The Real Tambourine Man: Glen Velez March 11-17, 1981

Glen Velez is a free-lance percussionist. Sometimes he performs with Steve Reich and Musicians, or with Parnassus, or on the Group for Contemporary Music series. At other times he plays Middle Eastern repertoire for the storyteller Laura Simms, or becomes a tympanist for a symphony orchestra. I had heard him in most of these contexts and had found him quite competent in all of them. But the other night, listening to him improvise with Charlie Morrow as part of the ‘Whitney Counterweight’ series, it seemed obvious that Velez is not only competent and versatile but also a musician with a strong vision of his own. And since articles on new music almost always focus on composers, this seemed like a good opportunity to break the pattern and write about one of the more impressive young performers currently working in New York.

Velez’s instrument that night was a bodhran, a one-headed drum about 18 inches in diameter that is held in the hand like a tambourine. This Irish instrument is traditionally played with a hard little beater that produces sharp attacks and deep resonances. But Velez plays with his hands, thereby transforming it into something much softer and more delicate. He moves his individual fingers with fast rhythms and varied touches, as Indian players do, but the result is more sensual than any tabla solos I’ve heard. Partly because the bodhran is so resonant, but mostly because Velez has worked hard with the instrument, the music comes out with a particularly personal touch. Every single sound seems to leave its own fingerprint.

A few days later I visited Velez in his Upper West Side apartment, and I quickly realized that his unique bodhran technique is only part of a much broader concern. One whole wall was covered with 15 or 20 types of wooden rims with skin heads on them. Some were very unusual indeed.

‘This little tambourine is from South India,’ Velez explained, as he began taking a few of his prize possessions off the wall. ‘The head is lizard skin, and there are only two tiny jingles on it. The big one from Afghanistan has lots of jingles, but they’re really rings rather than the little disks you find on most tambourines. This one from North Africa has two little snares under the head, as well as the jingles around the rim.’ Soon the topic shifted to the 3500 pictures Velez had gathered that depict tambourines in various times and places, to a discussion about the thumb-over grip versus the palm-under position, to various ways of twirling the instrument, to detailed remarks about Hittite tambourines, minstrel tambourines, medieval tambourines, and Salvation Army tambourines. It became clear that Velez was really a tambourine scholar, as well as a performer.

The 32-year old musician grew up in Dallas and received his formal musical training at the Manhattan School of Music. His primary instructor was Fred Hinger, the tympanist of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. But a natural curiosity about the music of different cultures led him to additional studies with some of the other outstanding percussionists teaching in New York City. From Ramnad Rhagavan he worked on South Indian techniques, from Erasto Vasconcelos he studied Brazilian styles, and from Hanna Mirhige he learned Arabic instruments, primarily the dumbek. Having arrived at this cross-cultural perspective he began to take a special interest in tambourines, along with the bodhram, which like all frame drums is really just a tambourine without the jingles.

‘In the West the tambourine is a pretty simple instrument. You either slap it or shake it. That’s about all there is to it, and you can learn all the basic symphonic tambourine techniques in two lessons. But then I started to find out about how they play tambourines in other places and I discovered that it’s really a very sophisticated little instrument, and that there are a whole lot of ways of playing it. There’s a style from Rio, for example, where you use the heel of your right hand a lot,’ he went on, demonstrating as he spoke. ‘But if you go up to northeastern Brazil they hold the same instrument much lower and don’t use the heel of the hand at all. In Bahia, on the other hand, there’s another completely different style that involves more jingling than drumming and that requires the left hand to do most of the work. All three techniques are highly developed, difficult to learn, and completely different. And that’s just Brazil.’ But perhaps the most important thing that Velez learned from his study of other cultures was how to go beyond his western classical training and feel comfortable improvising. For it is as an improviser that he began working with Steve Gorn, Charlie Morrow, and others, and putting together his extraordinary hand drum techniques.

‘I know a lot of tambourine styles, and when I improvise I use them unconsciously. So my oriental playing started to take on Brazilian characteristics, and I was a little worried about that. But when I went back to the man who had taught me the Arabic style, my Brazilian accent sounded fresh and interesting to him. He wasn’t offended at all.’ Gradually, then, Velez has become a kind of melting pot all by himself, and perhaps that is the key to the magic that happens when he begins to play an Irish bodhran or a Brazilian pandeiro or a Sumerian meze or a Spanish pandereta or an Afghan doira or an Arabic duff or a North African bendir or a South Indian kanjira or even a plain old gospel tambourine. And there are practical advantages as well.

‘Tambourines are easy to carry. I can put eight or 10 different types all in one suitcase.’