She’s Got The Touch
Based on all of her chic magazine covers, makeup ads, perfumes, clothing lines, and the fact that she has an all-female backup band, one might expect Beyoncé’s concert tour to be overflowing with couture and girly-ness. Not so. At least not if September 10, 2007 is any indication.
Tour percussionist Marcie Chapa and the rest of Beyoncé’s “Suga Mama” backup band had just finished a sound check for their Boise State University stop on The Beyoncé Experience 2007 world tour and there were a couple of hours to kill before showtime. On the tour bus the day before, they had watched the New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game as they traveled from Portland to Boise. Texas-bred Chapa and her pals were still in a football state of mind, so she and drummer Nikki Glaspie went to the campus store and bought a football to toss around with some of the other performers and security guys.
“I remember the bass player, Divinity, she said, ’Marcie, you need to stop playing around. You need to stop playing, you’re going to hurt yourself.’ I was like, ’Oh shut up,’ and I kept throwing it,” Chapa recalls with a combination of humor and embarrassment. “The [other] drummer, Kim, she threw the ball and I jumped up to catch it and my finger went back.
“I thought I just jammed it, so I said, ’Okay, I’m done playing.’ Then I sat out for a little bit and they still kept playing and I said, ’You know what, I’ll be fine.’ So I ran back into the game and started throwing it and then I caught it again. Same person threw it, same exact way, and it hit my finger the same exact way, and then I felt it bend and it hurt really bad. And then all of the sudden it started swelling up.”
Despite being in immense pain, Chapa made it through the show that night. They had a couple of days off before their Edmonton, Canada show and her parents and bandmates assured her it was probably just jammed. Finally, on the day of the Edmonton show, when the pain failed to subside and her knuckle started to bruise, she went to the doctor. Her finger was broken.
Beyoncé noticed what excruciating pain Chapa was in that night and sweetly asked her if she was okay, to which she miserably but determinedly responded, “I’m okay. I’ll figure it out.” Chapa taped her throbbing pointer finger to the middle one, popped a strong painkiller, downed a Red Bull, and got out on stage like a trooper. She even played the second half, which is impressive because halfway through the show, she puked all over the stage.
“Then, luckily, I was off for three weeks, and that’s when we went to the third leg over to Asia and India,” Chapa says. “It was still broken. It was healing, but it was still hurting me. It didn’t really heal up fully probably until midway through this last year. Now it’s fully strong again. I can stretch it back. Before I couldn’t stretch it back, I couldn’t do anything with it. It would just hurt.”
So, with her long silky hair, big brown eyes, bright smile, and foxy wardrobe, Chapa may look the part of an Us Weekly-worthy young Beyoncé entourage member, but she’s far more striking for her (clearly) unyielding dedication to her music. It’s not surprising that Beyoncé asked Chapa to come back for her 2009 world tour. Chapa’s breadth of knowledge from her years playing across the gamut of musical genres probably didn’t hurt her case either – she has played everything from salsa to gospel music, and loves it all.
Brother To Sister. Chapa’s introduction to the drums came courtesy of her Houston-area elementary school band. In fifth grade, her mom told her she needed to get involved with some sort of school program because mom didn’t want her “running the streets.” Chapa’s older brother was a trumpet player, and young Marcie saw how he got to miss school sometimes to play and travel with the band. Not being very into school herself, the band opportunities appealed to Chapa, so she decided to join. “The band director of the school I was going to attend, he said I was a hyper child, so the drums would probably fit me, my personality,” says Chapa, who as an adult comes across as an enviable combination of cool, confident, and generous.
“Apparently it ended up being a God-given gift because as soon as I started playing, I was always the person on top – I don’t want to say the top player,” she clarifies modestly. “But I was always in the top two or three players that were the best at the schools I was in. It kind of worked out. It ended up being something I was really good at.”
After a year or two of playing in the school band, Chapa realized that not only was she performing well, she was having fun too. She wanted to try out the drum set next, and begged her parents to buy her one until they relented. “And then I just started mimicking everything I’d hear. I’d turn on the radio and whatever I’d hear, I would just mimic it,” she remembers. Hearing what she was doing, her jazz-loving, trumpet-player brother intervened. He brought out his favorite jazz music, which included Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, and Buddy Rich.
“He’d say, ’Listen to this. Why don’t you play some real music?’” Chapa recalls with fond amusement. “Because I would play stuff like MC Hammer, Tone-Loc – I would play all the Top 40 stuff that was going on on the radio. He was like, ’Listen to this. This is where you’re going to learn.’
“He made me just sit down one day in a room and he said, ’Play this. Play what you hear here.’ It was a Maynard Ferguson song – I couldn’t tell you the name of it – and I just had to mimic that. And then all of sudden he started showing me Buddy Rich. Then I started getting into jazz.”
Jump Into Percussion. Chapa continued to play drum set throughout high school and also became a familiar face in her high school’s band scene: She performed in the symphonic, marching, and jazz bands. Her family wasn’t well-off enough to pay for individual lessons for her, but Chapa says she was fortunate because her public high school had a strong band program. She made sure to take advantage whenever a guest musician would visit the school.
“It happened to be a lot of times it was actually a drummer who would come in or it would be a well-known jazz musician that would come in,” Chapa says, “and they would always tell me, ’Well, check this person out.’ I would listen to anything they had to say or offer me. And if it was a drummer, I would sit there and kind of watch everything they would do and take it all in.”
During her sophomore year, Chapa’s band director suggested she go see Sheila E. perform. At the time, Sheila E. wasn’t really on her musical radar, but her director suspected the illustrious Ms. E. would make an impression on his budding young percussionist. He was right. “So we get there and I was like, ’Wow, it’s a girl playing. I’m not the only girl out there playing,’” Chapa says, remembering her excitement. “I saw her playing the timbales and just going crazy and then playing drum set and then switching over to congas.
“That’s when I realized, this is exactly what I want to do.”
Back at school, Chapa and her classmates started an Afro Cuban group. She played timbales. “When I jumped over to percussion, it seemed to me much easier. In my mind, at that time, it seemed like everything just flowed and I understood it a little bit better than trying to sit down and figure things out on drum set.”
Still, she notes, “To this day, I love playing drum set. Any time I get a chance to get on a drum set, I’m getting on. But if I have the choice, I’m going to go to percussion.”
Career Changes. Although she began exploring the world of percussion in high school, it was still her set-playing abilities that took her off to college in New York. The famed jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis had visited her high school and heard her play. According to Chapa, he responded by saying, “You really need to be in New York.” He made some phone calls, which led to her receiving a scholarship from the New School For Jazz And Contemporary Music, in Manhattan.
Chapa actually spent her first year of college at the University Of Southern Mississippi because her mom said she needed to gain some maturity closer to home before heading to New York. Buy her second year, she hit the big city. During her time at the New School, she got lessons from jazz greats like Lewis Nash, Chico Hamilton, Michael Carter, and Reggie Workman. In her spare time, however, she was constantly listening to and studying Latin music.
“Being in New York, I took the opportunity – and I wouldn’t even go as a student, I would just go for a love of the music – I would just go watch salsa bands and watch the percussionists and then, on my own, I would go practice and figure it out.”
She began to meet Latin musicians who helped her learn more about playing their music. Chapa eventually left school in New York to head back to Houston. She got heavy into the salsa scene and also attended the University Of Houston because of her interest in its music education program. “At that time I wanted to be a band director … so I thought,” she laughs.
But then she started “gigging and making a lot of money,” and she also realized that the band director route wasn’t for her. “I was teaching lessons throughout the week already and I would go to high schools or go to junior highs and I’d watch the band directors and how they were stressed from the political side of the education department. And I was like – I don’t want to be told what I have to teach a child. I want to teach them what I think they need to be taught to get better.”
She opted for playing the salsa circuit, and teaching drums to kids in her community in her spare time, but she still went on to graduate from the University Of Houston. Chapa’s mother wanted her to be the first one in the family to earn a college degree, and because her family is very important to her, she obliged.
Musical Mentor. During her early days on the salsa scene, Chapa had a chance encounter with one of her heroes, Santana timbal man Karl Perazzo. The night before Santana was scheduled to perform in Houston, Chapa happened to be playing a salsa gig in town and he showed up. “He plays with love, with his whole entire heart, with his mind – it’s amazing to me,” Chapa enthuses.
After the gig, Perazzo invited her to come early to the drum clinic he was holding the following day so he could give her a lesson. He had been impressed with the infectiousness of the music and how she hit the timbales “like she means it.” From there they became friends, with him providing positive guidance to her through the years. Perazzo says what makes Chapa stand out among percussionists is her eagerness to learn. “She’s always trying to get better,” he explains. “It’s impressive because some people just settle.”
“Knowing him through the years has helped me out,” Chapa says. “He taught me how to just let go of certain things and focus on the music and just being able to give your music back because he believes it needs to be given back to the people. So that’s how I envision things now.”
Playing salsa music all around Texas kept Chapa busy for the next few years or so, but after she got called to do a big show with Al Jarreau, she began to get requests to cross genres and contribute her percussion talents to other kinds of acts. She still played set on the side whenever she could. Chapa tackled everything from jazz and R&B to pop, gospel, and Christian music with folks like Dave Liebman, Kenny Garrett, Regina Belle, and Yolanda Adams.
“They would always tell me that I just had a touch, that I knew when to play and where to play and where to put parts,” Chapa says of her success scoring gigs across so many genres. “Because to me a percussionist is about color. You’re bringing in color and flavor when you’re playing with other styles of music.”
The Big Beyoncé Break. So when the opportunity cropped up a couple of years ago to play for Beyoncé, Chapa already felt comfortable playing in a pop setting. Beyoncé held a national audition for an all-female band, and Chapa threw her hat into the ring. Within a week’s time, she went from the audition in Houston to playing at the BET Awards with Beyoncé in L.A.
Beyoncé has said she wanted to have an all-female touring band because it’s important and empowering for young girls to see so many diverse, talented women up on stage. Chapa agrees with her leading lady, but notes that during the many weeks of pre-tour rehearsals in 2007, the band strived not to be just a great all-female band, but to be the best backup band they could be. Despite coming together from all different genres and enduring 10—12 hour days of rehearsal to prepare for the glitzy two-hour production, Chapa says if anyone threw out an idea, “Nobody hesitated on trying. Everybody was willing and very open to trying everything.”
It can be a bit of a challenge for Chapa when there’s a song that she feels only requires a hint of percussion, but she says with complete confidence, “I figure out a way. Even if it’s just a single cymbal roll on one part – you know, on the bridge or something, or the end – I’ll figure it out.
“When I was younger I always believed you want to show off all you can and just try to play as much as you can – I’m talking in a band setting,” she says. “As I matured as a musician and being around other musicians, I learned that simple was more, less is more. The term that me and this drummer would always use was ’simple but effective.’”
Her drummer brethren recognize just how skilled she is at playing on a tour like Beyoncé’s. “She has all this music in her but she has the discipline not to overplay,” says Perazzo. “She just plays when she’s supposed to play.” Nikki Glaspie, one of Suga Mama’s two set players (along with Kim Thompson), agrees, “Marcie is great at finding parts that complement the music.”
“You don’t want a song to be cluttered,” Chapa explains. “When you listen to a song, you listen to the melody of the song – not the drummer or not the percussionist, or not the bass player – you want to hear the melody.”
Chapa is even more psyched for Beyoncé’s 2009 world tour, which is slated to kick off in April. She says the “amazing” new album, I Am … Sasha Fierce, features a wider range of music, including rock, R&B, and a little jazz, and variety appeals to Chapa’s sensibilities. And even though Chapa says she’s not the type to get nervous in front of a big audience, playing with a huge pop star can make for some thrilling times – like playing on the other side of the world with thousands of fans standing and shaking glow sticks to the beat of your music for two straight hours.
It has also been exciting for Chapa to see young girls responding to Suga Mama. “Being a percussionist, I’ve known so many little girls that say ’I want to do that,’” she says. “Growing up, it was always limited, how many women played drums – or even just an instrument. They didn’t always continue it because it was a career dominated by males.
“So it is empowering because when you see little girls out there in the audience – somehow they ended up finding out our names, some way, somehow, either it was YouTube or MySpace, they find us – and they’ll send us messages. It’s like a little ten-year-old girl saying, ’Oh my god, I want to play drums just like you or I want to play percussion like you.’”
Giving Back. Home in Houston, as she prepares to leave for the Beyoncé album promo tour, Chapa feels like she’s in a good place. She recently bought a house, she’s been with her singer/guitarist boyfriend for five years, and she’s close to her family. She dreamed of being able to have a home in Houston near her family and just fly out for gigs, and now that’s her life. There’s even a drum room in her new house. She’s so busy these days that her ten-year-old nephew gets the most use out of it, but that makes her happy. Her nephew has been playing drums since he was three years old, and now that he has seen his aunt’s level of success as a drummer, he’s setting his sights even higher. As a big supporter of family and introducing music to children, she considers that an achievement.
In between all of her gigging over the last ten years, Chapa has dedicated a great deal of her time and energy to teaching drums to kids through after-school programs. “The way society is these days, if you can grab a kid early on, you can help them out in so many ways,” she explains. Chapa believes that music is a great way to teach kids about discipline and success in life. “Out of all my high school kids that I was teaching, every single one of them has made it to college every year,” she says with enormous pride.
One of her next dreams is to open up her own school for kids to learn drums as well as other instruments. She also has plans to put out her own percussion album, something she’s been working on for a while. But in the meantime, her current success is keeping her busy. She’ll have to put off her dreams for the future to continue her dreamy present – seeing the world while discovering those perfect flavors of percussion. It should be wonderful, as long as she leaves the football to the Cowboys from now on.
15" Luis Conte Artist Series Timbale
14" Luis Conte Artist Series Timbale
11.75" x 30" Professional Series Conga
11" x 30" Professional Series Quinto
12.5" x 30" Professional Series Tumba
7", 8.5" Free Ride Series Bongos
14" Generation X Filter China
12" Generation X Safari Hi-Hat
14" Byzance Thin Crash
16" Byzance Thin Crash
16" Byzance Crash
Luis Conte Double-Row Wind Chimes, 4", 6", 8" Triangles, Shekere, and assorted shakers
High- and low-pitch blocks
Cowbells (4.5" low-pitch Chrome, 6.25" Chrome, 8" Small Mouth Chrome, 4.5" high-pitch Steel)
Marcie Chapa also uses Taye hardware, Remo heads, Vic Firth sticks, Pintech electronics, and HansenFütz practice pedals.