“Drummers like to collect instruments and naturally explore different percussive sounds,” says John Bryant, director and producer of the recently released documentary Dare to Drum. “This film is literally about going around the world, finding different sounds and percussive music, and bringing them back to incorporate into our group sound.” The group Bryant is referring to is the Dallas-based percussion ensemble D’Drum, which also features Ron Snider, Doug Howard, and Ed Smith.
Several years ago the group, which at the time also featured Jamal Mohamed, teamed up with former Police drummer and composer Stewart Copeland, who wrote Gamelan D’Drum for percussion quintet and orchestra. The thirty-minute concerto received its world premiere on a threateningly snowy night in February 2011, under the baton of Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
What made Bryant, an accomplished drumset player, decide to direct a film? “It found me rather than me finding it,” he says with a laugh. “I was surrounded by all these elements—Stewart, the Dallas Symphony, D’Drum, maestro van Zweden. I thought this was an opportunity that needed to be captured. Since I’ve been working in the film industry as a music producer and composer, I called up some friends who are cameramen, and the story just organically revealed itself.”
The eighty-five-minute film, which debuted at the 2015 Dallas International Film Festival, lets viewers peak inside 2010 rehearsals as the composition takes shape. Candid discussions between the composer and performers are captured as they play different sections of the piece.
“One of my favorite parts of the film,” Bryant says, “is when all of us—Ron, Doug, Ed, Jamal, and myself—are in a rehearsal with Stewart. We were in the studio and started talking to each other in a drummer’s language, which meant we were articulating rhythms to each other. We weren’t speaking English—we were speaking ‘drum’! It’s a great scene, because for two or three minutes we were just conversing with drum rhythms and not saying any words. I called that chapter “The Language of Drummers.”
“My favorite scene,” Copeland tells Modern Drummer, “is when the great maestro conductor is rehearsing with just our heroes and their gamelan rig. The orch chairs are all empty, so everyone in the room has to imagine what the giant orchestra will be playing. John cleverly filtered in some of the orch parts, just to show how the pieces fit together.”
In addition to being privy to behind-the-scenes footage of the musicians composing, rehearsing, recording, and performing, viewers are taken to locations in Indonesia, where the gamelan was created. (A traditional gamelan comprises gongs tuned to a pentatonic scale, but D’Drum’s custom reyong is twenty-five chromatic gongs, tuned F to F and set up like a keyboard.) The music also features instruments as varied as a Hungarian cimbalom, Middle Eastern dumbek, and a “transcultural” drumkit featuring Ewe barrel drums, a caxixi from West Africa, Turkish cymbals, and an Arabic frame drum.
“When the concert was over,” Bryant explains, “I had all this footage but no money to make the film, so we turned to Kickstarter. We launched a thirty-five-day campaign in October 2013 and raised a little over $95,000 from 348 people around the world. That was probably harder than making the film itself.”
“John did an amazing job of crafting together all of the footage that we had, going back to the very first meeting with Stewart Copeland,” says D’Drum’s Doug Howard, who’s also principal percussionist with the Dallas Symphony. “The film has tension—and it has humor. It tells a great story, and people seem to identify with it in a positive way.”
“We drummers love to hit things, and this movie is pornography for aggression upon inanimate objects,” Copeland adds with a sly smile. “Our complex minds are beguiled by complex rhythms, and those D’Drum cats in Dallas are a machine of wheels within wheels of interlocking bombast. It’s way too highbrow for guitarists, perhaps, but drummers just love this stuff!”
Dare to Drum was released this past September 19, the same date that Jaap van Zweden conducted his first concert as music director designate with the New York Philharmonic in the opening performance of its 2017–18 season. The documentary is available on DVD and digitally from iTunes and Amazon; the package includes the entire concert performance of Gamelan D’Drum. Both films are also available for licensing to educational institutions. A trailer can be viewed at daretodrumfilm.com.