The Billings Outpost

Percussionists show they got plenty of rhythm

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two prominent percussionists were in town last week. Sharie Pyke interviewed them both.

By SHARIE PYKE - For The Outpost

Nebojâ Zimkoviæ

“I’ve got five minutes,” said Serbian expatriate and German national, Nebojâ Zimkoviæ, (Ne BOY sha Simkovich). That five minutes turned into a half hour of lively exchanges about the marimba, his career and his life.

Mr. Zimkoviæ munched the end of his breakfast carrots as we talked. Maybe those orange veggies explain why he has the intensity and staying power of the Energizer bunny, another percussionist.

Virtuoso Zimkoviæ spent the first 18 years of his life in Yugoslavia. “I went to a music gymnasium, a music high school. It was an excellent education and it was free. The knowledge was great. I was one of the weaker in this school — long hair! But I had a one and one when I graduated” (the highest grades).

In 1980, he went to Mannheim University in Germany where he studied percussion for five years. “I was one of the better in Germany. I feel grateful to Germany. It’s my second homeland.”

He and his wife, an Italian, and their four children, ages 9½, 8 and twins, 7, now live outside of Frankfurt.

“I’m fluent in three languages,” he said. “Serbian, German and English. I can speak a little Russian and Italian, too.”

The children are also trilingual. “I was in a hurry,” he said. “We had three children under the age of 4. It was a lot of fun! When I’m on tour, I miss my kids. They’re still my major job. I try not to be away for more than two weeks at a time.”

After his family, the marimba is his passion. Maestro Zimkoviæ is the foremost composer for the instrument in the world. He also plays with two mallets in each hand, a technique that requires endless hours of practice and produces calluses on his fingers. His music, both his compositions and his performances, are amazing.

“The marimba is the big brother to the xylophone,” he said. “In the 19th and 20th century, hardly anyone has written for the marimba.” The instrument can have up to five octaves.

With the four mallet technique, he can perform piano music with four note chords.

Mr. Zimkoviæ wrote his Concerto No. 2 for marimba to be played with a 60-piece orchestra. “I wanted thick orchestration and density, a lot of instruments at the same time. Heavy-loaded. My purpose was to compose an energetic piece of music that would work in any setting. Music not for the specialist. Hoping to reach them (the audience) over archetypes, those things we all have in common.”

The term archetype needed some explanation. “You try to produce or to send or create an archetypical atmosphere that is common to every human being. I send out the sound waves, they are sending back the sound waves by clapping their hands.” Here he grinned. “Emotional responses that bypass the intellect. That feeling, ‘It touched me.’”

Two standing ovations and an encore the next night at the Alberta Bair Theater proved that his music, while uncommon, did indeed go from the ear to the hearts of his audience. Bravo, Maestro Zimkoviæ! Bravo!

Matthew Marsolek

An insistent rhythm came out of one of the choir rooms at Montana State University Billings last week; throbbing, rising and falling, making the toes tap, the fingers snap. The rhythm moved up and down, syncopated, then even, finally ending with a burst of power. The ensuing silence seemed loud, as well.

Matthew Marsolek was leading the first workshop at the university’s Day of Percussion. He specializes in the cadences of West Africa.

“I teach West African drumming, mostly Mali and Guinea,” he said. He brought more than 35 drums with him for his students to use. The Ashiko, the most common, is made of cedar and goatskin.

His brother, Dave, constructs them as part of their business, Drum Brothers. Mr. Marsolek grew up playing the drums in evening circles at the Feathered Pipe Ranch, an educational and retreat center west of Helena. As a young man, he began studying West African music with his friend and teacher, Michael Harrison, of Missoula.

“I’ve traveled to Asia — India, Thailand and Korea — to study drumming. It’s a universal language.” And every human being has rhythm, to one degree or another. While most people will never be virtuosos, most can learn to drum. Traditional African drummers don’t count the patterns they play; they speak them.

“If you can say it, you can play it,” Mr. Marsolek said. “Our language (as humans) is really very rhythmically oriented. If you can speak coherently, I can teach you to drum. You have the base: Gun. Tone: Go. Slap: Pa ta Pa ta Pa.” He then demonstrated: “Go Dough Pa ta Pa.

“Music is the universal language. When you connect the voice with the music, you have soul.

Soulfulness. There are universal rhythms, archetypes, that are the basis of this art form. And the learning is addictive. You learn the basics and then add to it.

“And very few people are tone deaf, either genetically or physiologically,” he added. “If you don’t learn to hum by age 4, you have a problem.” Boys are more likely to be tone deaf than girls, since they’re often told that music is unmanly. Essentially, adults who are tone deaf can still learn to sing, but they have to be humble enough to go back to age 4 and learn to hum.

Rhythm bands for preschoolers, those groups where kids march round in a circle, make noises with their mouths, and shake or hit something, are crucial. “It helps them develop all forms of creative expression,” Mr. Marsolek said.

About 80 percent of the Drum Brothers’ community students are women. “Men are burdened with competition and perfectionism. Women are much more likely to take a risk. I sit my students in a circle rather than rows. It’s friendlier and everyone can make eye contact.”

He paused. “Music is intuitive mathematics.” Africa, jungle, risk, math? Maybe, in the future, more men will be brave enough to try African drumming.

For information on the Drum Brothers or to schedule an event, go to or call (406) 531-8109.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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