Tom Alteen, M.B.A., B.Voc.Ed., grew up in Corner Brook and developed his passion for drums at an early age. Tom played for the local bands Red Eye, Crosstown Traffic, Cadillac, and the Three of Clubs. He is currently the drummer for Prosser’s Rock and plays djembe with Dunungbe, a West African djembe and doundoun performance group; both groups are based in St. John’s. Tom has a Certificate in Drum Circle Leadership and is a member of the Drum Circle Facilitator’s Guild (DCFG), a professional association of drum circle facilitators. He became involved in the community/recreational drumming movement in 2011 and founded Musubi Drum Circles in 2014 in an effort to share his love of drumming with others.
This interview has been edited for length and concision.
Annie Corrigan: You say you developed a passion for drumming at an early age. What did you love so much about it back then?
Tom Alteen: For me, drumming has simply always been fun. It has enabled me to meet lots of people over the years, has provided me with opportunities to make lasting friendships, and has given me a sense of purpose and belonging.
I developed a circle of like-minded family and friends and began jamming around. By 1972, I was out of the basement playing for local teen dances. It was such a thrill to play with my band buddies, to make new friends, and to meet people around the Corner Brook area. Drumming gave me these networking and friendship opportunities.
AC: It seems like you have drummed in a variety of styles. I play the oboe, so I feel fairly limited to one genre of music. What is it like bouncing amongst so many different styles of music and different types of drums?
TA: Honestly, I love the variety. The challenge of playing different instruments and styles of music keeps me interested. In addition to my drum circle business, Musubi Drum Circles, I play with Dunungbe, specializing in the traditional rhythms from Guinea, West Africa. I also play with Prosser’s Rock, a classic rock band. After a while it feels quite natural to switch up the instruments and styles of play.
I was given two gifts during my teenage years that changed my thinking immensely. One of my old friends, Tobias Jesso Sr., gave me my first djembe. I also inherited a copy of Thurston Knudson’s “Primitive Percussion.” I remember Denny Solo, after having had a listen to this album, showing me some of the African percussion patterns on the drum kit. It was an “aha moment” for me that rather changed the way that I think about percussion instruments. It is quite a lot of fun to play different styles on different instruments. Why not play traditional West African rhythms on a drum set and play rock patterns on a djembe? I also think it is musically enhancing and rewarding to integrate styles.
During the drum circles that I facilitate, I like to provide a variety of percussion instruments and seed with rhythms from around the globe. I think this is quite beneficial to the community because it allows people to experience playing different percussion instruments and patterns. It also helps develop cross-cultural understandings that are certainly needed today.
AC: Describe the experience of drumming in a drum circle.
TA: A drum circle is “music in the moment,” a big percussive jam of sorts. The facilitator or a participant will offer a rhythm to get things rolling (no pun intended) and a groove will spontaneously evolve. Having said that, some circles are more structured than others and a facilitator may take on more of a role as a conductor. Everyone is in the band, so to speak, and is encouraged to find and develop his or her own sense of rhythm. For many participants, one of the benefits of participating in recreational/community rhythm events is the absence of performance anxiety because they are not being critiqued. If you play from your heart, you are always playing the right beat.
Generally the chairs are placed in a circle so that everyone can see each other while playing. If it is a facilitated drum circle, the facilitator usually tends to gravitate towards the centre of the circle. While some facilitators may offer some basic instruction, learning generally takes place through watching and listening to the facilitator and the other drum circle participants. Regardless of the skill level, all are equal in the circle; it is important to have fun, blend, be respectful, and play what you feel.
There are three types of percussionists in a drum circle, those who maintain the foundation rhythms, those who play the melodic parts, and the embellishers/soloists. So participants of all ages and skill levels can harmoniously play together and benefit from the experience.
When a groove locks in, the sum is greater than the individual parts. It is entertaining, captivating, and exhilarating. Participants often report feeling energized and renewed.
Musubi Drum Circles At Sound Symposium XIX*
- Interactive Rhythm Event — Sunday, July 8 at 4:00pm (LSPU Hall)
*Times and locations subject to change.