Yousif Sheronick: At The Corner Of The World

Yousif Sheronick

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.”

Education

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.”

{pagebreak} Yousif Sheronick

Sheronick's Duo Jalal Setup

Drums
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

Cymbal
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.

Genre Hopping

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.”

Yousif Sheronick

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.

Touring

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.