Around Asheville: Playing around at Skinny Beats
As a child I regularly inspired parents, teachers and countless other extraneous adults to wonder when scientists were going to finally get off their rear ends and invent Ritalin.
As I overheard my second grade teacher put it to my mother when she apparently just dropped by our house one night after dinner, “John constantly drums his hands on anything and everything: his desktop, the chalkboard, the tops of other students’ heads if I didn’t stop him. I swear, if that boy ever miraculously — I mean, tragically — lost both his arms, he’d figure out a way to drum with his face.”
(Quick aside: Seeing my teacher inside our house — at night, no less! — was such a When Worlds Collide moment for me that, from then on, I figured literally anything could happen. I might wake up one morning to find Morticia Addams sitting at our dining table scarfing down the last waffle. Maybe our mailman that day would be Walter Conkrite. Perhaps the Creature from the Black Lagoon would be my next Little League coach. Astronauts in my bathtub? Of course! Because that’s life here on Planet Chaos!)
Anyway, ol’ Miss Blick was wrong about my ever using the front of my head for a percussive instrument. That was what the back of my head was for.
My primary childhood pastime was “rocking” — that is, sitting cross-legged on our living room couch and rhymically bouncing my head off the back of the thing, usually to the accompaniment of little songs I’d spontaneously compose about whatever had happened to me that day, or was at the moment happening between my parents in the dining room, which I could see from the couch.
“That bully McKinney won’t know what to do, when he finds all the poo that I put in his shoe,” I’d softly sing to myself. “Mom and Dad are fighting, of course; any day now they’ll get a divorce. I love my mom, and I love my dad, I want them together, this makes me so sad.”
Man, was I born to rap. At a funeral. But still.
Little Drummer Boy
About a year prior to their separation (“Now Dad is gone, Mom says he’s a louse, I guess that now I’m the man of the house”), my parents bought me a real drum: a chrome Ludwig snare, with sticks, and a stool, and everything.
The problem, as it turned out, is that if you buy a kid a drum — especially if that kid is a hyperactive walking metronome who’s already “rocked” a softball-size hole in the back of two different couches — chances are good he’ll play that drum. And drums, as most but apparently not all people realize, are loud.
First my dad draped a towel over the top of my new drum. “Sounds just like a tom-tom!” he said.
Then he moved the drum out into the garage. “Better acoustics out here!” he said.
Then he put it in the backyard. “Nature inspires music!”
“Oh, c’mon, Dad!” I cried. “Why don’t you just put my drum in a vacant lot downtown, so I can learn from all the ‘jazzy beats of the city.’?”
My dad looked hurt. “Son, I want you to know that it pains me that I didn’t think of that first. I’ll get the car.”
My dad’s hilarious comedy aside, I did pretty soon thereafter quit the drum. Not because I had to go live in an abandoned lot downtown, but because I knew my air-splitting rando-drumming wasn’t exactly contributing to the kind of peaceful household vibe that I wanted my parents to enjoy together.
So I took my drum back into the garage, stuck it in a corner behind our broken old electric lawnmower, and told it goodbye.
350 dog years later . . .
Just before six o’clock on a Wednesday evening roughly fifty years after my “Take care, snare,” I stepped into Skinny Beats, a “sound shop” at 4 Eagle Street in downtown Asheville.
Skinny Beats is to percussion instruments what the United Nations is to countries: it’s got just about all of them, and they’re all for sale. (Har! Good one, me!) Djembes, handpans, tongue drums, frame drums, log drums, cajons, gongs, chimes — and also African and Asian string instruments, Native American flutes, rainsticks, didgeridoos, quartz crystal healing bowls, Tibetan singing bowls, and on the walls sumptuous Huichol artwork . . . I tell you, just strolling by 4 Eagle Street will align your chakras.
I was there for the djembe drum class that happens at Skinny Beats every Wednesday from 6-7 p.m. The class is taught by the shop’s owner and proprietor, the infectiously exuberant Billy Zanski.
Playing the djembe — the West African, rope-tuned, skin-headed, wooden goblet drum most people play at Asheville’s Friday night drum circle — is Billy’s specialty. He has long been a student of Bolokada Conde, the renowned master drummer from Guinea. On YouTube you can watch videos of Billy and Bolokada joyfully exchanging rhythm patterns faster than the eye can hear.
It is my personal belief that baby djembe drums all around the world dream of growing up and one day being played by Billy Zanski.
That said, I was nervous about taking his class. I don’t take classes. The point of a class is to begin by having no idea what you’re doing. But I do that every time I wake up in the morning. Why would I go where I already am? Still. I do love the djembe. I love how it sounds; I love how it feels and looks; everything about the drum had been calling me for years to quit being such a cheapwad hermit and go take lessons in it already. Plus, Billy Zanski! I’m slow, but not so slow that I don’t understand the rarity of being able to learn from such a master.
So the other night I finally sucked it up, and went to Skinny Beats to take his class.
All together now
Stepping into the shop I felt awkward; I was shy; I didn’t know anybody — and then I still had as much fun in one hour as it’s possible to have in public without getting for sure arrested.
Billy knows, and teaches by example, that drumming is nothing if not fun. So his classes aren’t about memorizing specific beat patterns, or trying to get the perfect tone with every stroke. Sure, some of the students who’ve been with him awhile can play rhythms so complex that even attempting them made me fall out of my chair.
But so what? Everybody in the class was having too much fun to care what I was doing — and, more, everyone there was doing what they were doing together, as one. Billy basically never stopped playing — and when he changed his beat, we changed ours. If I wanted to try doing the fancy licks he sometimes broke into, great! If, once I was back in my seat, I wanted to do nothing but strike along with the most basic rhythm of whatever he and everyone else was playing, also great!
Bottom line: If you can tap your feet, you can play the djembe. That’s one of the reasons it’s one of the most popular drums in the world.
And at Billy’s, every Wednesday night, you can spend an hour playing one of his magnificent djembes, in happy (not to say entrancing) rhythmic harmony with the fifteen or so other people who are sitting with you in a circle doing the exact same thing.
What I like best about the class is that I can, finally, bang away on my drum just as hard, and as loudly, as I want to.
Originally published on the front of the Sunday "Living" section of the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper (part of the USA Today Network) on March 8, 2020