Life is Percussive
Growing up in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, percussionist, Gilmar Gomes, recalls his father sternly admonishing him to avoid certain areas of town. Yet resonating from one of these troubled neighborhoods was the incongruent sound of celebratory Samba Reggae (also known as preto music). Obedient yet inspired, Gomes and his older brother, Gileno, snapped thick tree branches into makeshift drum sticks and hit trash cans in the safety of their yard. But eventually, the brothers became weak with wonder and set out to follow the music that was calling them.
Gomes describes being wide-eyed at the sight of 30-40 children walking in marching band formation. Known as a muzenzagroup, every child strapped a thick belt supporting a large surdo drum around their hips. Confidently, they struck the drums with their hands and mallets while playing their assigned role. Some were trained to play one note on the largest, deepest sounding drum. Others produced a higher response pitch while soloists filled the sonic spaces in between.
Gomes recalls rather romantically, “I knew right away. I was like, ‘This is what I need to do.’ I was in love with the drums. So we waited for the music to stop and then my brother and I went up to the conductor and asked to play in the band. He agreed to let us to audition the next day but we knew we couldn’t tell our father.”
After school the next day, Gomes and his brother returned to the restricted neighborhood to meet with the conductor. Gomes was nervous and his hands were impaired from teachers disciplining him with wooden rulers. Upon arriving at the audition, he recalls being handed the largest surdo. His skinny body and swollen knuckles struggled to control the massive instrument. Contemporary surdos run between 16″ x 26″ to 16″ x 29″. But back then, Gomes recalls that the one he was assigned (the surdo 105) was 22″ in diameter. So, he enlisted the help of another kid to hold the drum. He was instructed to play just one note at a slow tempo.
Of course, this is the moment you’d expect to see the protagonist’s brilliance shine but instead…
“I was terrible,” he laughs heartily. “I couldn’t keep rhythm. But I never give up. My brother and I were invited to join the band and my mother signed off on it while my dad was at work.”
It might seem strange to non-drummers how reproducing a really simple beat can be so challenging. However, as many percussionists know, the early stages of learning drums is really about pounding through layers of self doubt and insecurity. There’s an unavoidable struggle until the moment they break through and a player becomes a drummer.
Gomes reminisces fondly, “Something open up one day while I was drumming. I remember exactly the day when it came to me. I started to see everything. I started to see what I was looking for.”
Gomes’ epiphany not only clarified his understanding of drums and rhythm; it was as if an entire universe of creativity opened up for him that day.
He continues, “I didn’t know how to move my body and then I knew. Suddenly I knew ‘this is how you make a drawing.’ I started to see everything about art.”
Then rather predictably, Gomes’ father caught his two sons playing in the band. Shortly afterwards, someone was murdered in that same neighborhood which only emboldened his father’s deepest fears. Gomes’ father was now placed in a familiar predicament: His own dreams of becoming a music conductor had been thwarted by his parents because it wasn’t a steady paying job. Now, he was bestowed the power of encouraging or killing his sons’ musical careers. So, what did he do?
He put the family’s house up for sale and moved far away from the samba band.
Time passed but the Gomes brothers never stopped drumming. In the absence of surdos, they made timbales.
“The first timbales my brother and I made were really funny,” she laughs at the image of his former self. “We had two tambourines on top of a stand. It wasn’t really timbales.”
As Gomes’ father quietly observed his sons maintaining their enthusiasm for music despite the move, their next move would make their passion impossible to ignore.
It was the late 80s and the locals were buzzing about a famous American singer-songwriter who came to record with the local, samba-reggae band, Olodum. That musician turned out to be Paul Simon and the song was “The Obvious Child” from Rhythm of the Saints. When the album came out, the Gomes brothers were determined to learn that song. When they did, they sat their father down and together they played the rhythm to “The Obvious Child.”
“I could see his face,” Gomes instigates a flashback. “He was almost crying. He was so happy. From that day, he became our biggest fan. He spent three or four years to afford our instruments. But then, when I was about 15, my dad lost his job. And I could see in him that he was desperate for money. So, I lied to him.”
Gomes takes a moment to recapture his moral dilemma and sighs, “I told him I was going to get the biggest gig in Brazil: Daniela Mercury. Whatever power I put out there, it happened within a week. I started playing with Daniela. It was shock to me, you know? After that, I kept playing with the biggest artists in Brazil until Angélique Kidjo discovered me and asked me to move to New York City.”
“I told him I was going to get the biggest gig in Brazil: Daniela Mercury. Whatever power I put out there, it happened within a week.”
No doubt, these were big offers but Gomes wasn’t an adult yet. He was still a student. So, respectfully, he asked his parents if he could move to New York City to pursue a career in music. Although it meant he’d be quitting school, he reasoned with them that he knew how to read and write in Portuguese. And although he didn’t know English, he was in a loving, committed relationship with a young German woman (also an artist) who was fluent in English.
With humility and gratitude he confesses, “She was responsible for the entire transition to New York because she was the one who could speak English. I couldn’t speak English.”
Furthermore, he recalls making a deal that if his parents would allow him to pursue his dream, he vowed he would never get caught up in drugs. This time the decision was easy. Gomes’ parents gave him and his future wife their blessing and the couple moved to America.
He imparts, “New York was a place where I realized I needed to be one thing. It’s like you have pieces of music. For me, some pieces are Brazilian. Others are African. But when I got to New York, I realized I had to stop picking up pieces and make all of those pieces one thing which was me.”
While on tour with Kidjo, Gomes opened for the Dave Matthews Band and played with Carlos Santana. While he was able to earn a living as a full-time musician, his earnings weren’t enough to afford such an expensive city. So, his wife started waitressing. Then one day, from her modest income, she surprised Gomes with brand new timbales. Although it seemed like an extravagant purchase, the investment ended up paying off.
Shortly after 9/11, Gomes and his wife decided to relocate to her native home in Germany. The fear of a dangerous neighborhood was unsuitable for their growing family. But the night before the flight that would’ve changed the course of their lives, Gomes decided to go see a friend’s show. While there, he was invited to play the timbales his wife bought him. By chance, the music director for Enrique Iglesias, Tony Bruno, heard Gomes and he was impressed by what he saw and heard. Impulsively yet consistent with Gomes’ life script, he called off the family’s relocation and embarked on a two week tour with Iglesias.
The muzenza conductor might’ve taught Gomes how to play the surdo but since then, he’s avoided learning how to play instruments “the right way” and instead taught himself “his way.” For example, the timbales (evolved from the European timpani) is a traditional Cuban instrument mainly used to establish Cuban rhythms. But Gomes plays the timbales with a unique Brazilian style that can only be described as belonging to him.
Gomes has collaborated with other globally-renowned artists such as: Harry Belafonte, Rihanna, Shakira, Prince, Gilberto Gil, Meshell Ndegeocello, Richard Bona, Jovanatti, Gilberto Gil, Esperanza Spalding and Yerba Buena. He has sponsorships from Latin Percussion, Sabian and Gibraltar and he’s performed at music festivals around the world, MTV Music Awards, the GRAMMY Awards and the American Music Awards, just to name a few. But he does more than play drums. On the current 2017 Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull Tour, Gomes not only plays percussion, he also sings and is a featured artist on stage with Iglesias. He has a Facebook page dedicated to his photography. He directs and composes music for his short films. He’s dabbled in painting. And, yes, he also cooks. He says he approaches most of what he touches as a percussion including the guitar.
He chuckles, “All of the guitar players, when they see me playing, they get in shock first. They wonder what I studied. And it’s funny because I don’t know any guitar chords. I don’t read music. The guitar is just another percussion instrument for me. I don’t see it as something else.”
He continues, “One time, I was watching a friend of mine, Richard [Fortus, guitarist for Guns n’ Roses], do something on the guitar. I started to film him play. And I said to him, ‘You know, I can do that.’ And he was like, ‘You cannot do that! You don’t even play guitar!’ So I made a bet with him and said I’ll get back to you in a week. So I bought a cheap guitar and I started doing that thing. I was watching the video and a week later, I played it for him. And I haven’t stopped playing guitar since.”
Put simply, Gomes plays non-Brazilian drums like a Brazilian and plays non-percussive instruments like a drummer. He’s an example of what happens when art makes art. And when that happens, the options and opportunities are limitless. Next, Gomes plans on teaching himself how to play the cello.
When asked how he explains going from trash cans to playing on the Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull tour (that continues through the end of October) Gomes credits his wife. He says without her, he wouldn’t be who he is today. He acknowledges genetics, recalling his dad’s passion for composing and how his older brother grew up to become a professional keyboardist. In fact, the Gomes brothers formed a Brazilian band called Filhos de Jorge. Their hit song, “Ziriguidum” has 14 million hits on YouTube. Referring to his native country, Gomes celebrates, “I created a dance for the song. There was a fever down there. Hah!” He adds, “Brazil is a free country when it comes to music. Everybody plays with no rules. If you go down there now, they’re creating a new rhythm. It’s constantly like that.”
Finally, he recognizes the conductor who was walking through the streets teaching children music. “That man was a trash collector in Brazil. He was getting no money to teach kids. It all came from that — from nothing.”
This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of DRUM! Magazine.
All photos courtesy of Gilmar Gomes.
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