The most versatile of instruments, drums encompass a myriad of styles and genres
Considering they’re designed to make a lot of noise, drums have a peculiar habit of slipping into the background. But while guitarists, pianists and vocalists may hog the limelight, it is usually the drummer that lays the foundations for great music, from driving rock and cool jazz to laidback reggae and hypnotic world rhythms.
Celebrating the diversity of this most versatile of instruments, the Hong Kong International Drummer Festival hosts a series of masterclasses and performances by leading drummers from around the world, such as renowned German fusion expert Benny Greb, American snare and reggae duo BYOS, and Hong Kong classical Chinese percussionist Dr Lung Heung-wing and jazz drummer Nate Wong.
Classical drums are typically those that feature in orchestras, and include the bass drum, concert toms, timpani, marimba and snare. Generally employed to add colour and feeling – or moments of bombastic drama – to a score, classical drums provide a vital counterpoint to the string and wind instruments. “Classical and orchestral drumming requires a lot of control and discipline,” explains Dr Lung. “The parts are mostly written out and one will find few free improvisations.”
“I think the most distinctive thing about jazz drumming is your role in the band,” says Hong Kong-based jazz drummer Nate Wong, who has been playing since the age of 10. “You are there not only to hold down the beat, but to propel the improvisation and interact with the other musicians. It’s all about communicating with the musicians you are playing with.”
The modern drum kit was in fact developed and popularised through the early-20th-century New Orleans jazz scene, a genre that in turn has roots in African drumming. “From jazz grew all different genres like rock, pop, funk, and many of the genres that have had the drum set from their inception,” says Wong.
The late 1970s gave birth to a sound that was more experimental and more fluid, and new wave drumming was at the heart of it, producing a beat that complements synth-driven melodies. Prolific German drummer Benny Greb brings a new wave approach to his fusion of electronic, indie and jazz drumming styles.
Fusion, meanwhile, is more of a catchall term than a genre in its own right – fusion drumming can incorporate funk, Latin and other styles, although it generally refers to a mixture of jazz improvisation with rock grooves.
Reggae drumming is deceptively loose in its definition. It usually – but not always – employs a standard drum kit, and is driven by an emphasis on the bass drum, which is predominantly played on the ‘down’ or third beat, giving a laidback feel. The main three beats used in reggae are the one drop, steppers and rockers.
World drumming, the second genre that Dr Lung specialises in, incorporates a range of styles from around the world. Two of the most popular are African and Latin, the latter of which includes both Brazilian and Afro-Cuban. World drumming is defined more by its incorporation of improvisation, flair and rhythmic drive than by specific drums or beats. Drums commonly employed include the West African djembe, Afro-Cuban bongos and timbales, as well as the various snare and handheld drums that comprise the bateria or rhythm section of a Brazilian samba band. “Sometimes classical and world drumming share similar playing techniques,” explains Lung. “Both provide rhythmic drives and colours, and drums with relative pitches can also be played with melodic elements.”
Many contemporary pop acts use drummers to not only provide structure to their songs but also to generate the earworm effect that sees a hit gain repeated airplay. A modern pop beat will typically employ a clean yet pounding kick drum to hold down the groove and add energy to the melody, without taking attention away from the vocals and other elements of the track.
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