When Remo, Inc. leapt headfirst into recreational hand drumming in the early ’90s, some in the music industry thought that the drumhead company’s founder, Remo Belli, had lost his mind. Instead he positioned his business on the cutting edge of a rapidly expanding cultural movement that has yet to lose steam. As the advent of drum circles was perfectly timed to bring people together at the very moment that high technology isolated them in front of computer screens, Remo has fervently worked to supply recreational drummers with instruments that are easy to play and maintain. We thought it was a good idea to check in with this visionary who, at the age of 78, has been a cornerstone of the drum industry for more than 50 years and shows no sign of slowing down.
DRUM!: It’s been roughly 14 years since you first attended a drum circle facilitated by Arthur Hull, where you became so heavily invested in the community drumming movement. How has the drum industry changed in the meantime?
Belli: Research and public participation has both anecdotally and scientifically suggested — even in some cases validated — that we are to some degree hard-wired into this whole rhythmic thing. I’m really very pleased to share with you as drummers that we’re okay. We really are. The image of the drummer is changing quite a bit. I’ve seen everything and I’m further prepared to share with you that it works. I see ahead of us a very bright future because it literally involves everybody and there are not many industries that can involve everybody. In our own recreational music center in North Hollywood, we get to see 60-year-olds playing drums with three-year-olds.
DRUM!: Where else could you see that type of creative interaction?
Belli: You don’t. I think that this is the key. We are undemanding. If you can’t dribble, you’re still going to play. That’s what makes people relax when they walk in feeling suspicious. They want everything to be proven and demonstrated. They look at us with that strange kind of voodoo feeling. By the time we’re through with them, they’re kind of happy. I look at everyone who is alive as a potential candidate to experience a musical part of life on any terms that they want to have it.
DRUM!: Adults spend so much time worrying about responsibilities — do you think they have to be reminded of the concept of “playing”?
Belli: They’re afraid of it. They’re concerned with it.
DRUM!: Do rock drummers experience the same benefits from rhythm as community drummers do?
Belli: I think it’s a frame of reference. I think there are just as many sick drummers as there are well drummers, so to speak. I think stress is stress and intensity is intensity and lifestyle is lifestyle. If you’re going to screw yourself up in one way or another, it doesn’t matter if you’re a drummer.
DRUM!: Even though Remo has done very well in the recreational hand drumming market, the company has also underwritten quite a bit of music therapy research and provides opportunities such as the music center to anyone who is interested in drumming. Is Remo a model for other companies that want to give something back to their customers?
Belli: It’s something to consider. It fulfills everything I want. It has the business challenge. Whatever we’re going to be able to contribute, I’m going to feel happy to have had the opportunity to do it.
DRUM!: What is the most surprising statistic that you have come across as you’ve become more involved with research about the benefits of drumming?
Belli: I have an idea that 25 percent of any population is going to consider some form of recreational music. Of the 25 percent, 75 percent are going to have some drumming experience. If the U.S. has 280 to 290 million people, you’re going to have about 70 million interested in recreational music. Fifty million are going to be interested in playing drums. How many of these folks are going to buy annually? Our own experience is that people who have become interested in this particular activity don’t buy one item — they buy an average of six. It may take them a couple of years to do it, but they’ll end up with a djembe, a pretty good tambourine, a dumbek, and a couple of other things. The industry should know this. The average drum shop doesn’t know how to talk about [hand drums]. They’ll give you a price and if you know what you want, okay. But if you need any guidance — not there yet. It’s not like trying to pick out a cymbal, where you might get help.
DRUM!: Many people who are involved with community drumming are very traditional. They want to play West African rhythms correctly, and they like playing authentic instruments. But Remo creates instruments that use alternative materials. They sound authentic but look modern. How do you explain your success?
Belli: That describes a person that’s out there, but it doesn’t at all describe the average person that I’m talking about. The average person is just completely innocent. They have no preconceived values at all as to animal skins, synthetic skins, what it’s supposed to weigh, what it’s supposed to sound like. There is that population that’s been building and that’s been growing, that says, “No, it has to be natural.” That’s okay by me, just so long as somebody ends up buying a drum. The potential is so big that it really doesn’t matter.