Grammy Award-winning drummer, Grammy-nominated composer, percussionist, author, and educator Mark Walker is a world-renowned musician and professor of percussion at Berklee College of Music. An instructor with eighteen years under his belt, Mark designed a new curriculum for Berklee, including the classes Caribbean Rhythms for Drumset, South American Rhythms for Drumset, Funkifying the Clave (in partnership with bassist Lincoln Goines), and the online-only Afro-Cuban Drums. “We’re talking about various rhythms from different song styles of Latin American music,” says Walker, “which continues to expand to more than fifteen countries.”

Walker’s recording and performance credits are equally stellar, his gig bag hitting stage and studio with Oregon, Paquito D’Rivera, the Caribbean Jazz Project, Michel Camilo, Andy Narell, the WDR and NDR big bands, Eliane Elias, Lyle Mays, Rosa Passos, and many more. Here Mark shares knowledge from his 2001 book, World Jazz Drumming, and from years spent teaching students just like you.

Fifty percent of understanding Latin and Brazilian musical styles islistening, and the other fifty percent is knowing how things fit together. You can master all the patterns in a book, but if you don’t know what the piano player and bass player are doing, how will you function in the band? If you have a context, it makes much more sense. You have to know how to blend what you play with the ensemble in an appropriate way. If you really know the music, you’ll eventually sound authentic, because you know how it’s supposed to sound.

The world has a lot of great musical traditions, and when they are combined with the spirit of improvisation and variations, it can result in a new kind of jazz music. You can take traditional music from anywhere in the world, incorporate jazz harmony and traditional rhythms, and make it unique. In World Jazz Drumming, I present a guide to various Caribbean, South American, and U.S.-based rhythms; there are also a few of my original jazz tunes incorporating some of these rhythms, such as candombe from Uruguay, cumbia from Colombia, samba and baião from Brazil, and bembe from Cuba.

To play these styles more authentically, it really helps to learn the traditional percussion grooves of each style. With some exceptions, like songo and timba, most Afro-Cuban patterns are adapted to the drumset from the percussion section. A lot of the accompaniment patterns we play come from the timbales, such as the cascara, bongo bell, and timbale bell patterns.

Several important transition phrases are traditionally played by the timbales, such as the abanico, or “fan,”whichtakes you from a verse to a chorus. To understand and apply transition phrases, I have my students practice eight bars of the cascara, an accompaniment pattern for softer sections. On the last measure, they will play the transition phrase—the abanico—leading to a bell pattern for another eight bars. The bell is used for the chorus and louder sections. Another transition phrase, the ponche, or “punch,” leads them back to the cascara. I call that “the circuit exercise” because it gets them used to going to and from a verse and chorus smoothly.

There are people playing left-foot clavewith impressive coordination, but many times it doesn’t sound even remotely Cuban. The whole point of playing clave comes from rumba, which is folkloric music from Cuba, the only music that essentially requires the clave to be played at all times. Rumba clave without a Cuban context sounds like the musical equivalent of nachos—where are the rice and beans?

A basic approach for applyingleft-foot clave is to set up an ostinato by using a rimclick for clave and adding basic right-hand phrases, such as cascara and bell patterns. From there, you can add a bass drum tumbao rhythm. Once you have the basic grooves feeling good, you can concentrate on practicing coordination by setting up a new ostinato.

For example, the right hand plays a cascara rhythm, the left hand plays the melody, the right foot plays a tumbao pattern, and the left foot plays a clave. The melody can be played on any limb, but in this case, it will be played using the left hand [while maintaing that ostinato]. Play beat 1 on the snare with the left hand, and then move to the “&” of beat 1, beat 2, the “&” of beat 2, and so on. After you can comfortably perform each isolated 8th note, play two 8th notes in succession over the ostinato: beat 1 and the “&” of beat 1, the “&” of beat 1 and beat 2, etc. Displace those until you cycle back to beat 1. After that, you can move the melody to another limb, say, the bass drum.

It’s a method similar to Gary Chester’s The New Breed or interpretations of Ted Reed’s Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer. The idea is to be able to play any melodic accent you hear. Listen closely to rumba, and try to imitate the feeling and phrasing. Even the rumba clave itself sounds different from how it’s written! It takes time and a lot of listening, but after a while you’ll get the feel subconsciously. That’s when you really own it.

For a more soloistic approach, practice the clave with the left foot while playing doubles between your snare and bass drum in quarter notes, 8th notes, triplets, etc.

In Brazilian samba, two of the most important percussion instruments are the surdo and tamborim. The important thing to remember is that this music should have a feeling of 2/4, and not 4/4. The surdo is the bass drum part from which the drumset bass drum part is adapted, and it has an emphasis on beat 2. The tamborim part is what we often adapt to the cross-stick. If you play a one-bar cymbal ostinato and a two-bar cross-stick pattern, the groove is unbalanced. The right hand needs to play the same phrase as the left, with the addition of some notes. This way, the surdo and tamborim patterns are well balanced. The one-bar ostinato would work if the left hand were playing a one-bar pattern as well.

There is a phrase known as the “fork,” which is written 16th–8th–16th, but feels different, somewhere between that 16th-note phrasing and an 8th-note triplet. This comes from another form of tamborim playing known as virada, where the instrument is turned while the fork phrase is played, resulting in an accidental note on the “&” of each beat. Because we are not machines, the fork is going to sound a little lazy, almost like a triplet. But the accidental return note will hit exactly on the “&,” giving us the essence of Brazilian samba: four 16ths, but with the feel of a rolling egg. Again, listening is the other fifty percent!

I spend a lot of time helping students with balance and sound. Some students come in and play something funky, but they play the hi-hat too lightly and smack the snare with an ear-splitting backbeat. I ask, “What would that sound like if you had only one microphone, and the listener was way out on the other side of a stadium? All they would hear would be the snare drum.” I encourage students to be aware of the volume of all the parts of the set. Each part doesn’t have to be exactly the same volume, but the set must be balanced. When the student plays swing, I teach them to keep the cymbal strong, feather the bass drum softly on all four beats, and keep the comping slightly underneath the cymbal, so it isn’t too heavy but still has some bottom.

The sweet spot on each part of the drumset is extremely important to know. If someone hits a loud backbeat near the edge of the snare, it’s going to have too many overtones and be annoying to the listener. A drummer might put their wallet on the snare, but to me, that just kills all the overtones and forces you to hit hard. There is no development of any kind of tone or individual sound; all you hear is a loud, dead hit.

I encourage students to work on a big, fat sound on the snare without any muffling, and to get control of where they hit. They often find they don’t need any muffling, unless they’re going for a specific tuned-down, muffled ’70s sound. In that case, I suggest using a folded paper towel on the very edge of the drumhead with some gaffer’s tape over it. If you’re recording, you can adjust it. A wallet or phone takes too much away from the drum, and it moves around. Your phone belongs in your bag, not on the snare drum.

For the bass drum, it helped me to develop a technique where I could play full strokes as well as dead strokes, flat-footed or heel-up. I changed my position at the drum throne and moved it up toward my thighs, rather than sitting on the edge. This freed me from using the dead stroke as a resting position.

I spend a lot of time pointing out to students that the moment they start moving their left leg, they have lost all control of the hi-hat stick sound. It’s become a habit for many of them, because they want to “keep time,” but they’re already keeping time with the stick!

It’s possible to rock out at any volume. This technique involves playing rock and funk in settings where the volume has to be reduced. You play with just as much intensity and attitude using the same grooves and sounds. The secret is the proximity of the stick from the drum. For a backbeat, hit in the very center of the head, using a rimshot, but from an inch above the drum. It’s not easy to play at first, because you have to nail every rimshot from such a low proximity. It’s a slamming but controlled sound, and you can still make people dance at any volume you choose. You can play in any room, with any band, and you can get a big, fat, intense backbeat sound. This also goes for the hi-hat; if you play it soft, with the shoulder, but slightly loose, it sounds like you’re hitting hard from far away. You must learn to get a big sound using a low stick height.

Some of the hardest lessons I’ve learned were about dynamics on the drumset. I started out playing rock and hitting hard, which I think everyone should be able to do when the context requires it. However, I was thrust into many situations that required a lighter touch, such as swing and Brazilian music. When I started working with pianist Lyle Mays, clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, classical guitarist Ralph Towner, and steel pan virtuoso Andy Narell, hitting the drums hard didn’t work. I had to learn to blend, not to cut—and not to lose the intensity. It was very difficult when these artists got on my case about the volume, but I needed to figure out a way to make it work.

I began practicing Alan Dawson’s Rudimental Ritual. In the Ritual you play a samba ostinato bass drum and hi-hat with a series of rudiments on top of it. I practiced it flat-footed to challenge myself. The result was more control of both the dynamics and the spacing of the notes. I also felt more relaxed playing more intense, high-volume music as well as softer music. Dynamics relate to stick heights, and if you know how high the stick should be for mezzo forte, as opposed to pianissimo or fortissimo, you’re going to be in good shape.

I give students an exercise where they can play any rhythm, but just randomly call the dynamic marking and make their sticks go to the appropriate height right away. After a while, it become subconscious. The exercise is like an obstacle course, but you can practice it at any tempo with straight 8th notes, 16th notes, triplets, etc.—even around the set.

Decades later, those same artists are still calling for gigs. And I can still hear the phone ring.

Mark Walker endorses Yamaha, Paiste, Remo, Vic Firth, and Meinl products.