel drum) with Ramnad Rhagavan, who accidentally introduced Velez to his new career when he took a tambourine off the wall at a lesson and played it kanjira style. Velez liked it immediately. “That was the first time I had ever seen anyone play the tambourine outside an orchestra or a rock group. I was very excited by it.” South Indian tambourine technique is quite evolved and the syllabic notation, known as solkattu, is something Velez still incorporates in some of his compositions and teaching.

An Ever-Expanding Collection. This new interest developed and expanded into his other frame drum studies. After three or four years he began interchanging the instruments and their techniques. While experimenting with the sounds, he began accumulating a varied instrument collection. It has taken over his small Manhattan apartment and now fills a large storage space as well.

The depths of the frames are shallow and the diameters of the heads range from 6" to 30". Although some frame drums are played with a stick -- such as in the shamanic traditions of Native Americans and Central Asians -- Velez usually plays with his hands. He’s been likened to a shaman by both Paul Winter (with whom he has worked for over a decade) and Jamey Haddad, who produced the Velez recording, Rhythmcolor Exotica.

The album, with its accompanying hard-cover 20-page booklet, is a good introduction to both the instruments -- including history and symbolism -- as well as his band, Handance. The ensemble includes percussionists Eva Atsalis, Glen Fittin, Jan Hagiwara, and Yousif Sheronick. The new recording also features guest artist Art Baron on trombone, conch shell, didgeridoo, and tin whistle. It showcases Velez’s preference for odd meters, with pieces in 5, 7, and even a 41-beat cycle. In addition to highlighting the newest Velez compositions, it also links the ancient traditions of frame drumming to the modern world.

Giving Energy, Getting Energy. Over the years Velez has created his own frame drum style that, in the same sense as an Indian gharana (literally “extended family”) or school, he is passing on to his students. His teaching activities range from a series of masterclasses at schools such as Juilliard, Manhattan School Of Music, and Hart School Of Music to private and group lessons for professionals and enthusiastic students with no drumming background. His international touring schedule allows for drum workshops throughout North America and Europe, and this year he did residencies at Simon Frazier University in Vancouver, Canada, and at the Marktoberdorf Academy in Germany.

Unlike many seasoned professionals, Velez enjoys working with non-musicians. “A lot of the teaching I do is with people who haven’t played drums,” he says. “This led me to use walking and talking with drumming. It gives awareness to pulse flow from the beginning. To have it all meshed together from the beginning is very powerful.

“With students who are professional players, I ask a lot of questions about what they want from me. Sometimes people hear one of my recordings and want to know how a specific sound was made. I get into it specifically with them.

“At this stage I seem to learn a lot from students who don’t know how to play. It forces me to simplify and to find the vocabulary to communicate. There is so much unspoken between percussionists. With other percussionists you only have to say one sentence instead of ten. But teaching non-percussionists requires a simplified communication. It spurs creativity because there are so many challenges.”

It was this work that led to two new instructional videos. Velez’s Handance Method is a participatory video in which the audience is asked to combine stepping and singing drum patterns as they play. The coordination of the whole body requires new challenges, even for drum set players. The intention is to develop both inner rhythms and hand drumming skills. “The videos rely heavily on the experience of stepping and vocalization,” Velez says. “Voice activates memory and focuses attention on breath. The body movements activate large body movements. It’s easy to lose sight of the whole body. It’s not just about the fingers. The walking helps awareness of steadiness in pulse. Steadiness of pulse is the number one issue for all drummers.”

Over the years a number of musicians/students have tried to pattern themselves after Velez. Sometimes it is difficult for them to know when to imitate and when to explore a new path. Velez offers this advice: “The most important thing is paying attention to your personal version of what sounds good. Trust yourself within the discipline. Creativity always needs to be encouraged and nurtured. You never suspend that. The main issue is a personal voice and key sound -- a sound that is reflective of that personal taste. Our personal reservoir is constantly changing.”

Drummer, Heal Thyself. Velez believes his particular strength comes from speed and clarity being allied and experiencing several different time flows and synchronization. “I like that feeling internally. It’s about density.” But no matter how virtuosic Velez sounds, he is always working on new techniques. “All of drumming is about pulse awareness. When I experience plateaus, I switch to other techniques. It’s very energizing to go back and refine something else.” At the moment his “something else” is a snapping technique found in Azerbajani, Arabic, and Persian music. Velez is also inspired by non-musical interests including yoga, meditation, color therapy, and bird watching. “Color therapy is about using the properties of color to heal body, mind, and spirit,” he says.

Velez credits his work with color as part of his personal expansion, creating a closer connection between his emotions and sounds. He is inspired by the Aura-Soma system, which uses 95 bottles of colors created from plant and mineral sources. Each bottle has two colors and is chosen intuitively for self-healing.

In the past he has mentioned Frank Zappa and James Brown as important musical influences, but recently he has been enjoying listening to the music of pygmies and experimental homemade instruments on the impressive new Ellipsis Arts CD and book, Gravikords, Whirlies and Pyrophones by Bart Hopkin. But his long-standing musical love is bird song. Ten years ago Velez went on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon with Paul Winter, and the accompanying naturalist, Peter Warshall, pointed out nests and different habitats along the way. This sparked a growing interest. “Just the act of bird watching is meditative and humbling,” he says. “The experience of listening to the variables of their songs encourages humility. The beauty, grace and knowledge of their environment is awe-inspiring.”