Tonalities and textures are flying as Yousif Sheronick plays a bright red, tunable djembe with his right hand; a transparent, medium-sized tar (North African frame drum) with his left hand; and beats a single, Venezuelan maraca attached to his bare left foot. There is a rhythmic independence of each limb as he accompanies a class of ten professional tap dancers, intermittently speaking about cycles, syncopation, and shifting accents. His expanded world drum vocabulary is impressive as well as his communication skills with this group of international dancers/foot percussionists, who are partaking in an intensive with established tap artist Heather Cornell, who leads the session atop a cajon.
The next day I run into Sheronick around the corner, where he is performing at the first annual festival Walk To The Beat, a community event bringing the spirit of improvisation and wandering rhythms to Nyack, New York. It’s a day of dance and drumming throughout the village, organized by Heather Cornell and collaborator Anna de la Paz, a flamenco dancer who heats up the stage. Sheronick performs in the backyard garden of the Edward Hopper House Art Center, followed by a musician playing an African balafon in a duo with a violinist, while Haitian drummers and dancers take over the town gazebo/band shell, and a belly dancer joins in with assorted djembe and conga drummers making impromptu appearances and at a jam session in the local park on the banks of the Hudson River.
Whether in a dance studio, on a concert stage, or touring with master musicians, Sheronick is soft-spoken and serious, modest yet confident, calm, and centered. His playing is clean, regardless of which instrument he is performing on: crisp jingles on the Egyptian riq, resonant bass on the Irish bodhrán, or transparent treble on the dumbek.
Trained in classical and contemporary percussion, blended with a strong world music sensibility, Yousif Sheronick often balances on the edge of different musical genres, an intersection at which he is quite comfortable. His interest in both new compositions and world drumming has led him to perform and record with world-class musicians such as Glen Velez, Samir Chatterjee, Foday Musa Suso, Philip Glass, and Yo Yo Ma, as well as jazz luminaries like Henry Threadgill and Sonny Fortune.
Sheronick connects with musical traditions from India, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, acting as a bridge between them, or “silk thread.” Interestingly, this is the translation of his family name, “Sheronick” from Arabic, as well as the title of one of his acclaimed albums. Sheronick acts as a bridge between musical traditions and styles with a large arsenal of world percussion instruments, which he moves between with fluency and fluidity. “What separates Sheronick from most other percussionists is that he can capture the feel of the music in a way that exudes authenticity” says colleague Eric Phinney of the Ethos percussion group. “There are players who are technically brilliant as Yousif is, but don’t have the swing – the push and pull of the language that is really hard to capture and even harder to quantify.”
When Sheronick was 13, he knew he wanted to be a professional drummer (although he did briefly consider the idea of becoming an accountant). A bit surprising for a kid from Iowa who grew up playing drum set with a neighborhood guitar player in a rock band as well as participating in precision drum corps sessions in Iowa and Illinois – a two-hour motorcycle ride away – years before his music conservatory training at the University Of Iowa would lead him to Yale for a master’s degree. Although neither of his parents were musicians, his sister played piano and sang and his brother Jim was the accordion state champion, a popular instrument in a community filled with German and Czech immigrants. During his Iowa upbringing, assimilation was more important than learning Arabic. But perhaps the incongruity of growing up in the Midwest while feasting on his mother’s Lebanese cooking was part of the early cultural roots that led to his richly layered global mix.
Versatility is key to the freelance life of Yousif Sheronick, both today and when he was choosing a mentor. At Yale – where he studied with Gordon Gottlieb, a percussionist who has worked with everyone from the New York Philharmonic to Pete Seeger, Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Jackson –versatility was easily accessible. With Gordon, he did master classes on different things: pandeiro, berimbau, timpani, essentially moving between classical/contemporary percussion and world drumming.
“I’ve spent my entire career jumping bridges and genres, and have always encouraged my students to take those leaps as well,” says Gordon Gottlieb. “In Yousif, I saw the ideal candidate for being a musical chameleon. His musicianship, natural instincts, and curiosity were clicking at such high levels that it was clear to me that he could/should embrace music based in groove and pulse, and it was only a bonus that he could be diving in on music of his heritage. I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Sheronick wanted to play with his hands. “There was something about putting my hands on the drum that felt very familiar and natural. There was a disconnect with the sticks in my hand,” says Sheronick. And in fact, his recital piece, “Different Strokes,” by John Bergamo (published In The Noble Snare, a 4-volume set), incorporating South Indian style of hand drumming, Sheronick performed on timpani with fingers. Perhaps it was the perfect segue for his transition to New York, where he became a freelance percussionist while delving into the depths of world music traditions with and without sticks.
Listening to Sheronick perform, you can clearly hear how he is also informed by years of playing with master frame drum virtuoso Glen Velez. “I consider Glen my guru and teacher but never had a formal lesson. He taught me by osmosis,” Sheronick says. After some reflection about working with Velez on Doctrine Of Signatures (a work by Velez incorporating Arabic, Azerbaijani, and original frame drum techniques with a cross-cultural music vocabulary), he adds: “He’s the cat.”
Velez and Sheronick have worked together since the early ’90s. “Yousif is a wonderful musician who has the ability to transform and get inside a lot of music. And he has spread the gospel of frame drums to a variety of audiences,” says Velez, who is appreciative that Sheronick is, “easy to work with, open to new ideas, and on the same wave length.”