Friday, 18 July 2014

Beat Out That Rhythm

Perhaps the oldest musical instrument in world history, or at least the first to be used to beat out a rhythm, is the drum. Originally it would have just been a stone or log beaten with a stick. From those simple beginnings all percussion instruments evolved – drums, gongs, xylophones, cymbals, etc. 

The drum still figures large in culture and performance (where would Olympic opening ceremonies be without drums!). There are many musicians who have built a career on being a drummer and here are some from the lgbt community.
In the USA there are several lgbt drum troops. The most well-known is probably DC’s Different Drummers. Although primarily founded for the lgbt community this troop has always welcomed straight members. No doubt most cities around the world have at least one local drum troop in their annual Pride marches. Then there are marching bands, and orchestras. There are many of these specifically made up largely of lgbt musicians. 

But I suppose the first image to enter the mind when the word drummer is spoken is of a pop group. Two famous, and very different, groups of the 1980s who had lgbt drummers were Culture Club and the Beastie Boys. 

It’s a very significant time for Culture Club. Only last month the band announced their reunion and a new tour, and tomorrow night they’ll be performing at a special concert in Edinburgh Castle to celebrate the imminent start of the Commonwealth Games on Wednesday. The new slim-line Boy George, emerging like a confident butterfly after many years as an overweight drug-filled caterpillar, will perform the old familiar songs with the original band line-up, and perform new songs and produce a new album. 

When Culture Club first became famous Boy George was secretly dating the drummer Jon Moss. It was a tempestuous relationship which helped to fuel creative song-writing. At times the two came to blows and they tried to kill each other. It wasn’t a very good situation for the other band members to be caught in and they all split up in 1986 – both the band and the George/Jon relationship. 

John and Boy George have now reached the part in their lives when they can work together again with the other Culture Club members, Mikey Craig and Roy Hay. Many bands have reunited over the years. Some have been successful and achieved the fame they originally had. I’m sure Culture Club will as well. 

The Beastie Boys rose to fame at the same time as Culture Club but their drummer was something rarely seen at the time – a female drummer, Kate Schellenbach. She, too, has produced a new album, not with the Beastie Boys but her later band Luscious Jackson. In parallel with Culture Club Luscious Jackson split up (in 2000) and reformed in 2011. In the years in between Kate worked in the tv industry, including working as a producer on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” for a while. 

Kate may never have become a drummer had she not gone to a New York club as a teenager to see a band called Student Teachers who had a female drummer. Kate knew that she wanted to be a drummer as well. Several years later she was asked to join a band called The Young Aborigines. At the end of one rehearsal session the band let their hair down and played their songs as punk rock. They enjoyed it so much that they chose to play all their gigs like that. And that’s how the Beastie Boys was born. 

Female drummers are still relatively rare but they are not unknown in the past (Karen Carpenter started out as a drummer). All-female bands (jazz bands, big bands, etc.) have been around for decades. Before World War II there was an American band called the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and one of their drummers was called Ruby Lucas. She later became an icon in Chicago’s lgbt community, and I’ll tell more of her story in October. 

Back to the present, and one of the most famous drummers in popular music is Phil Collins of Genesis. His son Simon is also a drummer and singer with his own band called Sound of Contact. To some extent he is still labelled as “the son of Phil Collins” rather than a performer in his own right. From his emergence as a performer in 2005 Simon has been quite open about his bisexuality and admits, like other lgbt songwriters, his sexuality has influenced some of his work. 

Away from popular music drummers are more often referred to as percussionists. There are even fewer openly lgbt percussionists than there are female drummers. One percussionist with a particularly unique take on drumming is the New Zealander Gareth Farr. 

Primarily a composer of strong percussion-based music, writing for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Organising Committee, among others, Gareth studied percussion performance at Auckland University. In 2006 he became one of the very few percussionists honoured by the Queen, who made him an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to music and entertainment. 

I said that Gareth had a particularly unique take on drumming. In fact, in some classical circles in New Zealand it has led to him being regarded as an enfant terrible. Why? Because in 1994 he created Lilith Lacroix, a drag percussionist. From her first appearance at the Club Marcella in Rochester, New York, Lilith has wowed audiences with her percussive skills, not to mention her outfits. In 1997 Gareth created a special show for Lilith based specifically around percussion called “Drumdrag”. 

And I can think of no better way to finish than to show you part of Lilith’s 2007 “Drumdrag” show in Toronto.

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