Load of old dholaks

As the SBC's `Rhythm Sticks' festival begins to bang its drum for all things percussive, William Hartston, The Independent's games editor, beats a path to the door of bongo expert, Pete Lockett Why do some people have a sense of rhythm and others have none to speak of? And is it to do with just that - language? William Hartston, arrhythmic, consults a multi-percussionist
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Goats must have a terrible time in India, if the instrument store of Pete Lockett is any indication. Quite apart from several drums strung with goat-skin (it produces a higher and more vibrant tone than the thicker buffalo hide), he has a jangly thing on a string made from a collection of goats' toenails and sounding like... well, rather like goats' toenails being jangled, and another item with what look like dried-up seed pods, which produce a susurrant rattling sound. "I was told these are goats' testicles," he says, as he looks at them with some suspicion. "Maybe they're not."

When a man already has frame drums, taiko drums, bongos, mrindagam, ghatam, kanjira, a collection of tablas (both Indian and Egyptian), dholak, bodhran, req, udu and all sorts of other more or less conventional instruments among his percussion collection, you may wonder why he needs goats' goolies as well. But for a multi-percussionist like Pete Lockett - whose Network of Sparks collaboration with Bill Bruford (late of Yes and King Crimson) forms one of the high points of this week's South Bank Rhythm Sticks festival - even such testicular offcuts can play a part in the creation of a musical style that seeks to integrate sounds and rhythms from different cultures - "creating new juxtapositions", as Lockett puts it, between Western classical and Indian, or even just northern and southern Indian, in a way that has scarcely been attempted before.

"When I first learnt rhythm and drumming, I split it up into bars," he explains. But that is the Western idiom. The Indian style, by contrast, more often starts with a phrase, then repeats it with its length changed by adding or subtracting syllables of sound. The same phrase then recurs out of phase with the original metre in a manner that can sound both exciting and disturbing to a Western ear.

The origins of such rhythmic complexity interest Pete Lockett greatly. As he coaxes wonderful sounds from an Egyptian tabla - a deeper and more guttural sound than the Indian version - he says: "I guess if you could speak the language, you could play the drum better." He then utters a fine series of noises similar to those of an over-excited Arabic speaker while also sharing the cadences and rhythms of the sounds that have just emerged from the drum.

He shows me a book of tabla rhythms that had been dictated by an Indian colleague on the phone. For such conversations, they have devised a basic rhythmic vocabulary of five drum beats: Ta, Ti, Ki, Da, Tum, each signifying a different region of one of the two drums. But, of course, it's more complicated than that. Da, for example, is Na (striking the rim of the high drum) + Ge (a resonant sound on the bass). This strange language enables one man to perform some verbal drumming over the phone in a way that lets the other translate it to his tabla. "But you should hear him on the phone speaking Tamil," Pete Lockett says. "If you could sample off a bit of that, it would be amazing."

The concept of innate language-based rhythms is something that has also interested psychologists. Recent research has suggested that we are all born with a propensity to listen to periodic sounds and this enables every baby to acquire the basic lilt of its mother early in the first year of life. A good deal of research has been done to see if such problems as dyslexia, stammering, or even straightforward clumsiness are correlated with a basic rhythmic inability, but no very clear conclusions have been reached. One research paper in 1993 even analysed the rhythmic structure of babies' crying, concluding that "an ontogenetic history of the rhythms of infant cry sounds may contribute to understanding organismic and environmental experiences that contribute to development" ("Rhythmic organization of the sound of the infant crying" by PS Zeskind, S Parker-Price and RG Barr; Developmental Psychobiology, September 1993).

Browsing through the literature in general, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that rhythm is something better understood by a multi-percussionist than a psychologist. Especially on the question of those finger-twistingly difficult exercises in which one tries to persuade the two hands to tap in different rhythms at the same time. The simplest form is to tap three beats to the bar with your right hand while tapping two to the same bar with your left. If you find that too easy, you can try five to the bar with one hand and three with the other. Psychologists have puzzled for decades over what is going on in the two hemispheres of the brain, one controlling each hand, both working simultaneously in different rhythms. "You don't do it like that," says Pete Lockett, "you think of it as a composite single rhythm performed by both hands." Which was precisely the conclusion reached by JJ Summers, SK Ford and JA Todd in their paper "Practice effects on the co-ordination of the two hands in a bimanual tapping task" in the journal Human Movement Science in 1993.

Listening to Pete Lockett talking as his fingers blur into high-speed, intricate bongo drumming rhythms, you would conclude that, for him, the only difficult bit about drumming is the muscular pain you may get in your legs from holding the bongos between your knees for a long period. After a brief lesson from him on the bongos, I can confirm that they leave your fingers feeling pretty sore too. At least they would have if I hadn't kept getting them tangled with my thumbs when trying to co-ordinate a pathetically simple rhythm.

Now here's one for you to try at home. It's an example of the Indian style of syllable-dropping. All you have to do is clap four beats to the bar while speaking this 15-beat chant: Ta-Ka-Di-Me Ta-Ka-Di-Me Ta- Ka-Di-Me Ta-Ki-Ta, stressing the initial Ta each time. So far, so good, because each Ta occurs on the first beat of the bar. But then you immediately repeat the 15-beat phrase, starting on the next beat, which is the final one of the fourth bar. Your clapping stress is thrown out of sync with your speaking stress and, if you're anything like me, your hands refuse to co-operate. And as for getting to the end of the third set of 15-beats, then ending it all with three Ta-Ti-Ki-Da-Tum-Ta cadences... well, I think I had better stick to the bongos. After all, there are worse things than sore fingers and knees. Especially if you're a goat.

The SBC's Rhythm Sticks festival runs for one week from tomorrow. Pete Lockett and Bill Bruford's Network of Sparks is on Monday at 7.30pm in the Purcell Room; Pete Lockett's Network of Rhythms workshop on Sun 20 July, 11.30am-1pm, in the RFH Hothouse. Booking / info: 0171-960 4242

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