Percussion on the verge of peril

November 2, 1994

Tim E. Stewart

DARWIN — One hundred performers, 20 acts and a steamy evening. A packed Browns Mart Community Arts Centre tapped, slapped and clapped their way through three hours of mind-blowing percussion on October 1. Billed as "The Skin I'm in Two", the performance included 20-strong Manana Bango hammering out a marching rhythm on bamboo poles; a loud and proud whistle sequence by campus women profiling Reclaim the Night; and the Treble Without A Cause choir stepping Ladysmith Mambazo-style and singing Swahili anthems.

The night was the culmination of month-long workshops by Greg Sheehan, one of Australia's most inspiring community percussionists. He is probably best known through the dynamic outfit Utungan Percussion and is currently recording with folk-rock band Coolangubra (formed during the 1989 NSW south-east forests blockade). Green Left Weekly caught up with Sheehan during his visit to Darwin.

"My first experience with percussion was when I was asked to teach at a Sydney Drama school called Drama Action Centre. I was so scared about it that I went to a library. I borrowed this book by a Canadian called Gary Schaeffer called Music for Children. The first thing he wrote was, 'Always teach on the verge of peril'. He was more or less saying don't ever think that you know everything. Always be prepared to change. And be prepared to learn as much as you are teaching. So I've always had that in mind."

"What I tend to do is try to break down barriers, push boundaries and get people to experiment and take a few risks. Because from that I think people can learn more about themselves, their music and culture", said Sheehan. One of the biggest things he tries to instil is encouragement for artists to reflect both their culture and their environment.

Since 1985 Greg Sheehan has been visiting the Top End and running percussion workshops from Browns Mart. The "Skin I'm in" was part of a three-month percussion project as part of the Bougainvillea Festival and Browns Mart 21st birthday celebration in 1993, and this year's "Skin I'm in Two" was dubbed "a celebration of community arts".

"It's a fairly evocative title", said Sheehan, "The skin could obviously be drums because there are a lot of drums in the performance, but it could also be about who we are in this culture.

"What I really love is the many different cultures up here. Back in 1986 when we had a project called Drumming Up Darwin; we introduced the Papua New Guinean troop of musicians and dancers to the Thursday Islanders and the East Timorese women drummers. The three groups worked out a way of playing their own music and also worked out how they could all play together: in essence that could be seen as a symbol of retaining one's own identity and culture but also working in a cohesive and creative way with other cultures."

Sheehan describes the role of a community percussionist as getting out into the community, coming across people keen to play and perform and to be "more or less at their disposal". For the "Skin I'm in Two" project, he drew on a range of locals from backgrounds as diverse as market busking, traditional Indian dancing, Pacific Island drumming and jazz improvisation.

"We're getting a whole lot of people together with all of them doing things they've never done before. So it will probably have it's rough edges — after all it's community art. The spirit of the occasion is the most important thing. I feel that's my job as a community musician. I go out there and get as many people involved as possible."

A characteristic of Sheehan's projects is his ability to make music as live as possible, building a rapport between audience and performer. "One thing I really like with drumming is getting very physical. I think the rhythms can come out really well the more people realise that playing rhythms encompasses the whole body."

Offering some percussion tips for activists, Sheehan said, "A couple of weeks before a demonstration, get organised. Have the percussion portable, and walk in time with each other, because that alone creates a rhythm, creates a solidarity, it's a unification. Play something that's very simple, very strong and get loud instruments.

"Just have a few get-togethers beforehand. It'll bring you together as a group; it will also give you something that's really fun. It's a good way to demonstrate."

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