Joyful Noise: Inside KoSA Drum Camp

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After days of a stifling heat wave blanketing the Northeast, I am happy to be on the road escaping the steamy humidity, as I head north from New York to the cool Green Mountains of Vermont. The idea of attending a summer music camp brings back childhood memories of long hours of practice coupled with a cutthroat competitiveness among participants, which decades later I have not forgotten. As it turns out, this is decidedly not my experience of KoSA, where a friendly, informal atmosphere accompanies a sense of community, and sharing is the key ingredient.

Drummers of all varieties from age seven to seventy gather in the expansive, lush countryside of Vermont to learn from an array of masters in intimate, hands-on workshops during the day and at impressive evening concerts. It’s a place where conga players learn frame drums; drum kit students try their hand at steel pans; and each day offers a chance for participants to morph from one genre to another, increasing their rhythmic vocabulary and skill set while having fun.

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1. A steel pan class in action.

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2. Castleton, Vermont architecture.

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3. Chester Thompson and Marcus Santos in concert.

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4. A KoSA participant.

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5. Mazza's hybrid kit.

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Festival Background

KoSA (a variation of cosa in Spanish and in Italian meaning “the thing”) is the brainchild of versatile drummer Aldo Mazza (Répercussion) – who creates his own personal hybrid approach to drumming on “the nuke” – his wife Dr. Jolán Kovács (a classical violinist, pianist, and music professor at McGill University in Montreal), and friend Peter Wilder (a Vermont-based film composer, product developer, and proponent of “conceptioneering”), who believes “the evolution of KosSA has been natural and organic.”

Now in its 18th edition, this annual international drum and percussion camp currently takes place at the quiet Castleton College in Vermont (west of Rutland) with offshoot study-abroad programs in China, Cuba, and Canada (with a year-round drum set and world percussion program in Montreal). Raising the bar on percussion education is important to Aldo, who places well-known and unknown artists side-by-side, with attention to drum lineage so people know where they came from. He feels the lineage shows up in the playing and it helps in carving out a path, which makes sense for the future.

Kovács points out that KoSa offers a “buffet of instruments, opening the eyes to a variety of styles,” where “drumming is the glue.” This is certainly the case as I enter one small room where congas, brake drums, steel pans, maracas, and a drum set rub shoulders with one another. Kovács mentions a family spirit prevails and there is no sense of a hierarchy. It’s a concept Mazza reinforces throughout the week, talking about the KoSA family informally as well as in his concert introductions streamed live on Drum Channel, inviting 20,000 listeners to join the drum fest electronically, albeit just for the concerts. Enticing, I imagine, but without the visceral thrill of the live vibrations. And as I discover throughout the week, it’s not easy to watch drumming without jumping into the experience.

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6. Eriko on a marimba.

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7. Break drum as actual drum.

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8. Ron Reid in concert.

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9. Another Castleton building.

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10. Dom Famularo.

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World Music Workshops

Mazza is a self-described “big kid who learns all the time.” And his hybrid drum setup reflects this. At KoSA, this thirst for knowledge is evident as teachers attend each other’s classes. Mazza says, “With Glen [Velez] I learned a brush thing; with Chester [Thompson] he had an independence exercise that gave me another idea for my teaching and a new book.” In Vermont, Mazza has successfully created an environment of community for both sharpening skills as well as networking with a sense of a worldwide musical family who, he says, “tells it like it is.”

Mazza and Kovács – who created a comprehensive curriculum with college credits available at KoSA – chose the Vermont locale, away from the urban environment to offer a total percussion experience with classical, jazz, rock, funk, world, and electronic styles for everyone from novices to pros. “I wanted it to be in Vermont; it feels like Switzerland here, totally neutral,” says Mazza.

“The setting is conducive to study and in-depth exploration because there aren’t many distractions; it’s a focused way to experience the program,” says frame-drum master Glen Velez (Paul Winter, Pat Metheny, Zakir Hussain), who has been teaching at KoSA since its inception 18 years ago (as has drum-education guru and kit player Dom Famularo). At his workshop sessions he continually offers something new, such as his recently designed Glen Velez Artisanal brush in a quartet of colors, created collaboratively with a broom craftsman in Arkansas who also produces Harry Potter brooms. Using this frame drum brush made of broom straw replaces the more challenging left-hand technique that many novices struggle with, instantly creating a pleasing new timbre for beginners as well as pros.

Velez focuses on precise articulation, telling his workshop participants, “If you can get a good sound on the drum, it really draws the listener in.” He offers tips for stabilization and reducing motion when hitting the drum. Another time he says, “the motion of the brush is just a light flick; it’s like Groucho Marx flicking a cigar.”

Velez – a pioneer who brought the ancient frame drum to the modern world and the attention of so many over the last three decades—teaches at a number of drum clinics and camps including the summer percussion seminar at Tanglewood in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the Juilliard Percussion Seminar in New York City, the Tamburi Mundi (a frame drum fest in Germany) and NAFDA (North American Frame Drum Association at varying locations). Whether he is teaching Southern Italian—style techniques, Arabic dance rhythms, or South Indian—inspired compositions, he has a fondness for KoSA, where he points out: “Although KoSA is predominantly drum set oriented, the participants are interested in expanding styles and there are many possibilities for cross-fertilization with different ways of approaching rhythm and different cultural perspectives.”

The infectious enthusiasm of charismatic, Boston-based Marcus Santos is contagious in the Brazilian workshop where I learn simple samba rhythms on the pandeiro and place my notebook aside. We introduce ourselves (with some participants from Montreal, Quebec City, Boston, North Dakota, and New York) while keeping the patterns going. “The tambourine is like a drum set; the jingle is a hi-hat,” says Marcus, a native of Bahia, Brazil. “The pandeiro is the heart of Brazilian samba,” he says.

He teaches the “Teleco Teco” pattern (an onomatopoeic term for the sound of the drumming motif), at times using the board to notate a rhythm, or guiding participants to relax the arm or keep the palm closer to the rim to get more of a jingle sound. His high energy doesn’t let up as he creates an impromptu song about KoSA. It makes sense that he leads his interactive Grooversity programs of Afro Brazilian percussion across the U.S., serving as a catalyst for social-diversity awareness with attention to enacting positive change by engaging communities through music.

Cultural perspectives are often on the mind of Michael Taylor (known simply as Taylor) who gives djembe workshops where he speaks of the misinformation that is disseminated about instruments such as the djembe, which he studied in a variety of West African nations, earning him the Tam Tam Mandingue Certification from Mamady Keïta of Guinea. Taylor tells us the names of the drums and their meanings vary considerably during an afternoon session that leaves my hands hurting but my heart singing.

Chicago-based Taylor (who doesn’t have corporate sponsorship and is the owner of Holy Goat Percussion) is a natural performer who plays Wula drums (meaning “forest” in Susu, a Mande language of Guinea) with resilient goatskin heads, one of the most traditional skins after antelope heads, often paired with a heavy wooden base. He refers to some woods by their traditional names and another which he calls, “swiss mocha almond wood, because it reminds me of ice cream.” Taylor explains there is no traditional drum language for djembe. “The words are not important. The oral tradition makes you listen.” At an evening concert, he incorporates a folktale from the ancient Malian Empire (with a sub-text that a good drum will not magically make you good drummer). His performance imparts interesting cultural lore, matching well with Aldo’s mission. “It’s important to go the roots and bring them back to understand the culture; then it makes sense,” says Mazza.

Ron Reid teaches at Berklee College Of Music (arranging, steel pan, and Afro pop) and gives concerts at places like the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I meet him as he leads a small class in steel pans at KoSA, where a 14-year old student quickly picks us the pattern on the double pan as an older participant struggles a bit with the melody. Reid remains patient and good-natured. I wish he had a larger group to work with, teaching the lilting melodies of his native Trinidad, and I also would appreciate hearing more of his steel pans in the mix during the evening concert.

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11. Taylor's ensemble.

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12. Santos in class.

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13. Glen Velez in concert.

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14. Taylor on djembe.

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15. Frame drum workshop.

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Kosa Concerts

The concerts have excellent programming with some exquisite performances such as international globetrotting, virtuosic marimba player Eriko Daimo in a sensitive rendition of an appealing transcription of an Astor Piazzolla piece; effervescent vibes player Allan Molnar (cofounder of the ALIVE Project for video conferencing, awarded with the KoSA Lifetime Achievement Award); the dramatic stick acrobat and snare drummer Jeff Queen (with a superstar Drum Corps career); and the excitement of four-time Grammy Award—winner Glen Velez playing a dynamic solo on a single tambourine with no electronics or theatrics, allowing the pure beauty of the instrument to dance in his hands with both melodic as well as rhythmic phrases shining through.

While I am drawn to the range of world drumming offerings at KoSA, there is also a who’s who of drum set players on the faculty, representing a variety of styles. Each takes time out from their busy international touring and teaching schedules to spend a stretch in the Vermont woods, drumming with an intimate group of students, who range from newbies to educators and pros. “Even beginners get hands-on time with the masters,” says Kovács.

Drum Set Roster

Clinics this year at KoSA are led by Chester Thompson (Frank Zappa, Weather Report, Genesis/Phil Collins); Dom Famularo (B.B. King, Lionel Hampton), who speaks eloquently about the “brotherhood of drummers”; Daniel Glass (Brian Setzer Orchestra and a DRUM! columnist); Jason Bittner (Shadows Fall, Stigmata); Memo Acevedo (Tito Puente, Gregory Hines, Louie Belson); Gregg Bissonette (Ringo Starr, Santana, Brian Wilson); Ed Uribe (Paquito D’Rivera, Randy Brecker, Gary Burton); Sergio Belloti (founder of Do You Speak Drumming?); Jeff Salisbury (Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley); and Aldo Mazza (Celine Dion, Jon Bon Jovi, James Brown). Each of these illustrious musicians, as well as the world drummers, offers a profusion of CDs, videos, books, scores, products etc. for a ”take-away” experience.

“The most consistent thing KoSA creates is a very high level of tolerance,” says Peter Wilder, who juggles some of the administrative issues. “KoSA represents a vast section of existing and possible percussion tracts at its camps and events. For example, ’speed metal’ drumming isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It sure isn’t mine, but this year Jason Bittner showed not only some of the expected aspects of speed metal, but also zigzagged into utilizing those techniques in a power funk arrangement with the talented KoSA Rhythm section [lead by Robert Quranta, a member of the Collective just outside NYC]. So, the tolerance comes in where everyone can find an important “take-away” nugget of relevant information from all the genres present. If one is open to the possibilities, one can decide much more easily what works and what doesn't. This tolerance, if not unbridled enthusiasm, for the possibility of a different approach, is so important. Take Ron Reid, this year’s steel pan drum instructor. A great jazz player, Ron adapts the pan to some wild jazz scales and impeccable timing and feel. A high level of tolerance, as I note that some of the participating speed-metal enthusiasts are intrigued by the steel drums.”

“The program keeps evolving by pushing the envelope with new instruments,“ adds Wilder. “We are one of the first enterprises to bring in steel pan drums, to incorporate African dance along with African drumming techniques, and the first to incorporate parade drumming into a drum set vocabulary.”

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16. Santos on congas.

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17. A drum class enjoys the fresh country air.

Special Sessions

Master classes and special sessions offer presentations on diverse topics including classical percussionist Frank Epstein (Boston Symphony Orchestra and New England Conservatory Of Music) focusing on well-functioning cymbal technique, and Mario DeCiutiis (principal percussionist of Radio City Music Hall, founder of Alternate Mode and the inventor of KAT MIDI electronic controllers), demonstrating a whole new world of a 24-pad unit triggering Indian rhythmic language along with hundreds of samples. DeCiutiis, a specialist in music technology, says, “All of your thoughts are now holographic; you can change the groove and fly.”

Not all of the special sessions are on the same par. I am curious to hear about the KoSA Cuba study-abroad program, but instead I disappointingly end up at a session with a drum tech rambling on about his memories with high-profile musicians. But the ego-driven presentation by the drum tech reminds me that the assorted teachers I encounter at KoSA are by contrast very down-to-earth, gentle souls without ego issues. It gives me pause to reflect on the personalities at this drum camp, where easy-going members of the KoSA family can be found all around the campus and are accessible to speak with both in and out of classes.

Themes: Family & Drumming Up Happiness

New York City—based, Colombian-born drummer/percussionist Guillermo “Memo” Acevedo (who has performed with a long list of luminaries and is the director of the NYU Latin/Brazilian Jazz Ensemble) is a fiery ball of energy, performing alongside his daughter Jacqueline in clinics and concerts, but also enjoys hanging out with her off-stage. Family is a sub-theme running through KoSA, where father and son may take classes together, mother and son enjoy concerts, or as is the case with co-director Jolán Kovács, she sometimes has an opportunity to perform with her daughter. She mentions family packages are available for this drum camp and reminds me that KoSA was born out of the idea of sharing, camaraderie, and opening eyes to a variety of styles in a place where family spirit is very important.

This year the tagline for the camp (as seen on the KoSA T-shirt) is “Drumming Up Happiness,” which is, in my experience, quite apt. And even if it sounds corny to speak of “beating the communal drum,” joy is certainly one of the key components for the participants as well as the teachers, who are often grinning ear to ear. Mazza points out: “Drumming has no politics; it just takes you to another place.” Wilder adds: “We create our own reality. Why not drum up happiness for yourself and others?”

I enjoy sampling the tasty rhythmic soup at KoSA, hoping to return next year for another satisfying feast, as do, it seems, many KoSA participants. And I agree with Wilder, who sees the future of KoSA as a “continued convergence of the human-centered instructional models” coupled with “being vigilant and aware of leading-edge developments across the entire percussion range.”

One long-time attendee, who enjoys learning, living, and studying in this inviting environment and looks forward to future camps, is Geoff Lang. “I’ve been coming to Kosa since day one,” he says. “And the wealth of information is so available in the classroom and out of the classroom – at the breakfast, lunch, and dinner table – as well as after the concerts and walking from one class to the next. KoSA is an intense experience that for drummers is like five days in a toy store.”

But the future of KoSA is not limited to the feel-good Vermont sessions. “I see KoSa expanding into new regions,” says Wilder, “particularly South America, where we have quite a bit of interest. China is another growing region, and we have been for over ten years staging the KoSA Cuba program, which is a solid week of instructional experience tied into the Havana Drum And Dance Festival.”

It is clear that Mazza’s intentions resonate beyond the immediate experience as he discusses being a positive force both musically and culturally. ”It’s important to learn traditions, study with the right people, and keep the planet on the right course.” I can’t help but smile as he adds: “Music is wellness, therapy, and a problem-solver. We want artists to play together and make the world a better place.”