A Look Inside The Drum Circle With Kalani

Kalani’s Endless Evolution

Kalani may be able to drum circles around us, but why bother? Fact is, he’d rather circle drums around us.

He hasn’t always felt that way. Flash back to his high school years in Oakland, California, and you’ll find him as another Bonham-dazzled kid with a fistful of sticks and a head full of attitude. His place was with a band onstage, preferably atop a riser bathed in lights.

It’s different now. For one thing, though he draws crowds wherever he appears, he’s harder to see. That’s because he’s down on their level now, in the middle of the action. His audience has changed too. In fact, it’s kind of misleading to call them an audience at all, since they’re not just staring at him as he plays. They’re playing too, with congas, bongos, djembes, shakers, claves, shékeres – any kind of percussion that can be toted into some public place without help from roadies or techs.

These people – young and old, men and women, diverse yet united in rhythm – gather around Kalani because of an epiphany he experienced years ago. It didn’t happen overnight, but over time he came to realize that as much as he loved to drum, the traditional drummer’s role left him less than satisfied.

So he traded in his high-profile gigs with Barry Manilow and Yanni, scaled back on his session work, and changed the basics of his life. His clinics morphed from lectures into jam sessions. His performances became everyone’s performances. He stowed his sticks and switched to hand percussion. (The old kit is still back home, though, and he does make a point of practicing on it.)

Most important, he traded the stage for the circle – specifically, the drum circle. And in exploring its power to expose participants to a rush similar to the kick of stardom, he became something of a star himself. Through his books and his ongoing work as a facilitator, Kalani has helped raise the number of people who have explored the drum circle as a way to enrich their lives and improve their health – even while conceding that musicians are perhaps less likely than anyone to actually try them out.

“Many drummers have a perception that drum circles are groups of people who can’t play the drums that well,” he points out. “But I can tell you that learning how to facilitate drum circles has helped me immensely as a musician. It’s improved my listening skills. It’s improved my ability to form and impart ideas, to think in larger forms – life skills. I would challenge any drummer who’s interested in that to go do a drum circle, sit, and play. It’s an eye-opening experience.”

Understanding this experience begins with being clear about what a drum circle is. As Kalani sees it, there’s more to it than just getting a bunch of drummers together in one space and letting them wail. He saw a lot of that back in the ’60s, while hanging out on Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley. The multicultural vibe of the times found sonic expression in the rhythms laid down by this group. The schools he attended were racially diverse, so he was open to the Afro-Cuban flavor of these gatherings. They helped prepare him for the ideas he would explore in years to come – but strictly speaking, they weren’t exactly drum circles as we know them now.

“We might call it ‘park and beach drumming,’ and it’s been going on for eons,” Kalani explains. “It’s probably been happening in this country for 50-plus years, but up until recently only with groups that had some kind of tribal self-identity, like the Rainbow Gathering. The main distinction we can make is that the drum circles we think of nowadays usually have a facilitator or at least a host – somebody who organizes them, as opposed to those park jams, which really don’t.”

Back in Berkeley, though, the younger Kalani wasn’t quite ready to appreciate these nuances. Less elevated issues preoccupied him, the most fundamental being to pursue coolness through rock and roll. He was, in his own words, a “problem child. I had dyslexia and therefore did not do well in some of the academic courses. From third or fourth grade I was always put in the gifted classes because I tested high, but those IQ tests tended to be graphic rather than text-driven, so I’d gradually slide back because my reading skills were so bad. I’d always do well in music, art, woodshop, metal shop, and those things, but really poorly in history, math, science, and reading. After a while I started to believe that I couldn’t do the work and so I gave up. I was labeled a rebel. So rock and roll was my music because it was rebel music.”

His tastes ran at that time to Boston, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin – “Communication Breakdown” was a personal anthem. “To me, rock is honest,” he says. “It’s raw. A lot of the attitude in the music of these bands reflected how we as teenagers would like to think of ourselves. I liked its power, at times its simplicity, at times its complexity. It was accessible in lots of ways, but as with any music the more I learned about it and studied it, the more I sensed that it takes years and years to play it well – even simple beats.”

Of course, none of these bands featured hand percussion; even when he saw Santana, Kalani listened more to the kit than the congas. The standard set was his focus throughout high school, though a summer spent at the Cazadero Music Camp, amongst the Northern California redwoods, alerted him to the pleasures of hand percussion within a year after he’d started playing. He enjoyed the congas and steel drums there but came back home with his mind still set on rock and roll.

Today Kalani gives credit to drumming for his decision in eighth grade to get serious about schoolwork. “I had this test coming up on the history of non-Western civilizations,” he says. “Back then I wasn’t used to studying. I would show up for class but I just didn’t do any homework. But I was also gaining some confidence and notoriety from playing drums. So I tried to apply myself to this test. I wound up getting a B+, which was a high grade for me at the time and higher than some of the kids I thought were smart had gotten. That was a turning point because I realized then that it’s not about what you do as much as about what you think you can do. And while I can’t prove there was a direct connection, I do know that playing the drums brought up my confidence level and improved my mind/body connection – and I believe that translated into better concentration and higher academics.”

His grades were solid when Kalani graduated and left for California State University at Northridge to major in percussion performance. More important, he had learned how to learn, to honor his curiosity. Already he was listening to a wider range of music: The Tubes album What Do You Want From Live provided a bridge from rock toward other rhythm concepts through the interactions of drummer Prairie Prince and conguero Mingo Lewis. This led him to check out Chick Corea’s Return To Forever and other groups that were finding ways to put rock, jazz, and Afro-Cuban elements together. All this was on Kalani’s soundtrack as he arrived at Northridge.

He was at the right place at the right time. In the early ’80s Northridge was one of the few schools in the U.S. to offer a class in hand percussion, taught by Jerry Steinholtz. Though Kalani’s emphasis was on drum set and orchestral percussion, he signed up for that course and came away a changed man. “There were about 35 percussion majors when I got there and about 20 of them were very much into hand percussion,” he recalls. “You could walk down the hallway and hear people practicing congas all over the place. All of the big bands at Northridge had hand percussion. The hand percussion street band was the hub of the wheel. It was very much a part of the culture.”

Aside from the instruments themselves, Kalani drew toward the community aspects of playing hand percussion. “You could play very easily in lots of settings. It could happen in somebody’s living room or on a bench in a park. It could be spur of the moment, just like in a lot of the cultures whose instruments we’re using now. It becomes something you’re not only studying, it’s something you live with whether you’re hearing music from other cultures or practicing. It becomes part of your vocabulary and integrates into who you are. Hand percussion is about much more than music; it’s a shift in the way you think, the way you speak, who you socialize with.”

This leads to the heart of the drum circle dynamic: the idea of community in music and, therefore, of music in life. “You play with your peers,” Kalani emphasizes. “And in the cultures that produced these instruments, that means playing with family and friends. After dinner, for example, people will grab a couple of instruments or whatever is sitting around – a bottle, a plate, a glass – and play music. Mostly it’s to accompany singing, or maybe somebody would dance. But it is definitely a part of the community. That affected me immediately when I started playing hand percussion. It became clear that you’re part of a unit, as opposed to providing all the percussion from the drums in a rock band. That means that if your listening skills aren’t that good they have to get good because you have to integrate well with all the other parts.”

This had an impact on all of the work Kalani did in the Northridge music program. As an undergraduate he played the full range of classical repertoire, from nineteenth-century chestnuts through Debussy and Ravel and up to contemporary works by Crumb, Penderecki, and the avant-garde. Whether performing Ravel in orchestral settings or Daniel Kessner’s atonal Continuum for solo marimba in his senior recital, he found that hand percussion ensembles had improved his ability to interpret every style of music.

“It made me a much more sensitive musician because playing with other percussionists taught me how to listen,” he explains. “You have to know how much of a delay there will be when the violin section comes in on a certain note, so that if you’re going to play a triangle with that note you’ll need to have half a breath. You’re experiencing the deep points of composition, like form, structure, a huge range of dynamics, a wide range of meter, timbre, and tempo. That correlates to how in drum circles we divide the group into sections. Rather than just have an hour and a half of drumming, we approach the event with a sense of shape, of beginning, middle, and end. All that comes from basic compositional tools that I learned about at Northridge.”

As a senior he also benefited from lessons with Weather Report alumnus Alex Acuña under the auspices of the “studio music option” that was included with his major. Though they did tighten up Kalani’s conga technique, mostly they examined rhythm concepts, not just through adapting the clave but also in building more momentum through holding back.

“Alex is a player more than a teacher, so you have to tell him what you want to learn,” Kalani says. “This was good because I could take more initiative to shape the direction of my studies. We wound up looking mainly at how to say more by playing less. To me, the great artists will play the notes that are needed and nothing more – the Miles Davis approach. Inexperienced players don’t always tune into the fact that a lot of other people are already playing in percussion ensembles or drum circles, so you don’t need to play a lot of notes; that only replicates what other people are doing. You just put in a few carefully placed notes to bend the rhythm a little this way or that, to push and pull. People like Tata Guines and Carlos ‘Patato’ Valdes – and Alex too – know how to find those few, excellent, sweet notes on the conga.”

After graduation Kalani started freelancing. Thanks to connections he’d made at Northridge and through other musicians with whom he’d been playing gigs, he was able to pack his calendar with a wide and wild variety of jobs. He played weddings, private homes, churches, and shows with Barry Manilow and Yanni at places like the Wembley Arena and the Acropolis in Athens. He cut jingles at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, sat next to Larry Bunker and Emil Richards in 60-piece orchestras on film dates, and played Persian music from 11:00 at night until 4:00 in the morning in smoke-filled dens. He even did quadruple duty with magician Richard Tutacko in Reno, co-producing the music, running the laser show, triggering sampled sound effects, and doing emcee shtick.

In other words, he hit the ground running full-speed toward a big-time career, yet after a while a sense of dissatisfaction began to surface. He noticed it first while giving a series of clinics on the road for Toca. He related well to people – and that had an effect on how he chose to format his presentations. “I was doing performance-based, ‘come-dig-me’ clinics,” he says. “People come in, watch me do my thing, and maybe get inspired – or a little depressed, like, ‘I can’t do that. I’m going to burn my sticks when I get home.’ That’s why I started to gravitate toward showing the people what they can do. I wanted to give them an opportunity to experience playing, so I had to come up with ways to do that together without putting pressure on them to perform. My purpose was to give them an opportunity, not to task them.”

The approach paid off, as happy participants, in what Kalani was now calling his “jam nights,” began buying more gear. This set him on the path toward drum circles, whose collective energy mirrored the changes in his clinics. Gradually he began scaling down his “normal” gigs and eventually even cutting back on recording his own music; the last CD released under his name, Insights, came out ten years ago. Facilitating, writing about, and taking part in drum circles became his main commitment. The deeper he got into this world, the more he began to see life in general, not just music, through different eyes.

“It’s not that I don’t like performing – I do,” he maintains, “but the most exciting thing to me now is to be with a group of people, creating something together that’s meaningful in that moment, as opposed to simply reproducing a product that we’ve rehearsed for weeks and are now playing over and over again. People who sit there and listen at concerts might be experiencing it for the first time, but to me that kind of performance lost its edge. I’d rather be in the moment, doing something that’s completely improvised and much better suited to that group of people who are shaping it with me as we go along.”

Picking up from drum circle pioneers such as Arthur Hull, Jim Greiner, and Barry Bernstein, Kalani would tweak the format and find new ways to apply its energy over the next few years. Under his facilitation – “leadership” isn’t the right word for these group phenomena – drum circles have taken place in schools as means of developing awareness among children of rhythm and structure in music, with an eye toward applying what they learn to non-musical communication, mutual support, scholarship, and appreciation for diversity. “If they’re working on vocabulary,” Kalani says, “we might make a chant out of some of the basic words. The kids can form their own chant rhythms in teams. Or they might use a formula for a math problem to come up with a rhythm, or chart the volume changes in a rhythm or piece of music.”

Teachers aren’t exempt from drum circles – Kalani has a curriculum for them as well, under his “artful teacher” program. Neither are those who already play drums, a skill that in this context may be more of a barrier than a benefit. This problem cropped up a few days before his DRUM! interview, during a drum circle that Kalani put together at Bang A Drum in Los Angeles to raise funds for victims of the December tsunami. “Out of 40 people there I’d say that five or six were professional musicians,” he says. “One of them was on bongos, another on congas, and they’d play these fast flurries of notes because they were probably just thinking, ‘Well, I’m an advanced player, so I’m not going to just play quarter-notes on a cowbell.’ That’s cool, but it had this breakdown effect in the groove because it confused a lot of the beginners there.

“So during a break I said, ‘We have some advanced players here, and I’d like to invite them to support the first-time people by playing the pulse and laying down a stronger foundation.’ That makes it a win/win situation because when everybody starts playing again it’s a lot more cohesive, and the drummers find satisfaction by going into a place of service through playing something really solid and simple, like Charlie Watts. And it brings the group together because I’m making a suggestion, not saying, ‘Hey, can you guys not play so much?’ Because it’s not about competition. Competition means that you have one winner and a hundred losers. In a drum circle there is absolutely the possibility of having a hundred winners. That’s my goal now, to work with music for personal and spiritual growth. That is completely who I am.”

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