A crowd gathers at Golden Bridge Spiritual Center in Hollywood enjoying punch, snacks and the anticipation before a concert in this spacious new studio and performance venue. But, this will not be the usual assembly of kirtan musicians. A stage large enough to fit eight or nine players is filled with only drums, gongs and percussion elements. No synthesizers or click tracks, no digital drums or samples, just wood, metal and animal skins.
Greg Ellis is a drummer, a percussionist. Or perhaps he is a rhythm shaman, a healer. However one perceives him, what certainly is true is that he presents the listener with a purity, a raw and unadulterated sound experience that he calls “organic.” His life and creative work have brought him to a musically primal place of making rhythms on a vast array of percussion instruments. “And nothing,” he stresses “is digitized, sampled, filtered, remixed or synthesized in any way.”
This raw approach to musical expression is, according to Ellis and creative partner Aparna Burke, a way to “hear yourself.” A sonic intake of naturally “nutritious” vibrations that reach the human body in a direct and healing way to, as she says, “Invigorate your inner pharmacy.”
History, I could add, is certainly on their side as some form of rattle or percussion instrument has been employed in healing rituals for thousands of years. Current scientific research acknowledges rhythm’s healing affects on body, mind and spirit.
Profoundly influenced by the book from Mickey Hart Drumming at the Edge of Magic, Ellis evolved from his rock and roll past into a quest for his most genuine self and his purest experience of rhythm and percussion. The outcome of that ongoing journey is one that we hear on his notable CDs with the group Vas, and more recently on his exquisite and popular solo release Kala Rupa.
At the concerts I have seen, Greg performs solo first with his hands on a variety of hand drums then moves about his array of instruments, eventually using sticks, mallets, cymbals, gongs and tabla. Within minutes some audience members are beginning to gyrate and rock while they sit. In a few moments, many are up on their feet swaying and dancing with an ever-growing freedom in their spine and limbs. The first show I saw was on New Year’s Eve as Gurmukh finished her kundalini class with two very long sets from Greg while the class moved about the room freely dancing in whatever way their energy was willing.
The latest release, RhythmTonics, is a seven CD set and one may ask, “Why so much material?”
Greg acknowledges that with Aparna’s ability to get the concept and design refined, it has allowed him to be completely free creatively. There is no post-production processing of any kind to be done to the recorded tracks, so the potential to create a larger body of work was suddenly within reach.
But as the CDs are comprised of tracks called doses as well as color-coded and named with titles like balance or serenity I wondered then how did he determine what rhythms would be calming, soothing, etc.? In what way is it pharmaceutical? As Greg and Aparna explain, their first dilemma was whether to go a scientific and literal route. They were actually going to get a machine to record theta waves and alpha waves, stimulating brain wave frequencies with tones. But they chose to let the drum sounds stand alone because, “Ultimately, this is music,” they explained.
“Originally I didn’t want any words. I wanted to get away from the literal…The colors are not representing the chakras,” he explains. “Just to say any of these have an inherent property, no, release all that. Put it on and see what happens.” Aparna adds that the whole idea behind this project is a space where people can experience liberation, “absolutely.”
I must admit that some of the dancing I saw really broke the conceptual limits of anything to be found in local kirtan. I had truly never witnessed so much controlled (more or less) weirdness in and around the mosh pit. And yet, when all bodies in motion came to rest, they appeared as sober, content and as much at ease as Mr. Rogers.
At the very least, one must experience it for themselves if for no other reason than that I can’t think of any other place to hear a beautiful, live, acoustic drum solo that lasts two hours, is never dull or self-indulgent and has a noticeably positive affect on all present.
As Greg and Aparna say it, “Listening to organic rhythm cultivates the sense of perception. Heightened perception sharpens intuition. Sharpened intuition leads to greater awareness of self. Greater awareness of self facilitates self-realization. Self-realization allows wholeness. Wholeness then becomes the foundation on which to build a life in balance with itself and its environment. HEAR YOURSELF learning the Yoga of Rhythm!”.