A Different Drummer
Big Sur Native percussionist and teacher Jayson Fann has spent a lifetime studying the rhythm of drums.
Thursday, January 1, 1998
Thoreau once said: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer."
Twenty-six-year-old Big Sur resident Jayson Fann has spent his eventful young life listening to different drummers, as well as providing rhythms for others to follow.
"As a kid growing up in Omaha I''d drive my teachers crazy by beating on the desk with rulers. They didn''t appreciate it much," says Fann. "I tried playing guitar but kept coming back to drumming. I played the streets and the malls; was in a break-dance and even a hip-hop group. Much of what I know was learned at park benches."
While waiting for Fann''s students to gather for rehearsal, we met recently in a glade above the Big Sur coast where he recounted his circuitous route from Omaha to Monterey.
"I had difficulty with regular school so my Mom and I traveled to the West Coast looking at alternative schools. I liked Contra Costa Alternative High so we both moved to Berkeley. There I met Bruce Silverman, then head of the Sons of Orpheus, a together Brazilian- style group. He asked me to join them and that is when I began to imagine that I had this musical path that I could explore.
"After the Oakland fire, my Mom moved to Esalen and I began to visit her, and met folks around Big Sur. But when I finished high school, my sister and I went to British Columbia to study organic farming techniques.
"Meanwhile at Esalen, my mother befriended Babatunde Olatunji who is considered the elder statesman of African polyrhythms. He was going to be in British Columbia teaching classes so my Mom set it up for me to guide him around. I became kind of a secretary and chauffeur but also his student and friend.
"After two years," Fann continues, "I came down to Esalen to manage their organic gardens and renew my contacts with most of the local musicians. That''s when I was invited to join the Big Sur Natives.
"Then in 1994, Babatunde invited me to join him on a trip to Ghana. With a small group of selected students we went to the International Center for African Music and Dance in Accra, the capital city. During a two-week stretch, we toured the countryside, playing and being treated to local performances. Every village it seemed had drum and dance troupes. We were treated like kings, mostly because of Babatunde. Baba never failed to give anything less than a two-hour concert to show his respect.
"After Babatunde left, I was invited to stay on with Seth Kofi Gati, a member of the Awa tribe who was teaching drumming at the University of Lejon. I stayed at his house, starting each day with four-hour sessions: One-on-one. "
"What was so great is that we''d play in the yard and each morning all these kids would materialize to watch and listen. They couldn''t believe a white kid would show such interest in their music. Of course they would all start dancing. It was a wonderful scene. But it was sad how they undervalued their own music. Their dream was to make it to America where everything was pop or rap.
"At night, I took a cross-town train to a sort of shanty town where I was invited to play with a neighborhood group that was trying to put together their own dance-and-drum troupe. We spent about three hours every evening; about 15 dancers and the same number of drummers all between 15 and 25 years old. They called themselves The Odum Dance Company even though they had never performed in public because they lacked money to travel. But eventually they began playing for weddings and tourists.
"In America there are far more racial walls," muses Fann. "In Africa I could approach anyone without fear. I think I laughed and smiled more during my stay there than I have at any other time. They were all so open and curious, willing to share.
"After four months," Fann continues, "I was running out of funds and anxious to begin teaching what I had learned. It was hard leaving but I needed time to integrate what I had learned. I''m still doing that: Integrating.
"During all my time in Africa," Fann elaborates, "I was only introduced to three rhythms. But I came to realize how deep and immense the language of African drums is. It''s really a type of speech. Multiple tones and relative pitch such as a slap versus a tap could affect meaning. But someone proficient could ''read'' the drums. That''s why they didn''t so much accompany stories, they were the stories which were interpreted by the dancers or the griot story teller. Remember Tarzan, that''s why drums were actually the first cell phones, you know, ''bush telegraphs.''"
Fann pauses to gaze out over the Pacific, listening to the ocean''s swell pounding below. "Mickey Hart once wrote (in his scholarly exploration Drumming at the Edge of Magic) something like: ''It may be that there are more drummers in the world than all the pianists and guitarists combined. Think what would happen if they all began drumming at once!''"
Fann then leads me down a winding path to a small lawn perched above the Pacific. The students are donning costumes, tightening drums. Fann greets them with a staccato rap on a conga. Scattered about are all shapes and sizes of drums, most made by Fann or his students. He points them out giving each a loving tap. "Their names are music. This is a djembe. This is called a surdo. Djun-djun. Tar. Dumbek, Shekere, Berimbau." Tossing me a large beaded-covered gourd or malakash, Fann invites me to join in.
This is his ensemble of somewhat wayward kids who have found direction through his teaching and example. Fann seems a cross between Mickey Hart and Peter Pan, complete with his Wendy.
Fann tirelessly spreads the magic and medicine of his music. A regular with the Big Sur Natives who play every second and fourth Saturday at the River Inn, he also leads sessions at Esalen.
Besides private lessons and his troupe, he plays for Walter White''s dance classes at MPC, Kristian Herra''s in Pacific Grove and has performed backup on three CD''s this past year. Additionally, he directed the music for the Pacific Repertory''s 1996 production of Pericles, the Unicorn Theater''s production of Swinging from the Vine, and frequently gives demonstrations at local schools.
According to one of his students, "Jayson is very articulate, you know, but man, he really preaches through his percussion."
Another student employs a quote, "You know what Joseph Campbell says? ''You don''t find a shaman without finding a drum.''"
Some like to think that the Central California Coast operates on a different rhythm set by natural cadences of tide and wind. This assures that Jayson Fann and those like him will not be mere voices in the wilderness. cw