Rhythm is elemental, and as old as life itself. Whether we realise it or not, it's central to our existence - without it there would be no dance, music, speech, poetry, computers or television. Its sustaining role in our life, plus the fact that percussion can be made from almost anything - bins, bottles, keys, even skin and bones in early times (you get the idea) - means that rhythm and drumming are accessible to all. And with the advent of Stomp and then extraordinary success of Riverdance, the impact of rhythm has never been as strongly felt as it is today.

In celebration of the diversity of drumming and percussion, the South Bank Centre established the Rhythm Sticks festival three years ago, and tomorrow sees the start of the week-long, 1997 programme, supported by the Independent. Through a host of concerts, workshops and children's events, Rhythm Sticks aims to bring drummers out from behind their kits and put them centre stage.

Headlining at this year's festivities is Billy Cobham (below right), drummer extraordinaire, who has played with everyone from Miles Davis to Peter Gabriel. He plays twice at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 20 July, giving a masterclass in the afternoon, before bringing the whole event to a spectacular close on the same evening when he brings his mastery of jazz-rock to bear on the pounding tribal rhythms of the 11-strong Master Drummers of Africa.

Despite being hailed as "the greatest technical drummer of the 20th century", Cobham, who taught himself to play the drums at the age of three, had to improvise at the start. "I had no set at all - my family's from Panama so we didn't have any drums for me to play on. I just found myself being inventive and beating on anything and everything in my path - I played on pots and pans with knives, forks and spoons."

Cobham sees drumming very much as a means of communication, as he puts it: "the fulfilment of the opportunity to communicate - a chance to really say who you are, where you've been and where you're going...you become the universal communicator."

Now a resident of Zurich, Cobham is also a great champion of the apparently pivotal Swiss contribution to drumming history "The Swiss play a lot of drums, and if it wasn't for the Swiss part of it all, a lot of the drumming today wouldn't exist.

"The Swiss were mercenaries about 800 years ago, and when they came to fight on the side of England, the Scots, or the Welsh, or the Irish, they came to fight with drums and pipes. It was supposed to put fear into the minds and hearts of their adversary. Their contribution is as important as the African one is to drumming."

Cobham (who returns to London to play at the Jazz Cafe in August) is a suitably multi-national representative at Rhythm Sticks. Other nations participating include Africa, India, South America, Japan and Korea.

Billy Cobham believes that "everyone's a musician" and that "drummers are made, not born" - now's your chance to find out.

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