Sunday, March 18, 2012


My Dumbek Apprenticeship

My Apprenticeship

I grew up taking Westen style classical music lessons. I would have a “lesson” with my teacher for 1.5 hours a week, pay a certain amount, and spend the rest of the week practicing on my own preparing for the next lesson. This is the way most Westerns experience learning music.

What I’m experienceing in Istanbul is more Eastern style of being an apprentice to a master musician or “Ustat”.

This is my fourth winter in a row living in Istanbul in order to study with Bunyamn Olguncan, and incredible master drummer and very unique being. This is such a wonderful experience for me I want to write about how I spend my days.

I start the day sitting in meditation. It happens that my schedule is such that by the time I get up and start meditating, it’s time for the noon prayer, so my meditation is accompanied by the beautiful, haunting call to prayer.

After having some breakfast I make my way over to our “office”.

The way from my house to the office is one long pedestrian walkway called Istiklal. The walk takes 20 minutes and I see no cars! The only transporation on Istiklal is one little quaint old fashioned trolly that goes up and down the walkway. The walkway is lined with musicians. Saz players, singers, jazz groups, you name it. Buy my favorite is the Laaz (Black Sea) kemenche player. Whenever I pass by he takes a cigarette break and lets me play a few songs.

Our office is a beautiful magical place. Bunyamin decorated it to be perfect for practicing. He keeps it nice and warm and cozy. Besides a bunch of beautiful drums there’s my yoga matt, Bunyamin’s prayer matt, a koran and a tea station where we make turkish “chai” continuously throughout the day.. He made a special area for me consisting of a big soft rug lined with pillows – perfect for sitting on the floor to practice or doing yoga

I try to arrive a few hours before Bunyamin so that I can have “Tek Antraman” meaning practice time by myself. But before I sit down to practice I clean anything that needs cleaning. Bunyamin is obsessed with cleanliness and it’s very important for him to have it nice when he arrives.

First I practice kemenche and throat singing for an hour or so. The throat singing is coming along. Somedays I still sound like a growling moster but some days something clicks and I start to get beautiful almost electronic sounds.

Then I pick up the dumbek and do some very deep listening – to really focus on the beautiful sounds and to fall in love with them. I also use the alone time to go over the hunderds of pages of notes that I take when I’m practicing with Bunyamin and others.

Bunyamin arrives at around 5 every day. First he cleans (even if I just cleaned and everything is spotless). For example he’ll wash the clean dishes again just to make them super extra clean. The man also mops the floor every single day even though nobody wears their shoes in the studio. Oh, for those who don’t want to take off their shoes Bunyamin has these blue plastic thingies that go over your shoes. They look so funny!

After everthing is spic and span, Bunyamin lights the candles. He loves candles and every day at sunset he lights up 10 or so candles all over the room, and other than that there is very little light Thats one reason I haven’t taken so many pictures or videos in the studio – I don’t have a flash and I don’t feel like ruining the romantic atmosphere by turning on the big light.

Then he sets up his matt and prays. I always stop drumming when he prays – I’ll sit in meditation or an asana to hold space for him wile he parys.

After prayer the drummer friends start “stopping by”. The problem with having a really nice space is that everyone wants to come hang out. We love the friends who come by but latetly its been a little too much and we need to have a talk with the friends about perhaps coming by a little less often so that Bunyamin and i can practice alone together.

But there are advantages to being surrounded by some of the worlds best drummers while I’m practicing. No matter who is over, nothing interrupts my practicine. I sit there and practice and practice All day long. The drumming friends can really appreciate what I’m doing. If I’m doing a complicated cycle they will count it and clap on the one. Or sometimes one of them will pick up a bendir and hold a rhythm for me to solo over. Many of them have suggestions and exercises for me and they take turns sitting with me and showimg me things.. And multiple times throughout the day it turns into a big jam with everybody playing.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to having these folks around is, I figure that if I can play in front of these great drummers and keep my cool, there is nobody in the world that will make me nervous (Zakir Hussein is in the audience? No prob! President Obama is in the audience? Piece of cake!)

Yesterday while I was practicing, one of the friends picked up a bendir and said, “Raquy, lets have a solo!” and started playing a maksum. I gave them a nice solo and when I was finished, he turned to Bunyamin and said something like, “Raquy’s technique smells like yours!”

Some of my duties as Dumbek Apprentice inlcude:

Being Bunyamin’s Rhythm Bitch
I spend a good amount of time every day holding a rhythm while Bunyamin goes crazy over it. This is no easy task, and it takes much focus and stability to hold it down!

Chai Lady
Now that I know the secret to making the Turkish Chai in the little glasses and saucers and spoons that reminds me of something I used to play with as a kid, I make the tea for the guests and students of the studio. People here are chain chai drinkers. They like to have another glass handed to the as soon as they finish the first one, so it’s a pretty time consuming job!

Bunyamin’s Poster Studnet
A good student is a wonderful advertisement for the teacher. Whenever a new person or potential student comes by, Bunyamin has me play for them.

Bunyamin’s Teaching Assistant
Bunyamin has started having me help teach. He will show a pattern to a student and then go away and drink chai while I sit with he student and break it down until they get it.

Drum Painting and Henna
I love painting drums and doing henna on the drum skins so Bunyamin will have me decorate the drums of his friends.
I’m also honored that he just asked me to henna “Allah” in Arabic caligraphy on his prize favorite drum. Here’s what it looks like now:

Red Tent Ban
I had a rough “Time of the month” last month – I had horrirble cramps and was lying around the studio all day like a bloated moaning mess. As a result Bunyamin said I’m not allowed in the studio on the first day of my cycle. I’m thinking of suggesting that I make a little red tent in the corner of the studio for such occassions.

Having Bunyamin all to myself
My favorite times at the studio are when everybody else leaves and it’s just me and Bunyamin alone practicing together. We’re working on a beautiful composition and when we alone we can really focus on it. His playing never ceases to astonish and delight me. I sit there next to him and absorb the beauty that effortlessly flows through him. What an inspiration!

Time Warp
Bunyamin's studio is a time warp! I get there in the afternoon and the next time I look at my clock, it's 11 at night! The time goes by so fast! Somebody will serve me chai while I'm practicing and I'll think, "ok I'll just play this pattern a little more and then drink my chai" and then next thing I know the chai is totally cold!

Candelit Koran Discussions
When the friends are over Bunyamin loves to take out his koran and pick out phrases and discuss them. He won’t even turn on the lights for that, so the result is a few guys reading the Koran by candlelight. It’s a beautiful scene that could be from 200 years ago!

The Damn Drum Lamp

When we practice in Istanbul we don’t touch the metal drums. We only use the clay drums with natural skins. When you practice on those it’s nice to put a light inside to warm up the skin and make it tight, so that you end up playing this warm glowing orb! We have a couple lamps at the studio but I’ve never in my entire life seen such a fragile and finiky devise as a drum lamp. The lamp has about a 5 hour life span – it rarely makes it to the next day without breaking. Every day Bunyamin and friends spend a good amount of time futzing and fixing the lamps only do have them break shortly after. I hope somebody will invent a drum light that is a little more reliable!

Bunyamin is getting me gigs this year! Very nice easy, well paying gigs in fancy places. Acutally I have a feeling that I can make a much better living here in Istanbul as a dumbek player than i could in New York.

My cold hands
I think I have a problem w my circulation. My hands and feet are always freezing! Like icicles!
That is a huge disadvantage for a dumbek player because when your hands are frozen they don’t move.
It was really frustrating the other day because I was playing the black sea fiddle out on the street on a very cold day with my Laaz friend and then I went to drop something off at Emin percussion. At this point my hands were literally frozen. When I got to Emins, some people were jamming, including one guy who once told a friend of mine that women don’t make good drummers and shouldnt drum. They saw me and told me to jam with them. Of course I couldn’t resist, but it was so frustrating because I wanted to kick that guy’s ass (and I know I could if I was warmed up) but but my hands were icicles and just wouldn’t move! Just as my hands were thawing out, they took a break for lunch. I vow to go back to that guy on a warm day and then hell see how women play drums!!!!!

“The Look”
My students have told me for years that I have a terrifying way of looking at them when they’re playing that makes them mess up things that are usually easy for them. Well it’s the same way for me with Bunyamin! I’ll be doing just fine, playing along, and as soon as he looks at me- -----Bam! I lose it! So I try to imagine that he’s looking at me all the time when I’m practicing so that I’ll be prepared when he actually does! Now I know how everybody feels.

No Lound Playing Policy
Bunyamin could play very loud if he wanted, but he HATES loud dumbek playing. He plays quite soft. When we have new guests over who start playing loud, Bunyamin will actually stop them and tell them that they can't play loud at his studio! He gets everyone to play soft but with control. Not an easy thing! But it's beautiful having a group of amazing drummers all playing soft and really listening to each other!

Laaz Kemenche Guy Tries my Kemenche
Ha Ha! Check out the look on his face trying my kemenche!

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?