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Beat of the Canyon : Topanga shop owner's African djembe drums have gained a reputation for quality.

August 12, 1994|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. Daniel Foster writes regularly for The Times.

TOPANGA — In a town built on anomalies, this one harbors one cottage industry that's put together more oddly, and noisily, than most: African Percussion, an African drum-making shop run out of two trailers perched far up Old Topanga Road.

Owner Paulo Mattioli, an Italian who hails from Madison, Wis., steps out of one trailer, looking like an African version of New Age musician Yanni. Within minutes, he rolls a djembe drum from a trailer and sends a primal beat tumbling down the canyon.


Mattioli, 37, is riding a surge of interest in drum-playing that began about three years ago, fueled by the music of Paul Simon, Sting, and the New Age and men's movements. That was about the time Mattioli moved from Encinitas to Topanga to set up shop. His business has been building momentum ever since.

Mattioli's drumming CD, Master of the Forest, was recently released, and his instructional video, West African Djembe Drumming, was called "one of the best videos we've seen this year" by Drum! magazine. A dozen of Mattioli's drums were recently purchased by the popular West African dance and drum troupe, Les Ballets Africains.

Across town, Mattioli's Expression Sessions, a drumming and dance workshop held in Santa Monica on Sunday nights, has doctors, accountants, waiters and housewives beating out existential Angst in a drum circle that often grows to 70 or more.

"People want to have a feeling of being a part of a community," said Mattioli, who started drumming at age 6 when his father brought home a set of congo drums from Mexico. "Drumming gives people a feeling of incredible joy as they root themselves in the beat." But before others make the skins speak, Mattioli has to build the instruments. His apprentice, Jim Costa, now does most of the work, since Mattioli operates other facets of African Percussion. The business crafts mostly djembe drums, instruments that were originally used by the Mandingo people in the West African Mali empire, which dates to the 12th Century.

"The djembe has become popular because it's easy to call distinctive tones out of," said Mattioli, who graduated in 1988 with a degree in ethnomusicology from UC San Diego. "You can get a high accent tone by beating the edge, and a deep bass tone from the middle."

The drum, with its wide head and body shaped like a wine goblet, compresses sound and then amplifies it through the megaphone-shaped base, he said.

"Many people want to see if we have a hidden microphone in the bottom," said Mattioli. "They can't believe the sound coming from inside the drum."

Mattioli began making drums 12 years ago after he grew exasperated with a poorly built djembe that he took apart and reassembled. He began making the instruments from scratch, starting with whole logs that he carved up with a chain saw. Now, Costa uses a lathe to work the wood, usually Chinese or Siberian elm from the Rocky Mountains.

After the rudimentary shape is formed, carving and sanding is done by hand, using a mallet and chisel. The wood is rubbed with Danish and linseed oil and is cured in a climatically controlled chamber. Goatskins, imported from Africa, are stretched over the top. (Mattioli said domestic goatskins produce a thin sound since American goats are fed a diet high in hormones, which produces too much fat.)

Cords, which are crossed and knotted in a web that stretches to the middle of the drum, are looped through a ring that is placed over the head.

One drum, priced from $150 to $695, takes about two months to build. African Percussion creates about 50 drums each month. Most are sold by the national chain Guitar Center and by North Hollywood-based Remo Inc., the world's largest maker of drumheads.

"Hand drums have become a very popular business, and the demand is increasing all the time," said owner Remo Belli, who introduced the synthetic drumhead in 1956. "We started carrying djembes two years ago because everybody's asking for them."

Mattioli's product has a reputation nationwide, even in Africa, where drum troupes have chosen his product over their country's own drums, said Steve Beck, executive director of the Lawton, Okla.-based Percussive Arts Society, which has 6,500 members in 50 countries.

"The products he enters and brings to our annual convention are really high-quality," said Beck. "People ask for his djembe drums because they've heard of the sound they produce."

Mattioli, in fact, said he believes the djembe has become the drum of choice for percussion enthusiasts. "It produces a very powerful sound that's also passionate and sensual," he said. "Djembe has been called the magical, or healing, drum, because no one can resist its sound.

"All of the rhythms we have today have evolved from the West African rhythms, and the djembe is one of the oldest instruments from that part of the world. For a drummer, it's the wellspring, the richest source of all rhythms."


What: African Percussion is open by appointment only. (818) 591-3111. Or write: 115 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290.

Also: Expression Sessions are held at Westside Academy of Dance, 1711 Stewart St., in the Richlar Center, Santa Monica. Formal drum instruction begins at 5 p.m. and costs $10. At 6 p.m., a community drum circle, $9, is open to all skill levels. African dances are incorporated with the drumming at 7 p.m.

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