Yousif Sheronick: At The Corner Of The World
Sheronick's Duo Jalal Setup
1. Pearl Djembe
2. Remo Dumbek
3. Cooperman Frame Drums (riq, tar, bendir, kanjira, bodhran)
4. POPercussion Cajon
5. Udu (made and purchased in the Netherlands
A 18" AAX El Sabor Picante Hand Crash
Yousif Sheronick also uses Yamaha hardware, Pro-Mark broomsticks, Innovative Percussion mallets, LP shakers, Cabello And Marcos caxixi, Joropo maracas, Hugh Tracey kalimba, Musser vibraphone, strawbrooms, and singing bowl, bells, and gongs from India, Tibet, and China.
Collaborations & Commissions
For almost two decades, Sheronick has been an active member of the percussion quartet Ethos, an ensemble known for commissioning a wide range of 20th and 21st century composers. It’s a group where the percussionists play musical chairs, adapting to the instrumentation of each piece. And it is an opportunity for Sheronick to shine on both world and Western percussion instruments, with and without sticks on many new works – some commissioned specifically for Ethos. He plays traps on a Frank Zappa piece, bongos for a Steve Reich composition, guiro for a work by MacArthur Fellowship winner Dafnis Prieto, and introduces young audiences to the sound of tars and tin cans in an expanded view of the percussion family.
“Yousif and I have worked together in educational programs for over 18 years,” says Ethos member Eric Phinney. “One of our favorites is the Middle East and India program that we have presented in Ethos to students across the country, from young elementary student assemblies to college classes. At the end of a highly entertaining and informative demonstration, Yousif always makes the point that even though he comes from a Lebanese family, he didn’t have the exposure or good teachers to study the music from his heritage in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It’s a great motivational example for students to develop interests, ask questions, search for good teachers and information, and make the effort to learn because it is often not directly in front of them.”
The Ethos repertoire of world-influenced chamber music includes commissioned pieces by composer/instrumentalists steeped in world music such as Steve Gorn, Simone Shaheen, and Samir Chatterjee. “Yousif brings such a wonderful expertise and curiosity of so many percussion traditions to Ethos,” says Phinney. “He has been a significant reason the group has been able to explore world music traditions in a really serious way. The group has been able to keep our classical percussion roots and venture into these other world music traditions through collaborations and commissioning because of Yousif’s direction.
“When Yousif joined the group in 1996, he suggested we collaborate and commission his teacher, the virtuoso frame drum innovator Glen Velez. Yousif had been playing in Glen’s group for years and had already developed serious frame drum chops. That was our first major foray outside of our classical comfort zone and it really pushed everybody to invest a significant amount of time to reach the high level of playing necessary to present this music with Glen and Yousif. That began a journey of exploration and a new group vocabulary in world music that has developed over the last 18 years.”
In the ensemble Duo Jalal, Sheronick works collaboratively with his wife, classical violist Kathryn Lockwood (a member of the Lark Quartet) who speaks of the repertoire of the duo as, “an exciting journey into music from around the world” and with “a communication level which is so open.” The name of the ensemble comes from the 13th century Persian mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi, who was associated with opening doors and bringing together people from all cultures. The two – having performed on three continents – seek out new pieces for their unlikely instrumentation. Sometimes they work collaboratively with composers to arrange pieces for them, while at other times, Sheronick takes the lead on improvisations and orchestrations, such as with the Philip Glass piece for viola and percussion, which Sheronick enjoyed arranging for riq.
Sheronick’s history with Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso dates back to an extended tour of The Screens (originally a staged work by Jean Genet), directed by JoAnne Akalaitis with a score by Philip Glass and Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso. The music toured as a concert production and Sheronick joined Suso, Glass, and Jon Gibson in gigs throughout the US, England, and Spain. The play, which takes place in Algeria during the struggle for independence from France, created a perfect canvas for an East/West collaboration. Foday Musa Suso (playing the harp-like West African kora) along with Sheronick on dumbek, riq, shakers, frame drum, and various bells and whistles, represented the African continent.
It was a significant gig for Sheronick, who explains, “The project came at a time when I was straddling genres. I was either playing classical, world, or rock music. Aside from some pieces with the Ethos percussion group, the genres had not started colliding yet. The Screens was my first big immersion into cross-genre playing. And this combination of classical and world music remains one of my favorites.”
Music For Social Change
Sheronick has also really enjoyed playing music in concerts from Houston to Toronto with Persian lute player Hafez Nazeri, an Iranian advocate for social change through music. His Rumi Symphony Project features the words of the 13th century poet, mixing elements of classical Persian music, uniting it with Western chamber music and a more modern sensibility. Sheronick says, “Nazeri wants to use Rumi’s poetry to create a music beyond politics, to help create a more positive image of Iran than what he sees in the American media.” A sentiment echoed by Rachel Cooper of the Asia Society in New York, who, referring to a concert by Hafez Nazeri, says, “Music has this power to speak to people in ways that politics often cannot. It is about common humanity.”
Mentioning Stephan Said, another proponent of social change, Sheronick says, “Said is on the same path as Pete Seeger: He spends his entire life trying to make the world a better place.” Said put together an album produced by Grammy Award-winner Hal Wilner with pop anthems about global tolerance in many languages. Cindy Blackman-Santana plays drums while Sheronick provides the percussion (udu, dumbek, riq, kanjira, etc.) within a feel-good, rock-infused album. “I love making music with Yousif because he has a great feel and vast knowledge of rhythms and sounds,” says Blackman-Santana. “He’s very musical and he’s very easy to get along with. I look forward to playing with him more,”
Books & Scores
While playing in a rock-infused setting is fun, Sheronick finds himself more often connecting with a new generation of world drummers, many of whom are coming through university training and are looking for new material to play. After master classes and concerts where he is asked how does he play certain techniques, Sheronick put together books, scores, and videos to assist other drummers. This issue of supply and demand led to the creation of his small audio/publishing company Bribie.
In his Riq Instructional DVD, which accompanies his book, the focus is on basics of the Middle Eastern tambourine. It includes exercises to build technique, traditional patterns, and clear practical explanations like: “for cabaret position, hold out your left hand as though you are going to pick up a glass of water.”
His Manta Ray Dance video provides clear demos and explanation of finger techniques and there is also a notated part. On the video there are easy-to-follow essential elements of riq technique including playing dum, rimshot, backwards and forwards, jingle shakes, frame technique, closed tones, open tones with jingles resonating, and more. For those interested in the sheet music, in addition to Manta Ray, his Duo 77 For 2 Or More Frame Drummers is now available with notated parts for players.
When going away, some people check for their keys, glasses, or phone before closing the door behind them. Sheronick, though, never leaves home without his Cooperman riq, a small, portable Arabic tambourine with hammered bronze jingles that cuts through most textures. The riq – the primary classical percussion instrument found throughout the Middle East – accompanies him as he tours across the country and around the world.
Many musicians with extensive touring experience have good stories to share. Sheronick speaks about staying in a rustic hunting lodge with no numbers on the doors (you had to count to know which room was yours) one night and contrasts it with a 5-star hotel in Melbourne, Australia, while on tour with Philip Glass. Then, with a slight chuckle, he mentions a long car ride in Pennsylvania, where the Ethos band was falling asleep. “We woke up abruptly when a guy on fire pops out of a van in front of us. After that, we all stayed awake.”
Who knows what adventures await Sheronick as he continues genre-hopping around the world, riq in hand and a head full of rhythm.