Jeff Ellis, 57, knows the importance of good hands when it comes to drumming.
He teaches beginning African and Middle East hand drumming at Frankfort Yoga Studio during the summer.
“I’ve always loved African rhythms, loved hand drumming … I listen to a lot of world music.”
Jeff started teaching a drumming class about four years ago, but he’s been drumming since the 1970s.
“I’ve studied and taken clinics from other drummers.”
Jeff begins class by instructing on hitting the drum and proper form. Blisters can become a real problem if students don’t learn to strike the instrument correctly.
“If you hit the drum incorrectly your hands will get sore,” he said.
There are three terms used to describe hitting the drum – slap, tone and bass.
“They’re played a little differently than each other. Anybody can pick up the basics. In an African drum ensemble everybody plays a part. You play with your heartbeat.”
For the Reforest Frankfort tree-planting event April 3, Jeff and his drum ensemble from Frankfort Yoga Studio performed Haitian rhythms, as a way to honor the earthquake victims of Haiti.
“The rhythms we do, we always know where they come from,” Jeff said.
South American and Latin American music are influenced by the same rhythms found in African music. He said drumming with hands produces a totally different sound and experience compared to drumsticks.
Modern drums are efficient but don’t create the same sort of “earthy” sounds as those originally used in Africa. Hand drums can be specially ordered or found at festivals and stores. They start at around $350 and can cost up to $2,000 depending on the materials and carvings.
American-made drums are fiberglass, weather proof and cheaper, while authentic African djembe drums are hourglass shaped, handmade from wood and use animal parts such as goatskin. Well-made drums can last a decade.
“They get better with age,” Jeff said. “A good drum helps a lot and makes it easier.”
For Middle East drumming, the rhythm is different. A dumbek drum is like a laptop and requires more finger movement. Jeff said this kind of drumming is good for beginners, because the drum is lightweight and less expensive.
Each person in the ensemble picks up a beat and the group works together to form the tune.
“It’s a shared experience of playing together.”
The best part is when people begin moving with the music.
“It’s more exciting to have someone dancing,” Jeff said. “Most people really enjoy it (the drum music).”
To become a master drummer – Jeff insists he’s far from it – takes lots of practice.
“The more you play, the better you get. It’s forced me to discipline myself.”
Jeff said he hopes to go to Africa and study drumming at the Wula Drum Retreat in Guinea this coming winter.
Those taking part receive guidance from a master drummer and travel streets in the evenings drumming.
Jeff was born in Ohio, lived in California then relocated to Frankfort when he was in middle school. He’s played guitar since age 11.
Jeff’s wife, Rosemary, died from cancer five years ago. He has two sons, Jaret and Jordon, who are musicians/drummers in Austin, Texas.
He owns two small businesses, Mobile Upholstery and Dependable Mowing, in addition to performing in several bands, including Stirfry.
Aside from his businesses, he keeps busy with musical gigs and practicing for them two to three nights each week.
Stirfry, which will perform for the Governor’s Derby Celebration and at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, plays Dixie jazz and world music.
“I like all music,” Jeff said. “I’ve been a progressive listener since I was real young.”
“Frankfort Faces” is a series that highlights people from within the Frankfort and Franklin County community. Each feature follows one of the city’s most unique personalities and includes a story, photos and video, which can be found by clicking the TV icon attached to the story online at state-journal.com.