Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Visit with Cheryl Prashker, Percussionist in the Rolling Thunder Reunion

Every artist has a story, and it's been fun learning more about the members of the band that will be performing here at Weber Hall, UMD this coming month. Saturday July 23 the Rolling Thunder Reunion will be rolling into town with a show featuring Eric Andersen and Scarlet Rivera, accompanied by Steve Addabbo and Cheryl Prashker. Lonnie Knight is on the docket to kick things off. Eric and Scarlet performed together with the Dylan entourage when the Rolling Thunder Revue kicked off its legendary tour at Gerde's Folk City in New York, 1974. Now, they are bringing it all back to Dylan's original home town with a reunion concert in Duluth.

As American music fans we owe a debt to our neighbors to the north for the many song writers and musicians they have shared with us over the years. Off the top of my head Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, most of the Hawks who became Dylan's backing band when he went electric, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Oscar Peterson, Sarah McLaughlin and Celine Dion come to mind. I will be adding Cheryl Prashker to the list. Interestingly enough, the second stop on Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue after Gerde's Folk City was Canada. As Dylan once wrote, "Everybody must give something back for something they get." (Fourth Time Around)

According to her media bio, Cheryl Prashker studied classical percussion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where she was born and raised. She has toured Canada, U.S. Europe and Russia with The Yiddish Theatre of Montreal. She spent many years in New York City where she honed her skills of playing anything from Rock and Roll, Klezmer, to Celtic as well as Middle Eastern music. She now uses her special style of percussion to enhance the music of such artists as Jonathan Edwards, Pat Wictor, Tracy Grammer, Full Frontal Folk and her group RUNA. Cheryl is also a songwriter and President of NERFA (Northeast Regional Folk Alliance).

I've interviewed artists of all kinds over the years, but this is my first time interviewing a drummer. I learned a lot.

EN: How did you first get into drums?

With Jonathan Edwards at Steel City Coffeehouse
Cheryl Prashker: Ever since I was a young kid it’s all I ever wanted to play. I tried piano at a very young age as my mother was a piano teacher but I did not take to that. I tried guitar but again, it was not what I wanted at the time (I do play guitar now and continue to write my own songs.) I finally got to play drums in music class and eventually school band only starting in grade 7. I am from Montreal, Canada, and at the time, there was no music in the elementary schools as there is now. I was extremely shy so being in the school band was tough… I definitely got over that. All I ever wanted to be was a rock drummer and I eventually got to have a set of drums at home. I did not have a private teacher while in high school, so I taught myself and played along to many records from such as artists as The Byrds, Boston and Fleetwood Mac.

EN: What kinds of things did you learn from studying classical drumming that you may not have learned otherwise?

At the Ryman in Nashville, 2013
CP: I am blessed to have had the classical training that I received at Vanier College and McGill University in Montreal. As far as I am concerned, it’s the best thing any musician can do for themselves. It is invaluable. It teaches you literally from the ground up. Percussion/drum students have to do all the technique work like rudiments etc. It’s like doing scales on the piano. It keeps your hands even and as a drummer that is what you strive for. It also gave me music reading capability of both regular music as well as drum music and that can open the door to so many more jobs in the music industry from musical theatre to recording work. As a percussion student, you learn all the mallet instruments like the marimba and vibraphone. As well as timpani, which strengthens your ear as well as hand technique. And of course, working in an orchestra or concert band under the direction of a conductor teaches you how to take direction and work with other musicians which translates into so much in this world.

EN: I recently wrote a blog post about Ringo of the Beatles assessing where he stacked up as a drummer. Who have been your own favorite drummers? 

CP: I am a huge Beatles and Ringo fan and admire everything about him. Including that he writes songs as well. Being an 80’s kid, I was always a big Phil Collins fan. I have seen him in concert with Genesis a few times and it is always a treat. I love the showman in him and I have adapted the showman part when I perform. Being from Canada, it is a requirement for every drummer to be a huge fan of Neil Peart from Rush, which I am of course. But interestingly enough, what influenced my drum set playing was mostly an unknown drummer from the 80’s band Big Country, Mark Brzezicki. His use of the high-hat and snare drum was very much like rudimental/military drumming and I love that sound and feel my drum set playing is very influenced by his sound.

EN: What makes your own drumming style distinctive?

Jagoda at Heyman Tribute
CP: Given what I do a lot now, which is accompany singer-songwriters, I have found that full drum set players have a hard time playing quietly enough to accompany these writers who are primarily on vocals and guitar. So what I have done is put together a small set up of a djembe, bongos on the side, a cymbal I play with my hand, a tambourine on the floor that I play with my left foot and a set of chimes. (Those are to make people smile!) It really is a kind of small drum set-like set up. I don’t focus on being the loud back beat that artists follow, but rather more of the “color” that surrounds and accompanies the song. I focus on the lyrics at times and play off the main instrument which is usually a guitar. I feel this is better for the main artist and I have also found that the audience appreciates it much more than a full drum set player and it opens their ears and eyes to a different “drumming” sound.

EN: In the age of drum machines and digital everything, why are human drummers still relevant?

CP: That is such an important question. As of course, not only drum machines but now, for live shows the “Stomp Box” which is basically like hitting a bass drum on every beat. Sure, using those means for recording or live concerts will give you an exact and constant beat. But a live drummer gives you warmth in their execution as well as feeling. In a live show, it’s also about the visual and there it is unbelievably exciting watching an amazing drummer do their thing. There is nothing like a real drummer and I know everyone understands that. In today’s world of recording and live shows, it sometimes does come down to being able to afford to have a drummer come in.

EN: How did you connect with Eric and Steve? How long have you performed with these guys?

Garnet Rogers at Steel City Coffeehouse
CP: It is a fun story which I adore telling. I was playing with my own Celtic Roots Music group RUNA at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario last July. We were on a small stage doing a workshop on the stage that Eric had just played on. I had seen him in concert before and knew who he was of course. He was behind the stage talking with Sonny Ochs and he noticed the drum set up I was using for the workshop and seemed to be quite curious. He walked over to the side of the stage and gave me the once over! After we were done playing, Sonny brought me over and introduced the two of us. We hit it off and started talking about just about everything immediately including the fact that he had been in Montreal, where I am from, visiting with Leonard Cohen many times before.

Later that night, we were back behind the main stage and we continued our conversation. I somehow talked Eric into attending the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference which takes place in November. I am the President of the Board and help out putting the workshops together. I thought he would be perfect for a program we have there called “The Wisdom of The Elders” where Sonny Ochs interviews the amazing artists we have among us who are steeped in rich history. Now while we were there talking, Steve Addabbo was also backstage as he was playing guitar for Eric that weekend. I had never met Steve before. At one point Eric says to Steve, “I think I would like to have Cheryl go into the studio and record some percussion on the song called Singin’ Man. Steve, can you make that happen?” Steve was the recording engineer who was working on that CD project. Steve replied saying that the song and the project was finished and that it would not work out this time. And the two of them went back and forth about me recording for that song. Eventually Steve was kind enough to make it work and we had a blast in the recording studio. I absolutely adore Steve Addabbo and can’t wait to work with him both live and in the studio again. Since that amazing meeting last July the 3 of us have played many shows throughout the Northeast as well as a few showcases at Folk Alliance Conferences. I have also recorded again for Eric on his recording on the works of Byron that will be released this summer/fall.

I am blessed to have met both of these amazing artists as they have enriched my life and music greatly.

* * * *
I for one can't wait to hear them all when they perform here in Duluth. You can learn more about Cheryl's career here at cherylprashker.com

For more:
President of NERFA (Northeast Regional Folk Alliance)
http://www.nerfa.org/
http://www.runamusic.com/
https://www.patreon.com/cherylprashker

The concert is July 23. You can purchase tickets here at EventBrite.com.


Meantime, life goes on all around you. We'll see you there.

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