Michael Wimberly: Master Of Global Grooves

michael wimberly

“When Michael Wimberly plays the djembe, the world vibrates!” says Guillermo “Memo” Acevedo. Whether teaching celebratory rhythms from West Africa, playing with drummer Mickey Hart, avant-garde saxophonist Charles Gayle, or Parliament Funkadelic, Michael Wimberly is a dynamic performer and clear, masterful educator, who creates videos and books promoting playing and “having fun” with hand drums. Wimberly is a seasoned percussionist (on both drum set and hand drums) as well as an endorser for TOCA Percussion and Evans Drumheads. Since 1982, he has been based in New York (where he was able to broaden his knowledge of hand drumming in Latin, African, Brazilian, and Haitian rhythmic styles after studying orchestral and contemporary percussion in school) while taking time for globetrotting tours around the world with a variety of innovative ensembles.

Wimberly is a passionate percussionist who sets his audience on fire in vastly different settings. He recently performed at an art opening with John McDowell, leader of the world music band Mamma Tongue, taught classes at Bennington College in Vermont, produced a CD for jazz singer Lila Ammons (granddaughter of boogie-woogie architect Albert Ammons) and played in the Winter Solstice concert at St. John The Divine Cathedral in New York City with the Grammy Award—winning Paul Winter Consort, who blends a wide range of musical experiences with the natural environments of the Earth, and the Forces Of Nature Dance Theater.

Paul Winter speaks of Michael Wimberly as a “big smile coming down the aisle,” with the Forces Of Nature dancers in his grand events at St. John The Divine. At the Paul Winter Consort Solstice Celebration, Paul Winter recalls seeing Michael “beaming ear-to-ear as he’s wailing away on his djembe. Then I know for sure the sun’s coming back,” says Winter, who has led his ensemble-in-residence at the Cathedral in New York for the past 30 years.

“Michael is one of the Renaissance men of percussion. He can do just about anything,” adds Winter, who has shared the stage with him many times while Wimberly holds forth on djembe, balaphone, gankogui (agogo), shekere, and assorted hand percussion as well as drum set.

When Jamey Haddad was unable to play drums with the Consort at their annual Earth Mass/Missa Gaia, Wimberly filled in. Now they sometimes play as a team, and Winter is pleased with the results. “When I commented after our recent Solstice event on how great they sounded together, Jamey replied, with a big grin, “Hey, man: we’re both from Cleveland!” While Winter is enamored with Wimberly’s technique, he is quick to add: “Above all, it’s Michael’s spirit that is his great music.”

Open Minds Mean Open Ears

No doubt, spirit is a key factor for this groove master. “For me there is a direct connection to the spirit of dance through hand drumming. If played with the right drum language and the right intention, you can evoke the spirit of the instrument. That will inspire you and the dancers to move beyond expectation,” says Wimberly.

He likens the relationship of dance and drumming and which preceded the other, to the more commonly asked question: What came first, the chicken or the egg? “The interesting thing about hand drumming from a global perspective is that historically it always accompanied dance,” says Wimberly.

A friend in college, who had several djembe drums in his dorm room, originally introduced Wimberly to hand drumming with a few traditional African rhythmic patterns. Years later, when Wimberly began playing for dance classes and an African dance company, he saw firsthand how the rhythmic patterns and dances were connected in an organic way. Since that time he has continued to work with dance companies and choreographers, sometimes composing works using hand percussion to build textures, rhythms, and momentum. He has written music for a variety of esteemed dance groups such as the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Philadanco! The Philadelphia Dance Company, Joffrey Ballet, Urban Bush Women, and aforementioned Forces Of Nature Dance Theater, an international touring company involved in the movement to heal our planet.

As an educator, Wimberly does many drumming clinics and is now on the faculty of Bennington College (along with colleague Susie Ibarra, they are replacing the legendary Milford Graves, dubbed a “jazz scientist” by New York Magazine) where he is constantly researching and refining what and how he presents his material. At Bennington, he teaches 20th century music and dance history as well as a new curriculum he created. It’s a course called Drumming: An Extension Of Language, in which students get hands-on experience learning traditional rhythms form Cuba, Brazil, and the Middle East, as well as West and East Africa. Instruments range from dumbek, djembe, and congas to frame drums, West African sangba, Mozambican, and Brazilian drums. This class also involves “research into the culture, politics, religion, and daily life of the people from where the rhythms originate,” explains Wimberly.

Drumming as an extension of language is an important concept. “There is a direct connection of the spoken word, where the tone, speed, and inflections of language can be translated into rhythm,” he says. “When you study the music of the world, you will see there are many rhythms that have been created over the centuries and there’s no realistic way to grasp them all. But there is something that connects them all: Every rhythm has a pulse, no matter how abstract! With that in mind, you must be patient while learning and applying these rhythms. I meet so many students who want to learn how to solo right away when they haven’t acquired the proper technique and rhythmic vocabulary.”

As the founder of Power Of Drum, in 2006, Wimberly has had drum clinic showcases paying tribute to the great drumming innovator Max Roach with musicians including conga virtuoso Giovanni Hidalgo; Grammy winner Terri Lyne Carrington; Will Calhoun of Living Color; acclaimed Latin jazz drummer Bobby Sanabria; Valerie Naranjo, who plays everything from West African drumming to percussion for Saturday Night Live; world drummer Jamey Haddad, who tours with Paul Simon; MacArthur Fellowship winner Dafnis Prieto; and Memo Acevedo, a director of the Afrocubanismo festival.

Educational events from the Power Of Drum have expanded beyond the shores of this country to Europe with workshops on Sao Miguel in the Azores Islands of Portugal and Barcelona, Spain. A project close to Wimberly’s heart focuses on drumming as an alternative method to engage children who have trouble learning. This generated a grassroots collaboration between artists, business owners, social workers, and community leaders supporting the work Wimberly is doing with local children from the Azores in a project called The Michael Wimberly Cooperative Together With Music. A three-week intensive is scheduled for this June. And Wimberly plans to create another Power Of Drum event in New York City. But for those who don’t have direct access to his classes, clinics, and workshops, he has educational materials offering many tips for improved hand drumming in his book/DVD packages published by Hudson Music.

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Djembe Master

The djembe is the large goblet-shaped hand drum originating in West Africa, where some say the Bamana people of Mali define the drum’s name as “everyone gather together in peace,” while others translate it as “unity and harmony.” Since the 1300s it has been part of social and ritual music-making practice and is an important instrument for funerals, marriages, harvest ceremonies, and courtship rituals. There are colorful tales about the origin of this drum ranging from a mortar used for pounding grain to chimpanzees, who entertained themselves with it in the trees and a djembe drumhead made from a hybrid of a zebra and giraffe. Today the djembe can be found throughout the African continent in a variety of sizes and materials. And since the 1950s, it has been exported around the world, becoming a popular choice for drum circles.

In his newly released book/DVD package, Getting Started On Djembe, Wimberly introduces the basic strokes of “tone” (close to the rim), “slap” (with fingers spread apart while hitting closer toward the center), and “bass” (with a flat hand position, aiming just off-center). He then moves on to other techniques such as muted finger rolls, harmonic finger touches, and overtone fingering. We asked Wimberly for some tips on playing the instrument for those just getting started. Here was his response:

Wimberly’s 5 Djembe Playing Tips

  1. Keep your fingers in a close triangle formation with index fingers together at their tips.
  2. Bounce your fingers on the drum like it’s a basketball.
  3. If you are sitting, sit up straight and close to the edge of your chair.
  4. Keep one of your feet at the back of the drum’s tail.
  5. Stay relaxed and have fun!

Want to learn how to change a djembe head? Check out Wimberly’s online video lesson beginning with the tools you need. He instructs about soaking the new skin and recommends paying attention to the patterns in the rope when untying the horizontal and vertical “up and downs” with your hands and the tip of a screwdriver. After removing the skin and outer hoop, he cuts the skin away from the inner ring, which is recycled, becoming part of the new instrument.

On Wimberly’s on-line videos for Toca, you can see him play “casinos,” the fan-like accoutrements with jingles, which vibrate, creating a counter rhythm to the djembe patterns played on the drum.

Cajon

The six-sided, wooden cajon is a 200-year old, resonant box drum, originally from colonial Peru, with lots of rhythmic possibilities and a history of accompanying dance. This versatile South American instrument has traveled around the world for people who didn’t have drums or were forbidden to make music with them (like the African slaves in Peru). They played boxes (which resembled seats), using recycled shipping crates from transporting fish, flour, meat, vegetables, and fruit. Today the cajon is found everywhere from campfire jams and street fairs to Afro-Peruvian jazz, Cuban dances, and flamenco performances.

Wimberly treats this musical box (which can be made of everything from plywood or pine to mahogany) as a bass and snare drum in his hand-drumming kit, but also suggests using it for gigs requiring a pared down setup. In his 2012 DVD, Getting Started On Cajon With Michael Wimberly, he demonstrates drum fills and finger roll techniques, incorporating them into a rock beat as well as traditional grooves from Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. Wimberly transcends a world music approach, including funky hip-hop patterns where he suggests coming back from fills or embellishments and blending in James Brown grooves. In addition to these driving dance rhythms, he includes several play-along tracks, enabling you to try out the rhythms in his accompanying book. As with the djembe, we asked Wimberly for a few quick tips for beginning cajon players.

Wimberly’s 5 Cajon-playing Tips
Listen to music that features the cajon to expand your knowledge of the instrument and its musical palette.
Sit on the box while tilting the instrument on an angle; then strike the head between your knees in the center of the drum.
A resonant bass sound is produced by placing your hand just above the middle of the box.
A strong slap (or higher-pitched) sound may be made by positioning your hand about 2" from the top of the drum.
Most of the sound comes from playing the front of the box, but you may use the sides to produce additional tone colors with your palms and fingers or attach guitar strings or drum snares to create a buzzing timbre.

The Secrets To Success

While Michael is a classically trained percussionist with a B.A. from The Baldwin Wallace Conservatory and a M.A. from Manhattan School Of Music, he is also equally comfortable teaching those who don’t read music. His books include both Western music notation as well as drumming techniques for those who play by ear.

Colombian percussionist Memo Acevedo, who was honored with the Percussive Arts Society President’s Industry Award, is an LP Education Specialist and highly regarded Latin percussionist who has known Wimberly for many years after meeting at the Drummers Collective in New York City. He applauds Wimberly’s dedication to music education and his musicianship. “He has the elements that make him an artist of his caliber: creativity, ingenuity, and skill. Love is his motivation for all that he does, and I’ve witnessed Michael’s students’ smiles and satisfaction after a lesson with him.”

Wimberly has taught at the annual Summer Drum Camp, KoSA, where their philosophy of building a musical community encompasses the idea that sharing music makes the world a better place. KoSA founder Aldo Massa believes: “Music is the only universal language. It transcends social, economic, cultural, and political boundaries.” And this environment is one in which Wimberly thrives, sharing his unbound enthusiasm for drumming.

John McDowell, who achieved international recognition for his global soundtrack to the Academy Award—winning documentary Born Into Brothels, leads the world music band Mamma Tongue, and has worked with Wimberly for more than two decades on stage from Lincoln Center to the Montreal Jazz Festival. McDowell calls Wimberly “warm, personable, and hugely talented. He is an all-around musician with a big heart and an infectious energy in his playing.”

In addition to being a versatile percussionist and a warm and fuzzy guy who exudes a positive energy while teaching hand drumming, touring with world-class ensembles, or recording studio tracks, Wimberly is also a sound designer and widely commissioned composer for chamber orchestra, dance companies, film, television, theater, and the Web. This global groove master – who is clearly as passionate about what he does as others make him out to be – speaks of being 100 percent committed to his music, while offering sound advice: “As a musician you must learn to be sincerely open to everyone, so that they are open to receive your music.”