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Meet N. Scott Robinson, Percussionist in Rancho San Diego

Today we’d like to introduce you to percussionist N. Scott Robinson.

N. Scott, can you briefly walk us through your story—how you started and how you got to where you are today?
I started from very humble beginnings as a drummer in high school in the central New Jersey Shore. I had grown up in the 1960s-1970s but was largely unaware of the music of that time then. I think at that particular time I had discovered music, it was just at the tail end of the 1970s so all through my early 1980s high school experiences, I had been very inspired by the Rock music of the 1960s-1970s. As I became more serious about music, I realized that drumming was used in most kinds of music I had been hearing and that if I were to be serious in this pursuit it should include all forms of percussion. After high school, I ended up at Berklee College of Music in Boston for one year, which was an incredible experience! I pursued Jazz, Brazilian, and West African percussion there. Not able to afford the expense of Berklee, I transferred to William Paterson College in NJ, where I was able to study classical percussion briefly but I had gotten to perform with The New Jersey Percussion Ensemble and that was equally inspiring for me. Soon after that, I had the opportunity to study with Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos and frame drum virtuoso Glen Velez in New York where I learned all kinds of frame drums from around the world and Brazilian instruments with creative approaches to improvisation. It was difficult to go forward in music so I had considered joining the Army band so I could practice regularly. A good friend convinced me to go off to Canada for a few days and steered me away from that idea. I had also quit a local job at an aquarium because of my Canadian adventure.

Not long after I got back, I received a call about doing a 9-month tour with a theater company in residence at Rutgers University. So my Canada weekend ended up being a very good decision!  From there, I began studying with teachers at Rutgers such as Keith Copland, Robert Benford, and William Moersch. After one year, I auditioned at Rutgers and got a full scholarship. At that point I was much older than the typical student and had a lot more experience. During the Rutgers years, I was working pretty steadily as a musician in New York and around New Jersey. I had performed with Paul Winter Consort, Glen Velez, Howard Levy, John Clark, Steve Gorn, Regina Belle, Gerald Alston, and worked with composers like John Cage and Annea Lockwood. While at Rutgers, I got the opportunity to perform with the Benny Carter Big Band in a large concert of big band and orchestra. I show up to the concert and I was on vibes set up with the big band separate from the orchestra so I’m surrounded by all of these amazing pro Jazz musicians with Kenny Washington on drums and myself on vibes on the same riser! I look over back stage and I see these giant reel-to-reel tape recorders. The concert was recorded for a live CD release and ended up winning a Grammy Award!

One of the things that was integral for my development was working in the Modern Dance Dept. at Rutgers. While I was a student, I was also working in the Dance Dept. and that was early in the mornings so it never conflicted with anything. That was a context where I was required to improvise, play a large variety of percussion instruments solo, and yet it had all kinds of unusual structures associated with it. It really tied all kinds of aspects I had swimming in my head together from Classical music precision and Jazz improvisation to World Music. Another unusual part of my Rutgers story was I had put an ad up looking for musicians to share a house with. My ad was answered by an older piano player who needed a place to commute back and forth to New York from. It turned out it was Buddy Montgomery—the brother of Wes Montgomery—a genuine Jazz legend moved in with me! So while I’m going to school at Rutgers taking classes like jazz history, I’m having breakfast beforehand with Buddy telling me stories about Wes Montgomery and John Coltrane! I lived with him for about 2 years.

When I graduated from Rutgers, I had gone to Tokyo, Japan for three months thinking I was going to make it there as a percussionist. I didn’t get very far with that idea but I did get a steady job as an extra actor on Japanese TV! It was an unusual experience but coupled with some music opportunities it did lead me away from playing in standard nightclubs and more towards doing concerts as a steady performance outlet. I returned to the US and had transitioned away from nightclubs and into concert opportunities. Then, I landed a job as a Music Director of the Dance Dept. at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia for one year. From there, I realized graduate degrees were necessary and that I liked the academic environment. I applied to the ethnomusicology program at Kent State University in Ohio where I received a full scholarship and a teaching assistant job so I was actually paid to do my Master’s Degree and Ph.D. in 1996.

Now, my story really takes some turns. While at Kent State during my first-semester intro. class on ethnomusicology, it was required that I do a project where I interviewed a folk musician. My previous teacher, Glen Velez, was playing in Cleveland with a hammer dulcimer virtuoso named Malcolm Dalglish. I called up Glen and asked if I could do an interview with Dalglish after the concert. It worked out where I had to actually travel to Indiana for the interview because of scheduling so off I went. I spent the day with Dalglish and he kept saying how much Glen Velez had recommended me. I noticed he had a broken frame drum on his wall so I offered to fix it. I played it a little just to check it out and he as impressed with that. I fixed it for him and thought nothing of it. In two weeks, he had sent me a letter—not an email (this was around 1997)—asking me to join him for a concert in another part of Ohio. We got along so good that he asked me to join Glen on recording percussion for his new CD. From that class, I ended up in a 12 year working relationship with him. We toured all over the USA and once went to Australia where we did a concert in a cave with a choir!

A few semesters later at Kent State, there was a conference of Native American flute players held there one summer. On the final night, these flute players wanted to do a joint concert and asked for a percussionist so my name came up. Now these flute players were the most famous in that genre with people like R. Carlos Nakai, Mark Holland, Gary Stroutsos, and Peter Phippen—they all had well-developed careers. I got to perform with all of them and that turned in to decades-long working relationships. I played in 50% of the USA regularly with those musicians and recorded a number of CDs. During another semester at Kent State, the famous composer George Crumb was invited by the music theory dept., and I was performing his famous piece Music for a Summer Evening: Makrokosmos III.  I went up to him and showed him an unusual instrument I had, and he asked “Do you have any more of this?” I told him I had an entire apt. filled with this kind of stuff. He asked me, “Can we go there?” We hung out for 3 hours testing instruments with him drawing pictures and taking notes. That was unbelievable that I’d get to connect with someone like that.

So, I’m going through the program at Kent State finishing my MA degree and the topic I chose was a study of improvising percussionists in Jazz. I was lucky that some of the most famous percussionists in the world had agreed to have me interview them for this project. This included Airto Moreira, Glen Velez, Zakir Hussain, Naná Vasconcelos, Trilok Gurtu, Jamey Haddad, Okay Temiz, John Bergamo, and many others. All of my interviews were published and from intensely analyzing these musicians, I actually learned a great deal that effected my own performing ability so I started doing solo shows on a variety of instruments such as frame drums and tambourines from India and the Middle East, Brazilian berimbau, and African kalimbas. What I was doing was original composed music that featured moments of improvisation on a variety of non-Western instruments. It was like an American musical approach with non-Western instruments and influences. Not long after that, I had been getting steady opportunities to travel abroad for this particular style of percussion I was playing. I had been featured twice at the Greek Frame Drums Meeting, 3x at Tamburi Mundi in Germany, 3x in Italy at Frame Drums Italia and Li Ucci Festival, 5x in South Korea at the Seoul Drum Festival, and additionally in Japan, Canada, Australia, India, and Mexico. This kind of activity occurred over two decades in conjunction with everything else I was doing in terms of playing across the US and teaching.

So then, I’m in the final phase of finishing a Ph.D. at Kent State, and I get a job at Towson University in Maryland so off I go and on the first day someone else they had hired had quit so I was offered a full-time position because of that. So while there, I had put my Ph.D. on hold but at a certain point, it had to be finished (this was about 2006). I applied for a grant at the University of Chicago to go to India for fieldwork. I get the grant and time off from the university, do the research in India (which was difficult) but I meet this incredible woman there who was a singer. I was about to leave India not sure what was going to happen and someone noticed my predicament and informed me that in India you must propose marriage first then you can date someone. At first, I thought this was crazy but he brought me around to the idea, and I thought to myself this was a different approach to starting a relationship fro anything I’ve ever experienced before. So I proposed to her and she accepted! We’ve been married for 14 years and it was one the best decisions I had ever made in my life!

So, I finish my Ph.D. in August 2013, and right away a permanent full-time job in the Music Dept. at San Diego Mesa College opened up, and I was offered the job. So, in Jan. 2014, I began a new life in San Diego starting a world music ensemble focused on percussion and teaching classes on American popular music and world music. A few years ago, I became the Chair of the dept. and things are going nicely.

Now, at the same time, I’m maintaining certain aspects of my performing career in the Midwest and East Coast so I travel between the coasts regularly every summer and winter to keep things going. But an unusual outgrowth of this was that my first summer in San Diego, I didn’t go back east and didn’t work much as far as performing goes. One day, I was poking around on the Internet and found some American comics that were published in other countries. I had been reading a book about the history of Marvel Comics at that time and thought it would be interesting to find out more about international versions of American comics as a hobby. I noticed that San Diego had a thriving comics scene with several cons, 2 museums, and many comic shops. It turned into my doing serious research on international comics that led me to present regularly at the large comic cons in California and elsewhere with other comics historians and academics. This is something I pursue in spare time with an organization I call Globo Comico. Now it’s a crazy balance of a music-focused career on both coasts and spare time comics research.

I think one of the most important aspects of how my life and career turned out is luck—more so than talent, study, and opportunity—things have always had a habit of falling in to place for me at the right time! It’s like a formula one needs—talent, experience, opportunity—with the unknown element—luck—that when it comes together at the right time, you’re on an exciting path forward through life!

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc.—but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
More or less, it has been relatively smooth. The hardest part was starting, you know? For me as a drummer, practice was so important but no one wanted a practicing drummer around. All through high school I was moving my drums in and out of people’s garages and basements so I could practice but I never gave up. It was like a constant test—how bad did I want to do this and could I solve that issue? During my second semester at Berklee, there was a fire that burned all of the practice rooms in the building I lived in. That didn’t stop me either!

Students often seem overwhelmed with what to do. I always tell them to focus on getting off the bottom of the barrel. There’s a lot of comfortable space between the middle and the top so start with getting off the bottom and see where you end up.

I guess the other lucky thing for me was that whatever I wanted to try to do from Jazz, Classical, World Music, teaching, writing—opportunities would come my way that would allow me to do those things. I’ve seen a lot of musicians go through music school and once they get out, there’s no way to continue but that never happened to me. At the same time, I could never have predicated that I’d end up becoming an improvising tambourine soloist with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and chairing a music dept. at a college happily married to a singer from India!

What do you do, what do you specialize in, and what are you known for? What are you most proud of? What sets you apart from others?
As a musician, I was very inspired by percussionists who have a personal approach to playing. What they do is more individual. So, that’s what I tried to develop rather than just be one of the thousands of percussionists who do more or less standard kinds of playing. It could be anyone playing the bass drum in that show but when people call me, it was because of something more unique that I had to offer.

I specialize in playing tambourines, which in many cultures are refined instruments. That’s not something that many people in the USA are aware of. I play tambourines from Egypt, Italy, Spain, Brazil, India, Azerbaijan, and related frame drums from the Middle East. All of these instruments are not really connected culturally but physically they are very similar in terms of being a hoop with skin. The cultural approaches to playing them are pretty different so what I do is mix certain techniques together as a vocabulary to improvise with. I do that with a variety of other instruments too such as the Brazilian berimbau (a musical bow), the Nigerian udu (a clay pot), and “finger pianos” from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa. I also play the hammer dulcimer, steel pan, didjeridu, and can do Tuvan throat singing. That’s really what I’m known for. I guess what might set me apart from others is the particular combination of skills and experience with improvising on percussion. I do the standard things most percussionists do—play the drumset in a variety of styles, play in musicals and orchestras, sight-read music very well—but I also improvise and compose my own music. I have about 13 compositions for various frame drums and world percussion that were published by HoneyRock and other publishers. I’m more easily able to operate as a solo artist and unique collaborator on projects while doing some of the standard things percussionists tend to do. As far as what I’m most proud of, that’s difficult for me to say. I mean it isn’t what I’ve done, and myself, you know? It’s more being proud of the parents that I had, the times they grew up with, and how that was passed on to me to a certain extent. My father was born in 1918, and my mother is from Scotland born in 1933. The kind of things I had been hearing about my whole life from them—the Depression, WW II, immigration, what life was like for them in conjunction with what it was like for me in the 1960s-1980s—that experience is really what I’m proud of.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
One big change for me coming to San Diego was to get back to playing drumset in Jazz. Hand percussion here is more traditional so when I play my frame drums solo people are real impressed but there isn’t a lot of established contexts for me to just join in with that here. I played drumset with some local Jazz musicians who kept asking me back to play drums so I’m playing more drums now than I have in a long time. I have been writing more original music for a Jazz context. I’m thinking of recording a bunch of this music to feature another side of my musical path. There’s also a project with my wife, K.S. Resmi, who is an incredible Carnatic music vocalist from Southern India. I’m going to work on Indian versions of famous Western Rock songs with her with material by Yes, The Who, and others. I see a lot of people here in San Diego doing tribute concerts to Rock and Jazz artists so it’s partly inspired by the local scene here. The other big thing is rebuilding the Music Dept. at San Diego Mesa College. We have all new degrees, certificates, and courses for students that offer a lot of unique opportunities!

Contact Info:

Dr. N. Scott Robinson on riqq (Arab tambourine), Dave Belew (trumpet) & Michael Formanek (acoustic bass), Towson University, Maryland

South Indian Carnatic vocalist K.S. Resmi & N. Scott Robinson (lap style frame drum), Tamburi Mundi Festival, Germany

N. Scott Robinson on berimbau (Brazilian musical bow), Tamburi Mundi Festival, Germany

Bob Magnusson (acoustic bass) & N. Scott Robinson (drumset), Dizzy’s in San Diego, California

N. Scott Robinson on udu (Nigerian clay pot drums), World Flute Society Convention, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

N. Scott Robinson riqq solo (arab tambourine), Seoul Drum Festival, South Korea

N. Scott Robinson on bass drum with grass brushes, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington, Indiana

N. Scott Robinson on Cooperman bendir (Moroccan frame drum) with Malcolm Dalglish & Ooolites, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington, Indiana

Image Credit:
Peter Wochniak/ProPhoto

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