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Sample Track 1:
"Ritmo Inferno" from Heartbeat
Sample Track 2:
"Cocinandos" from Heartbeat
Sample Track 3:
"Samba Reggae con Djembe" from live recording
Layer 2
Drums United, Heartbeat (Tam Tam Records) Planet Pulse: Drums United’s Dynamic Connection and World Percussion Come to North and South American Stages, Spring 2012

Sticks dance, palms fly, drums talk. It’s a percussive, stirring statement that sways between lyrical and funky, between full-on boom and perfectly tuned tap, between continents and languages.

In constant motion, Holland’s multicultural drum masters Drums United are rock-solid, light-hearted performers with a riveting ability to translate rhythm into charismatic presence and to interweave the pounding pulse of six different countries and cultures. On their latest album Heartbeat and now on their first major North American tour, Drums United bring their carefully crafted, energetically explored mix of rhythms, instruments, and voices from around the planet to Calgary, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh. The group will also be heading south to Mexico City, and Bogotá and Medellin, Colombia on this spring tour.

The Dutch percussion supergroup includes musicians from Europe, West Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, and South America. Each technically stunning in their own right, the players know how to blend complex interlocking patterns, span seemingly impossible differences, and still have such a good time on stage, audiences from Mexico to Bulgaria just can’t sit still.

Their powerful connection with each other and their audiences stems from a shared source, the rhythms that resonate worldwide. “There are certain patterns you find all over the world, in Eastern Europe, Spain, South America, or Africa,” explains group founder and globally minded drummer Lucas Van Merwijk. “Depending on the importance it has in a certain rhythm, it changes name. But everyone feels these patterns, like they feel their own pulse.”

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It began as a lark. After a single rehearsal, Van Merwijk got a flamenco dancer, talking drum player, several percussionists, and DJ together on stage at a festival. It was one big, fun jam session and a rousing success, but Van Merwijk knew: It could be much, much more.

Drums United was born. The cross-cultural approach came naturally to Van Merwijk, a former punk drummer who had grown increasingly fascinated with Latin and then African traditions. Now a highly respected jazz performer and instructor, Van Merwijk also had all of the increasingly diverse Netherlands to inspire a border-busting percussion ensemble.

“Amsterdam is like New York City, with lots of different nationalities. The musicians were all right here, and it was logical to work together,” recounts Van Merwijk. “Rotterdam is full of musical diversity as well. At the Rotterdam Conservatory where I teach, we have an African department, a tango department, a Latin department, and an Indian department, with lots of talented students and teachers. We have all these traditions, all around us. It made it easy.”

Over several years, he recruited stellar players with roots in Senegal (talking drum master Pape Thiam and percussionist Moussé Pathe); Venezuela (former heavy metal drummer and crack percussionist Marco Toro); Surinam (his versatile vocalist-drummer daughter, multi-instrumentalist Gianna Tam); Iran (multi-percussionist Afra Mussawisade); and the lively Dutch Latin jazz (Nils Fischer) and electronic scenes (drummer and DJ Mathias Holzner).

What wasn’t so easy was finding a way to move beyond mere jamming to deeper, more engaging ways of composing and playing. Van Merwijk would work one-on-one with each Drum United member, learning and teaching, finding and trying to write down the complexities.

“For some pieces, just figuring them out and writing them down can take a couple days,” Van Merwijk notes. “Then you have to rehearse it, and the band has to learn it by ear. It can take weeks to learn those breaks. Lots of things are like language, like turns of phrase. You have a rhythmic language, and then you have to translate it.”

Translation is not only a crucial element in the group’s composition process; it’s also a central part of rehearsals, as the musicians speak snippets of French, German, Dutch, and a handful of other languages to get their points across and find the right groove. Despite these challenges, the eight musicians have found a way to create both balanced and beautiful pieces, and a dynamic live show that takes full advantage of the possibilities for sonic and visual variety. The performers move, mix it up, dance, and lift their voices, as well as lay down percussion lines worthy of rock stadiums.

“The danger with percussion groups is that you create an hour of noise or sound that’s the same, the same volume or texture,” Van Merwijk reflects. “We strive for a difference in textures, in the timbres and tempos between and within pieces. We like to switch quickly between type of instruments and zip between countries. It’s a matter of putting a strong program together.”

The program includes everything from a drum journey through Venezuela’s coastal Afro-Latin rhythms (“Reina pepiada”), to a love-struck Senegalese chant accented by tabla (“Takedin”), from a DJ-led, Latin-inflected shout out to The Trampps (“Ritmo Inferno”), to a wry cowbell spree (“More Cowbell”). Each member gets a moment to shine and to reveal his or her traditions boldly, while adding to ensemble pieces that break down all the geographic, genre, and grammatical barriers.

“The most important thing we’ve experienced is that rhythm, once you get down to it, is a universal language,” smiles Toro. “We are all speaking the same language when we’re together.”