Glen Velez, Framing a New Sound
by Dan Liss
Glen Velez is the person most responsible for a certain type of sound we hear on an increasing number of recordings. It's that thumping, snapping, light, fast percussion featuring a higher-pitched range, even in its bass notes. Surprisingly, most of it's done with just the fingertips on frame drums.
Frame drums form the largest family of drums on the planet, including the tambourine, Native American hoop drum, Celtic bodhran and Middle Eastern tar, to name a few. They can be played with sticks, but Velez is a proponent of using the hands.
Since the 1970s, Velez has been the drummer for the Paul Winter Consort. He is also widely respected as a teacher of frame drum techniques. Check out his instructional videos, The Fantastic World of Frame Drums and Handance Method (Interworld). How did he come to love the frame drum?
"I grew up playing stick drums, and fell into frame drums later. My uncle was a drummer, and he introduced me to jazz. Later I went to the conservatory and studied classical music. Then I began studying with a South Indian teacher who introduced me to the frame drum; I proceeded to study the Arabic and other cultural styles. I like the frame drum because it offers many improvisational opportunities. The dynamic levels are softer, with a great range of sounds. Because of the size and light weight of many models, the frame drum allows physical mobility. You can explore the acoustics of space you are playing in. Frame drums have a long ring, which lends itself to singing with it. The drones work well with overtones."
"I like the ways these aspects combine to create a whole: the breathing, the inner voice, the rhythms. So when you are breathing in these patterns and your body is moving in these patterns, you are actually affecting several levels of consciousness."
Velez is an advisor to Remo, a drum manufacturer, and designed a line of frame drums, which have frames made from recycled wood and heads made of mylar, a type of plastic. What does he play?
"I use mylar heads exclusively. When I used to play the traditional skins, I used to have to carry warmers and dryers to keep them taut enough to get the proper tones out of them. Now I never have to worry about the weather conditions causing the drums to go out of tune."
The Celtic style frame drum, the bodhran, usually uses a double headed drumstick, known as a tipper. But Velez appears on two albums released last year, Songs of the Irish Whistle (Hearts of Space) and Celtic Soul (Living Music), on which he plays the traditional rhythms using bare hands. "There is an older tradition in Celtic drumming that just uses the hands. I think that many performers use tippers because of the increased volume and power they can provide."
Even his choice of beats reflects a high level of awareness of the magic in music. Doctrine of Signatures (CMP) was named for the concept that clues or signs exist all around us in the natural world, which, if given our attention, can guide and support us on our journey through life.
In the extensive liner notes for his most recent release, Rhythmcolor Exotica (ellipsis arts), he notes how the time signatures (beats) relate sacred concepts to numerology. Many of his compositions revolve around the numbers 4, 5, 7, 9, 11. "Odd numbers were considered sacred to the gods and even numbers sacred to the goddesses. Five is the union of an odd and an even number; seven is a lucky number in many parts of the world." This album features women drummers, with melody lines provided by violin and trombone. Velez has always worked with women as well as men. Frame drums have a long history of use by women.
His recordings reflect a global musical journey. His album Handance (Nomad) demonstrates just how much music he and Layne Redmond can create with nothing more than two people and a variety of frame drums. Doctrine of Signatures is an amazing work that begins with a single tap of the finger launching the metronome and culminates with five frame drummers adding layers to that base. Two of the drummers on DOS, Eva Atsalis and Jan Hagiwara, continue to work with him in Handance.
The group known as Trio Globo consists of Velez, Eugene Friesen (cello) and Howard Levy (piano, harmonica). Their self-titled album and Carnival of Souls (Silver Wave) are bluesy, jazzy, soulful sounds. They weave sophisticated, innovative melodies from among the simplest of instruments, the sparest of arrangements.
Ramana (Nomad), features Velez, Redmond, Hagiwara and Levy. Here he plays steel drum, mbira, shakers, and sticks. Still it is unmistakably his touch on the frame that imparts a unique flavor to the recording. On the album Ettna (Nomad), Velez, Enzo Rao (violin, bass) and Gianni Gebbia (sax) merge Sicilian folk melodies with Middle Eastern influences and jazz improvisation. Velez is a master at combining elements from many ethnic styles.
"There is no modern tradition for what I am doing. By connecting with the ancient instruments, I feel I am part of a tradition."
by Dan Liss