A Drummer’s Dream screens at Hot Docs

When some of the world’s top drummers held a camp on a tiny Ontario farm, Halifax filmmaker John Walker followed. The result is A Drummer’s Dream

By ANDREA NEMETZ Entertainment Reporter

IN 1969, John Walker was offered a choice between two roads. Now the award-winning documentary filmmaker is exploring the path not taken.

Then a 16-year-old drummer, Walker’s Montreal band Heavy was invited by Frank Zappa to open his concert in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.

The same week he was offered a job as an assistant in the Montreal film studio Art House Inc., which did commercials and photography — an appealing draw for a youth who had had a camera around his neck since the age of eight.

His band leader suggested they throw the I-Ching, a Chinese oracle which told him any choice he made he’d have to make for life. So Walker gave away his drums and never touched a pair of sticks again.

Till a couple of years ago when he heard that Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr, who played with Dizzy Gillespie, was putting together a drum camp with a dream group of teachers at a former farm in rural Ontario.

The luminaries included: Horacio (El Negro) Hernandez, Afro-Cuban music’s most visible drummer; Dennis Chambers, who tours with Carlos Santana and who has recorded and performed with John Scofield and Steely Dan; Giovanni Hidalgo, the most highly sought-after conga player on the planet; Kenwood Dennard, who has played with George Clinton, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Luther Vandross; multiple Grammy nominee Mike Mangini; conga player Raul Rekow, who has played with Santana for 34 years and Al-Khabyyr, a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, who has also toured with Oliver Jones and played with Grammy winner Kenny Garrett.

Sitting in his south-end Halifax home/office, surrounded by a bodhran and a djembe (a hand drum originally from West Africa), Walker recalls learning about the camp and thinking it would make a perfect documentary.

The resulting feature-length film, A Drummer’s Dream, will have its world premiere at the prestigious Hot Docs film festival in Toronto on Friday. It was one of the first 30 films among the international lineup of more than 170 to sell out.

“It’s an incredible lineup. . . . No one could believe that the top drummers in the world would assemble on a farm in Canada,” Walker says, adding many of the participants were students and former students of Al-Khabyyr, who teaches at Montreal’s Concordia University. Others were from Japan and Australia.

Walker says he believes everyone has the potential to be a drummer.

“As Nassyr says, the first drum beat you hear is your heart beat.”

And he hopes the film will inspire people to pick up sticks and drums.

“It’s a wonderful, powerful, resonating instrument that is really accessible – though it’s not easy to play like a master.”

The drum was used in battle to give people courage, he points out.

“It also connects us with deep feelings. It is a very soulful instrument, with a strong sensibility. Drummers share a sensibility, a great respect for the power of the instrument.”

He notes all the drummers found the instrument — or the instrument found them — at an early age. “Mike Mangini was tapping on pots and pans at four, Dennis Chambers was drumming at four or five. I was 12 or 13 when drums found their way into my life.”

He is pleased that the film is having its world premiere at Hot Docs, where he screened 2003’s Men of the Deeps (about the famous Cape Breton coal miners choir) that went on to win a Gemini Award, and Passage, an epic historical adventure that involves cannibalism, a vengeful woman and an historical cover-up by British authorities that credited the wrong man with the discovery of the Northwest Passage, among other films.

Passage, which also screened at the 2008 Atlantic Film Festival where it won awards for best director and best cinematography, recently received the 2010 Erik Barnouw Award in Washington, D.C. Walker is the first Canadian to receive the award, bestowed by the Organization of American Historians.

The film has been lauded for pushing the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, blending documentary with dramatic recreations.

But simplicity of approach was the most powerful way to go with A Drummers Dream, says Walker. “It’s like you’re standing there behind the drummers’ shoulder and are not manipulated by the narrator.”

Another challenge, he says, was sound.

“The drum sets were very complex. Every drum had a microphone on it. We used a 24-track locational recording system and recorded in a big old 18th century barn, which turned out to be perfect acoustically for drummers. Giovanni Hidalgo told me he wants to record all his albums here.”

Walker hopes to screen A Drummers Dream at the Atlantic Film Fest, among other festivals. And he’s researching a film about Canada’s sovereignty in the North, continuing the journey he started with the historical look at the Northwest Passage.


One Response to "A Drummer’s Dream screens at Hot Docs"

  1. Eugene Mullett  December 14, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    Great article… I’ll come back again to look for more articles like this… All credits to the author…

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