by Margaret Chrystall
WHEN you ask percussion quartet BackBeat’s Simone Rebello how many musical instruments the group brings on tour, she laughs: “Well it’s almost, how long is a piece of string! It depends what we are doing!
On Saturday, Simone with Damien Harron, Chris Bastock and Richard Charles will play their own short solo set during the Inverness Choral Society concert.
But BackBeat will also join them for the night’s main piece, David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus and the night’s opener choral Misa Criolla by Ariel Ramirez - a lively arrangement of the Mass, sung in Spanish and – like African Sanctus - featuring soprano Maureen Brathwaite and the percussionists.
The size of the different percussion instruments BackBeat play goes from huge to tiny.
Simone said: “The largest would be the marimba which is about seven or eight foot long and then the smallest would probably have to be the egg shaker, just the size of an egg - and everything in between, even our drums, if we bring in our concert timpani with us, that is 32 inches across – so that is massive. And the smallest drum we’ve got would be a tambourin which is probably just three or four inches across so even the drums can go to extremes.
“And the marimba as well, the concert one would be the biggest and the glockenspiel is quite a bit smaller.
“Then we have a Zimbabwean mini thumb piano called the mbera –it’s tiny, I could fit it in my handbag!
“When we come up for the Inverness concert because we have our own solo spot and the two choral pieces, that is quite a range of stuff!
“We’re bringing orchestral timpani, bass drum, tam-tam and full drumkit for the African Sanctus. We’re also bringing the marimba, a vibraphone and we are doing a piece when we are all on African djembe drums and one where we are on a mini set-up with a cymbal and a tom-tom and a wood block and a splash [cymbal}. So we’ve not gone crazy,” laughed Simone.
“But we try and prepare for all eventualities as well. Sometimes when we are playing very contemporary music then we are required to bring a vanload of stuff with us.
“But we’ve also got a couple of pieces up our sleeves - we do a body percussion piece where we don’t need any instruments! So we’re covered for just about anything to happen really!
“One of our nicest pieces which we did the last time we came up is one that Damien from the group wrote called Hand Luggage Only, when we all come on with one of the little airplane cabin-size cases and inside we’ve got them loaded up with various kinds of percussion!”
Emptied, it sounds as if the cases might also come in handy any time BackBeat pass a music shop.
Simone admitted: “The fun of percussion is, you never stop buying …
“Everywhere we go when we are playing abroad, we have bought stuff. But the global market for percussion here in the UK is now fantastic, you can get everything! Some instruments - like the tabla - where you would once have to have gone to India to get a decent set, the instrument manufacturers and shops here mean you can get some very good ones.
“But Richard Chris and Damien, they cannot go past a music shop without having a look inside, just in case …” laughed Simone.
“We all have quite big houses so we keep collecting all the time. Even for sticks to play instruments with – you don’t just buy a set of marimba sticks, for example, and that’s it. You might be asked to do something that has a very specific sound and you feel you need to go after another set of sticks to find it.
“But you never, never stop!
“We all started playing pretty young, so I’ve still got a couple of things in my collection that are amongst the very first things I bought, though I’ve bought a lot over the years.”
Simone started playing percussion when she was about 11 or 12 and reveals it was a similar age for the other three.
“I think the first thing I had was a very small glockenspiel which was more designed as a children’s one, but I was learning and having lessons at the time and it was very small and fitted in a little plastic case.
“Though I don’t remember where it is,” said Simone. “My mum might have it in the loft!
“And I remember my first snare drum which I think I’ve still got which I got 13 or 14 from a music shop in Croydon which is where I grew up.”
BackBeat was founded in 1995, bringing together Simone, her friend Chris plus Richard who had played in a brass band with Simone and Chris – and Richard’s friend Damien joined them to make up the quartet.
They have performed throughout the world, winning many awards at home and abroad and playing in such prestigious venues as The Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall.
As well as composing much of their own repertoire, BackBeat has commissioned many leading composers to write for them.
Through its performance and education programme BackBeat is passionate about raising profile of percussion playing.
Simone said: “Here we are 20 years later, we often talk about it because most groups like ours would have formed with a group meeting at a conservatoire or music college.
“Ours is slightly different because it’s two pairs of friends.
“We are all classically trained percussionists from conservatoires – I was at the Royal Northern College in Manchester.
“But it’s great because the musical aspects we all bring to the group and our musical backgrounds are all slightly different and that has really helped us in a lot of ways.”
Two early successes in competition helped put BackBeat onto the road to success, raising their profile and giving them the chance to perform in exotic locations.
“In 1997 we won the Royal Overseas League ensemble prize that that set us up here and internationally – it wins you a place on an international circuit of concerts and was a very useful springboard.
“We also won a competition in 1999 at the Osaka Chamber Music Festa - for unusual groups.
“The category we were in was wide open, so it was brass quintets and saxophone quintets, rock ensembles and everything. We won it and part of the main prize invited back to do a month of concerts in Japan and we did that - and spinning off that we got invited back to do more, so we have been five times.
“I think it is our favourite place to perform and we seem to go down well - and there is a very strong tradition of percussion out there, of course.
“We are supported by Yamaha and that is where they are so we got to go to the factory where all the marimbas are made and the drums.”
Travelling also gives BackBeat the joy of sampling other cultures.
“We are very adventurous with what we like to eat and when we go to Japan, we try all the amazing culinary things.
“I think our managers out there are sometimes taken aback thinking we might want more Western-style food, but we say ‘Oh no, we’d love to try that!’
“We like to make the most of our trips, to find as much out as possible about the area and the culture – we think it’s one of the bonuses of being a musician, you get to travel the world and see some amazing things.”
They also like to communicate the wonders of percussion to as many people as possible – and education is a big part of their work.
Simone said: “We now all have various education roles as well as performing roles – educational concerts, workshops and slightly longer projects which can be based on composition.
“So Damien has written a brilliant piece called Voice Of The Drum which has the four of us in the centre and about 16 or 17 parts for young percussionists who actually study. But there are another 50-odd parts for young people who don’t play percussion and who don’t have the music written down, but who are taught by one of us in workshop sessions leading up to the performance.
“We do that as part of a bigger project with Damian conducting and he has done a lot of those type of projects featuring the quartet that bring together a lot of aspects of playing but that are as inclusive as possible, where people who don’t have any formal training can also be involved and that is very important to us.
“The workshops we’ve developed over the years have involved different types of percussion, samba music, African drumming, Cuban percussion and junk percussion – including things like dustbins - and we’ve done some composition workshops as well.
“We’re very passionate about it and we feel with workshops and education you need to think it through very carefully, to introduce a lot of instruments and be as inclusive and interactive as we can.
“As well as having something fun, we need to make sure there’s an educational value to it.
For those concerts, we try and get the audience up to play things and get everyone to do things together.
“That’s the beauty of percussion!”
Inverness Choral Society’s concert is on Saturday, November 21 at Eden Court Theatre at 7.30pm.