Let’s Go Shopping!

In the first two posts for this blog, I talked about being offered the opportunity to start a drumming ensemble at Winston Middle School in Baltimore, MD and how I decided on the initial musical direction for the group.  Today I want to go through the process of outfitting 15 kids with high quality/affordable percussion instruments.

In my personal library of percussion instruments, I already owned a full set of Brazilian samba percussion, a small set of marching drums (basses, snares), plenty of drum set hardware to outfit the two partial sets that Winston owned, and a lot of little percussion toys and sound makers.  All of this equipment would give me plenty of variety in music choice and learning opportunities for the students.  I had therefor decided that any new purchases would be in a traditional African set-up of djembes, djun djuns, gankogui bells, axatses, talking drums, and maybe a few other special purchases.

Deciding on this general direction of purchases was only the very first step in the process of actually acquiring the drums.  Next I needed to do alot of research to make sure I’d end up with quality drums and fair prices.

Through the very generous workings of the Herbert Bearman Foundation, under the direct approval of Mark Bearman,  I was funded in the ball park of $3000 for the drums.  This was, of course, a dream come true for both me and the students at Winston.   The Herbert Bearman Foundation is a wonderful organization that gives money to worthwhile projects in and around the Baltimore area. 

My next step, now that funding was assured, was to decide what types of drums I wanted to buy.  I needed to have enough equipment for roughly 15-20 percussionists at one time, and fortunately I was told by Greg Thompkins that each student should have a drum of some type to play on.  In other words, I wasn’t looking to buy 6 drums and have 10 kids with shakers or some small percussion instrument.  I knew that I’d put the groups together with proper instrumentation, but during the classes on drumming technique, I could have everyone on a real drum.  That philosophy is a real blessing and am very thankful that the BJEP and Bearman Foundation had that level of support in mind. 

The first hurdle in choosing the drums was should I go with a Remo style (tunable, plastic head, more durable) djembe or did I dare go with real skin, wonderful sounding djembes.  Believe me, this wasn’t a decision I took lightly.  It really came down to this:  Anyone who has played both types of drums knows that there is absolutely nothing that compares with the deep, beautiful sound of  a handmade, skin djembe.  The students at Winston did not have music classes and I wanted to give them an experience with the best sounding equipment I could.  I knew that would mean taking a few entire classes to simply practice holding, packing, unpacking, and caring for the djembes.  I knew that I would be responsible to rehead the drums, tune the drums, and basically have 10 new djembe children to protect, but it is worth it. 

So, at this point in the process, I had decided that I wanted to buy 8 Djembes, 3 Djun Djuns, 2 Remo Tublum (which I’ll explain later), 2 Talking Drums, 9 Gankogui Bells (6 double, 3 single), and 6 Axatse Shakers.

I decided to add the two Remo Tublums for two reasons.  First, they are easy to play and have a conga like sound.  If there were any smaller size students, or students incapable of holding the djembe at a proper angle (because of physical handicap or variety of other causes) I wanted a simple free-standing hand drum to be available.  Also, the heads are relatively thick, and I thought we might be able to use them like the Kaganu drum in a Gahu ensemble (played with sticks.)  As I mentioned previously, I’d been exploring David Locke’s Gahu resources with my own percussion friends for the past year and certainly could see bringing some elements of that to the Winston group.

Now the “How” and “What” questions were answered, leaving only the “Where.”  I put together an invoice and shopped it to three different drum outlets.  And here comes a big lesson for anyone in the business arena.  Even though I was planning to buy nearly 3K in drums and had the funding already approved, one of the three contacts (the one that worked for the large national chain) didn’t even return my phone call, and when I went to the store in person kept me waiting for over 1 hour before talking to me.  Then, when he did come to talk about my purchase, he said “Well, you should have just emailed me the invoice.” 

That’s not how I roll.

With something this important, I need to talk face to face with someone, and get a guarantee from them that when the drums arrive I can go over them with a fine toothed comb, sending back for replacement anything that is in the slightest way defective or damaged.  Without that understanding up front, no money will change hands.

Arrive on the scene Keith Larson from Mid-Atlantic Drums.  Keith is well-known in the Baltimore area for being a master drum maker (Baltimore/Maryland Drums.)  His newest enterprise is a real-deal, old-fashioned, service first drum shop located in Baltimore County.  Keith worked hand in hand with me over the course of a month to help choose quality drums, locate the most affordable bell/shaker suppliers, and sat with me as I unpacked, inspected, and repacked them all upon arrival.

For the Djembes, Keith turned me on to Meinl.  The hand-made Meinl djembes are amazing, and the quality is truly consistent.  They’re made in Africa, and inspected by Meinl before being sold.  All I can say is that the eight I purchased (6 large and 2 medium) came in sounding incredible with not a single defect/scratch/or uneven head setting.  They also each come with a thickly padded/zipper bags with back pack straps.  Not that I would ever try, but the bag is so thick you could count on the protection if the djembe were knocked over (these aren’t thin cloth bags.)

For the Djun Djuns, I went with Toca.  Skin heads on a synthetic shell.  These drums are powerful, very durable, and sound great.

The bells and shakers we purchased from Overseas Connections.  And the Remo Tublums, of course, from Remo.

The total was kept under my $3,000 expense projection, for which I send many thanks Keith.  I truly believe that the smartest way to spend money is with any business that takes a personal interest in the quality of the merchandise and the satisfaction of the customer.  Keith did both of these to the utmost, and he was a joy to work with.   

I added a link to that short video so you could get a sense of some of the drums, and of the talent I’d be working with.  This short clip was taken on the very first day working with the kids (after about 30 minutes of instruction.)  To say they pick things up quickly is an understatement!  In the video are the Toca Djuns, some of the Meinl Djembes, and you can hear the Overseas Connection Single Bells (attached to the Djuns.)  Wow!  An incredible amount of work was done to secure this equipment, the students took to the drums very easily, and I already knew it was going to be an amazing year at Winston Middle School.

In the next post, I’ll start to describe the different compositions we’ve worked on so far this year, I’ll talk about the three performances we’ve done for the school and the pieces we played, and I’ll talk about the student compositions that we’ve developed.

Please feel free to comment, leave other helpful suggestions, or ask any questions.  I hope this blog serves as an inspiration for many more people to bring music to our schools.

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