A different drummer: From world rhythms to jazz and blues, Bob Damm travels to his own beat

December 25, 2010 11:38:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Bob Damm remembers how it started. He was a fourth-grader, in Quincy, Ill., attending a recital by high school students with his dad. Everybody was playing a different instrument, but it was the snare drum solo that cast the spell. 


"I looked at my dad, and he looked at me. He said, ''You want to do that?''" said Damm (pronounced Dahm). And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Or, in this case, a fluid musical journey. If an instrument can produce sound by being struck, shaken, rubbed or scraped, this quiet-spoken professor of percussion at Mississippi State University has embraced it.  


His projects as a percussionist in solo and chamber settings, as well as concert programming as director of the percussion ensemble, have showcased exotic world music instruments ranging from the congas and steel drums to the less familiar amadinda, berimbau, djembe and udu. 


For Damm, who lives in Starkville with wife Laura and three teenage daughters, exploring where music can take us is a life''s calling. But, as essential as making music is, bringing others into the process is a priority, too. 




It''s community 


The educator is widely-known for the drum circles he facilitates in the Golden Triangle and around the state. There, his passion for world music shines. 


"In high school, I went to a summer camp and met an African drummer, a master composer from Guana, who introduced me to a whole new way of making music through improvisation and world tradition, and seeing music in a larger communal kind of experience," he explained. 


Music integrated with singing, dancing and self-expression resonated with the teenager, who would go on to attain a masters and doctorate in music education. 


"The phenomenon of drum circles found its way to me around 2002," said Damm, who has taught at MSU since 1995. "I did research on what drum circles could be, should be, might be. I started facilitating some myself, bringing my music education experience to that."  


Some are larger recreational drum circles, like those conducted for the Summer Scholars program at MSU. Others are more intimate, for 20 or so people. But in them all, Damm''s goal is to make everyone involved feel emotionally safe, welcome and valued.  


Particularly in the smaller circles, with every participant using a percussive instrument (and frequently encouraged to rotate to another), the emphasis is on self-expression and the pleasure of collaboration. The larger social theme of community is adroitly woven into the experience, whether it takes place in an elementary school, theater, senior center or rural meadow. 




On stage 


When not in a classroom setting or drum circle, Damm frequently performs with music scene mainstays Bill Cooke and Jim Beaty in the Bill Cooke Trio. Or with David Reese and Doug Thomas in the El Rio Trio, a jazz-oriented group specializing in Caribbean and Afri-Cuban music. In fact, he has played with a list of talented musicians too long to mention, as well as performing annually in area programs such as "Columbus Sings Messiah."  


In his role as MSU''s director of music education partnerships, he presents hundreds of programs in Mississippi schools, inspiring children and teens with everything from Brazilian percussion and African drum sessions to Native American music or blues, with well-known blues and jazz guitarist Jesse Robinson.  


"I''m very lucky in my position here to be supported in my outreach," said Damm. "I like that I can be a musician playing in bands with the best musicians around and also teaching at the university, and still get to fulfill my passion for working with young children. I feel honored to have the opportunity." 




Part of the circle 


Damm currently teaches a course to music education majors, their last academic course before entering internships and the real world. He takes the challenge to heart. 


"It''s one more chance to say you have a tremendous responsibility as teachers to be dedicated and professional. I try to emphasize creativity -- which isn''t always found in education. I try to tell them things they should strive for, traps they should be aware of, and to remember the importance of music in self-esteem, self-expression and self-knowledge." 


The laid-back professor with rhythms in his blood brings that same passion to every outreach program, every drum circle. 


"I want them to experience this synergy that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Each person may play a simple pattern on an individual instrument, but we experience the unique enjoyment of music, the feeling of belonging to a musical ensemble. And through that in-the-moment experience of drumming, when we can forget about all our problems -- our baggage from the past and worries of the future -- we can experience joy."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.