Percussionist Mauro Refosco has toured regularly with David Byrne since 1994, so he was well accustomed to expecting the unexpected from the iconic rock/pop experimenter. But this time, Byrne’s phone call was different.
“At first I literally didn’t understand what he meant,” Refosco recalls. “He told me, ‘I want to do a tour where nothing is set up on the stage. Can you figure out how many drummers would be needed to cover that?’” It finally sank in when Byrne clarified, “Everyone’s going to be wearing the drums.” In Byrne’s vision, multiple drummers—and his entire band—would be totally wireless and in constant choreographic motion while performing the music from his latest album, American Utopia. Band on the run indeed.
With the collaborative input of Annie-B Parson (choreography/musical staging) and Alex Timbers (production consultant), American Utopia’s staging evolved into an exuberant, kinetic tableau that both parallels and enhances the music. Over the course of an hour and 45 minutes, Byrne’s identically silver-suited, bare-footed twelve-person ensemble creates a visual/sonic pulse that escalates into the ecstatic. The show previously enjoyed a successful 150-date 2018 world tour that is now playing an encore limited run on Broadway at New York’s Hudson Theatre.
In a hybrid rock concert/theatrical event, Byrne explores the themes of his latest solo disc, contemplating human interconnections in a world of anxiety, joy, and confounding contradictions. Also included are choice classics from his solo and Talking Heads catalog, including the hits “Burning Down the House” and “Once in a Lifetime.”
The mobile musicians—drummers Refosco, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Tim Keiper, Stéphane San Juan, and Jacquelene Acevedo, along with keyboardist/musical director Karl Mansfield, guitarist Angie Swan, electric bassist Bobby Wooten III, and backing vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba—lend an alternate spin on Byrne’s album. But it’s the six drummers who are most instrumental in the music’s reimagining.
The original album tracks included drumming by Joey Waronker and Brian Wolfe with percussion by Refosco, plus programming by Brian Eno, Airhead, and Koreless. The live show’s drummers have managed to respect those tracks while endowing an alternate sonic canvas, fueled by an organic, breathing groove that can flat-out rock, funk it up, or venture into Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean influences. The vibrant results can be heard on the recent live Broadway cast album and on the EP The Best Live Show of All Time, featuring six cuts recorded on tour. A DVD from the Broadway residency is also in the pipeline.
Dancing percussion ensembles are certainly not new. They hark back to the very roots of many musical styles, from African ceremonial circles to Brazil’s samba schools and New Orleans’ second lines. But employing this folkloric format—with its inherent world-rhythmic influences—in a highly contemporary rock/pop canvas yields enthralling and timely results in American Utopia.
For the international drummers at the pulsing heart of this ambitious show, expert execution of the music was merely the first requirement. In addition, they would be carrying wieldy harnessmounted instruments and switching between a wide array of hand and stick-played percussion instruments, all the while navigating choreographed footwork and contributing vocal harmonies. Yet, in all said categories, this ensemble has succeeded wildly.
Following Byrne’s phone query, Mauro Refosco mapped the American Utopia album’s drumset/percussion/programming parts to determine the amount of live players that would be needed. Byrne gave Refosco his blessing to recruit six drummers. “I met with the drummers and presented my idea and vision for each of them,” says Refosco. “But I also gave them the liberty to incorporate whatever elements they thought would be right for the music. Everybody did their homework and returned with their own input.”
The core of the drum ensemble features traditional drumkit pieces distributed among players as well as a battery of international percussion instruments.
“I figured that three players would cover the drumset parts: the snare, bass drum, toms, and hi-hat,” says Refosco. “And three players would do the percussion: congas, bongos, shakers, and others. That was the general rule.” For weight considerations, smaller drums were chosen that could provide adequate punch, including a 12″ Pork Pie snare mounted alongside a closed hi-hat and a horizontally mounted 16″ single-headed Pork Pie bass drum that’s played with various mallets. “The microphone is inside the drum, really close to the head,” says Refosco. “The head is very loose, almost to the [point of wrinkling]. Pete Keppler [sound designer] gets an incredible sound, like a regular 22″ rock ’n’ roll bass drum.”
In addition, mounts had to be devised for instruments not traditionally played in that manner. “The most difficult was the surdo virado,” says Refosco. “It’s a surdo that’s played on both heads. To mount that in a way that wouldn’t break the resonance was hard. Mark figured out how to use a bar that goes through the drum without touching the shell; it floats in a way that keeps the resonance and is fairly economic on the harnesses. And we use Rototoms for ‘Burning Down the House.’ Mounting those onto harnesses was tricky.”
“Initially there was that issue of our backs and all of that,” laughs Tim Keiper. “One of the challenges was just trying to figure out how we were going to carry all these instruments. The rehearsal process was like boot camp because we were rehearsing eight hours a day. The drum tech, Jerry Johnson, and production manager, Mark Edwards, were totally involved in that process. There was a whole toolshed thing going on at rehearsals: cutting pieces of metal, attaching things, and making ongoing adjustments for weight and balance.”
Refosco adds, “For the beginning rehearsals, I requested that we have a yoga teacher to guide us in building core strength. One of the choreographers helped us with an exercise routine and yoga tips. Through the year, we developed the stamina and muscle to withstand the whole ordeal. Towards the end of the tour, we definitely all got stronger. [laughs] And now, on Broadway, we have a physical therapist on call so we can fine-tune our bodies.” Quick to acclimate was Gustavo Di Dalva. As a former member of the popular percussion-centric Brazilian ensemble Timbalada, he drew from deep experience in simultaneous drumming/dancing.
“Coming from Bahia,” Mauro explains, “Gustavo has that really strong sense of percussionists playing together; the music from Bahia is usually a drummer and three or four percussionists, with each one playing a very specific part. Whenever we had any doubts about the parts working together, we would say, ‘Gustavo, what do you think?’”
Jacquelene Acevedo credits her dance training for helping her adapt. “I naturally dance while playing. I move in a way that feels natural to me and the beat I’m playing, but that’s not always possible with an instrument strapped on like a Christmas tree,” she laughs. “Annie-B has captured David’s movement. I’ve never seen anyone move like him—it’s enthralling! When you’re playing familiar rhythms to unfamiliar choreography, it’s definitely a different beast. It’s like learning them all over again in someone else’s body. But that challenge forces you to be even stronger as a player, to lock in to the music and in step with fellow players even more.”
Once physically acclimated to the harnesses, the drummers adjusted to the redistribution of the album’s drumset parts among multiple players. Stéphane San Juan notes, “As compared to playing a regular drumkit, we don’t use the foot; we don’t have pedals. It required new independence to play as a ‘drumkit’ divided by three people and make it happen as one—and at the same time do the choreography and singing as well. For example, when you only play the bass drum, to have strong, solid playing on the bass drum with the mallets— it’s a different feeling from what we’re used to. You’re really focusing on being as solid as if you were on the drumkit; it’s a different relationship with the body. After a while, your brain understands that it’s only one thing. It’s very enjoyable now, and I think all of us will progress and evolve when we go back to our regular instruments.”
As the “boot camp” found momentum, a silver lining of enhanced possibilities was revealed. “If you distribute the drumset part and give just the bass drum to one person, there are a lot of nuances that you can get with just one drum,” Refosco explains. “You can be more meticulous about the part. For instance, you can be very specific about how to hit—play more in the center or more to the side if you want an open tone, or you could mute with your hand. There are all these elements that you cannot achieve with a regular drumset as opposed to what several players playing specific drums can achieve. We found that it frees you up.”
Once beyond the physical hurdles of carrying their instruments and learning choreography, the collective drummers’ groove connection fell into place with intuitive ease. “One thing that helps is that everybody here is used to playing in percussion ensembles and folkloric settings,” says Daniel Freedman. “So handling one piece of the puzzle is not something that is strange to any of us. Having had that experience, you’re naturally listening to everybody and finding a balance. Even though it’s two or three players forming a ‘drumset,’ we’re all still percussionists who have played with other drummers a lot. And everyone knows about the restraint of leaving space and not musically stepping on someone else.”
The dynamo drum engine now brings Broadway audiences to their feet nightly. As the six gradually emerge from behind a beaded silver curtain and weave across the stage synced in sound and movement, the rewards of their dedicated work are palpable: audiences not only hear and feel the groove, they see the groove and revel in it.
“It’s now to the point that it feels kind of strange when you play a regular gig,” laughs Refosco. “You miss that freedom of movement.”
Meet The Percussionists
Mauro Refosco settled in New York from Brazil in 1992. He has toured and/or recorded with Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Lounge Lizards, Dirty Projectors, and Thom Yorke’s supergroup, Atoms for Peace. He also leads the percussion-centric band Forro in the Dark. A long-term associate of Byrne’s, Mauro acted as the percussionists’ music director for American Utopia and recruited the five other drummers. His comments on each follow their profiles below.
Daniel Freedman was featured in MD’s Dec. 2013 issue. He has drummed with Angélique Kidjo, Sting, Wynton Marsalis, Jason Lindner, Anat Cohen, Omer Avital, Avishai Cohen, and many others. His latest, critically lauded album on Anzic Records is Imagine That. “Daniel has such a wide vocabulary. He brought an element to the ensemble: he has punch. When he plays, it feels good.”
Gustavo Di Dalva began playing with iconic Brazilian star Gilberto Gil at age sixteen and continued that association for twenty-two years. He’s performed at numerous major festivals, including the Umbria Jazz Festival, the Montreal Festival, and the North Sea Jazz Festival.
“He can play any percussion instrument at a very high level of skill and precision, and he’s really aware of what the music is asking for. He’s our encyclopedia of rhythms.”
Stéphane San Juan has performed with Caetano Veloso, Elza Soares, Amadou & Mariam, Deodato, João Donato, Jane Birkin, Manu Dibango, Marcos Valle, and others.
“Stéphane has studied percussion all over the world. As a drummer, he has a natural balance of all the elements, which comes from years of studio experience and learning from different musical environments. Originally from France, he’s also lived in London, Bangladesh, Mali, and Rio de Janeiro, and we’re lucky that he now resides in New York City.”
Tim Keiper has worked with a wide variety of international artists including Matisyahu, Salif Keita, John Zorn, Imogen Heap, Cyro Baptista, Vieux Farka Touré, and Dirty Projectors, as well as theatre innovators Lin-Manuel Miranda and Julie Taymor. He can be heard on Ali Farka Touré’s Grammy-winning album, Ali and Toumani.
“The way he plays drums is so musical. He’s not a showoff drummer. He doesn’t bash; it’s very melodic.”
Jacquelene Acevedo has toured and/or recorded with jazzmen Jeremy Pelt and Nicholas Payton, and with her mentor (and father), drummer Memo Acevedo. She drummed with mariachi group Flor de Toloache, Becky G, Erin and Her Cello, and Amazonas, and coleads the Latin-jazz big band Manhattan Bridges Orchestra.
“She possesses incredible stage energy. It’s contagious. Besides being a great all-around percussionist, she can dance, sing, and awe the crowd.”
Kudos also go to Davi Vieira for playing on the world tour (succeeded by Jacquelene) and Aaron Johnston (succeeded by Stéphane), who performed during the tour’s first three months.
DAVID BYRNE ON HIS UTOPIAN DRUMMERS
Throughout his decade and a half leading Talking Heads, followed by an illustrious solo career, singer/songwriter David Byrne has somehow managed to successfully straddle rock, pop, and the avant-garde. Here the multimedia innovator comments on American Utopia’s drummers.
“They’re an incredible group. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. They’re amazing players who have such a depth of knowledge— not just in their abilities, but also in their knowledge of percussion, drums, and groove. It’s unbelievable. It comes into play because they’re all expected to play lots of different instruments. They don’t think in terms of, ‘Oh, I’m a conguero; this is what I play.’ They might be playing congas on one song, then on the next song they’re handed a pandeiro, and on the next, they’re playing a snare drum. They all play a wide variety of instruments and play them well. That’s extraordinary and also a testament to their open-mindedness.
“Some years ago, I tried working to purely electronic drums—loops and samples—in performance. And I found that you hit a ceiling as far as excitement goes. Everything works, but there’s still a ceiling. You hit it and that’s it. [laughs] The stuff won’t respond any more than that.
“So I thought, I’m going to go back to live players if I can afford it. Yes, the live performance is different from the album. Sometimes on a record, when you really want to bring attention to, say, the lyrics, some electronic percussion leaves that space for the listener. But with live players, they live and breathe. The performance breathes and responds.
“I think what the audience perceives is not just the music, but they also perceive this human cooperation. And that’s especially evident with the drummers. When it’s a samba school or second line or drum line, you have this effect from people doing something that takes a certain number in order to produce the groove. It’s not like any one of them is playing it and the others are embellishing. It’s a kind of machine that needs all of the parts, and they only work when they’re all doing what they’re supposed to be doing; then it produces this incredible swinging groove.
“So the virtues of the human cooperation are evident. This makes a social and political statement beyond just being musically enjoyable: it says something about how people work together. And audiences intuitively— without anybody saying it—perceive that. And there’s an incredible joyfulness in seeing that happen in front of their eyes. It goes beyond the technical stuff and the specifics of the music; it really has to do with human cooperation.
MIKING ON THE MOVE
Sound designer and front-of-house engineer Pete Keppler has enjoyed a long association with David Byrne. The drummers of David Byrne’s American Utopia unanimously praise him for faithfully capturing their mobile instruments within a state-of-the-art rock concert mix. Working closely with the drummers, Keppler experimented with microphones that could best accommodate their constant movement while proving durable.
“The only thing I really missed was overhead mics,” says Keppler. “On a normal drumkit—which we lack—they provide an ambience, an air and softness that enhance the sound. I tend to lean on overheads with a good drummer because they really know how to tune and balance their sound. The overheads give you a more organic vibe, which I prefer. To help off set the lack of overhead mics, I asked the drummers and their tech to keep all but the bass drums as open and unmuffled as possible, and to try lighter-weight heads on the snare drums, etcetera, to keep some ‘life’ in the sound. To a certain extent, all the open vocal mics on the stage give me what an overhead mic would. The only problem is that nobody on that stage ever stops moving. [laughs]
“Every drum, excepting some hand percussion, had to have at least one microphone and a transmitter mounted to it, because the players change drums from song to song, and we didn’t want transmitter cables being plugged and unplugged. We wanted each drum to have its own channel in the mix. The challenge became finding a system with mics and mounts that were light and small enough to work in a mobile situation. So I experimented with mics that I wouldn’t normally use, and some I hadn’t previously known about. We had one very happy accident. The first mic I tried in the 16″ bass drums—an Audix D6, which hasn’t been a go to for me—worked incredibly well. In audio, I often find that there are products that they tell you are designed for one purpose and seem to work quite well for something else.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
The six percussionists switch between numerous percussion instruments including 12″ snares, 16″ bass drums, tom-toms, cymbals, conga, bongos, timbales, talking drum, timbau, surdo virado, Rototoms, repinique, pandeiro, berimbau, bacurinha, cuíca, caxixi, shekere, cowbells, wood blocks, claves, and more. They use Vater drumsticks and play instruments by Pork Pie Percussion and the Brazilian drum makers Instituto Tambor and Contemporânea.