Warning: Never put four dedicated drummers in a room full of the percussion instruments that Dr. Joseph Howard has collected from around the world if you want a nice, routine interview.
The combination of rare folk instruments and musicians with rhythm in their blood (local drummers Billy Higgins, Carl Burnett, Bobby Matos and Munyungo, who will participate in the fourth Day of the Drum Festival at the Watts Towers on Saturday) created an atmosphere that sent what should have been a predictable conversation promoting the annual event spinning off on a series of dizzying tangents. The free-wheeling exchange ranged from experiences with different rhythm traditions overseas to abstract reflections on the spiritual hold playing drums has on their lives.
"It speaks to something inside you that you can't even name," Matos said. "It reaches something that really has nothing to do with culturalization or the learning process."
Added Howard, a dentist who accumulated the instruments over 30 years while pursuing a serious hobby of studying rhythm patterns around the world: "Every one of these drums in this room is different but there's a common chord that goes through all of them. Regardless of language or the cultural background, a funeral dirge, a march or a dance can be identified by the rhythm pattern.
"This thing is amazing to me because it must be something basic in other human beings to identify with them. You can play a drum and a man will kneel and pray, dance or just sigh and drop his head. He doesn't have to speak your language because that pattern will get through."
The spiritual element played a major role in establishing the Day of the Drum Festival four years ago. The Watts Towers Art Center already was staging an annual Music and Arts Festival and staffers were idly discussing the idea of devoting different editions of the festival to artists playing a particular instrument. Sparks flew and wheels started turning when someone mentioned drums.
"We were saying the drum was such a spirited symbol of life that we should do a festival of the drum," said John Outterbridge, director of the Watts Towers Art Center. "The drum is the epitome of all instruments because it's both tonal and rhythmic. We felt it would be a good way to bring people together because the drum unifies the world in that almost every culture uses some form of rhythm."
The center approached Higgins, renowned in the jazz world since his late '50s work in the ground-breaking group of Ornette Coleman, to assemble the artists for the inaugural festival in 1982. The impressive turn-out attracted a corporate sponsor last year, allowing the event to expand to two days and import such percussion pioneers as Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji and jazz innovators Jo Jones and Philly Joe Jones.
"Dr. Howard's drums on display at the Art Center gallery added another dimension, too, because people don't realize about these drums," said Higgins, gesturing toward the instruments lining the walls. "They're looking at drums you see on TV and this is opening up a whole new concept to them."
The international representatives on this year's one-day program may have the same effect. Performers running the gamut from Japanese and native American percussion groups to classical Korean and Afro-Latino ensembles are scheduled to appear. The "Universal Drum Summit" finale will feature an impromptu ensemble combining members of all the groups to emphasize the cross-cultural bonds characterizing the festival and its musicians.
"Drummers that I've heard from different parts of the world play by a certain concept and it doesn't matter so much what they specifically play," Carl Burnett said. "It's like me understanding their language. If I can understand the concept they're playing with, I can communicate with them."
The Day of the Drum Festival opens at 9:45 a.m. with a ceremonial "blessing of the grounds." The "Universal Drum Summit" is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. The Art Center gallery will feature an exhibit of drums from Howard's collection and there will be limited access to the Watts Towers throughout the day.