Interview by Maria Johannesen
MJ: Michael, when did you begin your journey of traveling to indigenous countries to learn about their drumming (music) traditions and culture?
MP: When I was 10 my parents took me to Puerto Rico island. This is more of a mixed or ‘altered’ culture. Spanish people and African slaves mixed with caucasian ancestory. Anyway, that was the start of me experiencing a different culture. Very different then middle class suburban wasp New Jersey!
MJ: What captured your passion to understand their cultures?
MP: I was on the beach in Puerto Rico wandering about. This was in the early 70’s before tourism really kicked in down there. There were guys playing conga drums and having so much fun playing music, singing and dancing. It was different then anything I had ever scene , heard or experienced. I actually felt something untangable, yet it had dimension. I could almost touch it. It was in strong contrast to the boxed in set life I had in New Jersy.
I immediately fell in love with the whole scene. At the pool there was a salsa band playing and there was a percussionist, and I knew then I wanted to be a percussionist! They were giving away gifts for X-mas and there were bongos. I wanted them so badly but another kid got them. I hounded my dad to get me some and eventually he came through a couple of years later. Little did he know what trouble he was getting in to!
MJ: Michael, being a friend of yours on Facebook for quite some time, and a drummer myself, how has traveling to the various indigenous cultures influenced your music and spirituality?
MP: To me, music we hear or create ourselves is a result, output or creative by product or expression of what we take in via our senses and personal experience. It is a result of where we live, what we eat how we interact. The same goes for traditional or indigenous music as well.
By going to another culture and expeirencing and interacting with the people there, eating the food, breathing the air and being in the “vibe” there, you can get a wholistic
feel for the music and culture that is very hard to get by studying from a book, learning on line or taking a drum class in a basement of a studio.
You get to experience the factors first hand that go into making the music. Sometimes from way, way back as places like Mali have not changed that much. Even the city is setup much like a village with compounds, mud floors and community living where people share everything.
MJ: If you had to chose only one of the indigenous cultures, which culture fascinated you the most that uses the drum for healing, and why is the drum so powerful in their belief system?
MP: Hard for me to pick one because they all come from the same source, the same place really. As far as today in this day and age goes I would say the Afro Cuban folkloric culture is quite in tact and their system of belief based on (mostly) the Yoruba way, combined with a few other elements is very strong. It combines mysticism, spirituality, chants, dance,nature and of course drumming.
MJ: How do you feel about the fact we are seeing less and less of indigenous cultures practicing their traditions and rituals? What do you think is the cause of this decline in practice, or what have learned by speaking to people living in these indigenous cultures?
One of my goals in life is documentation of percussion based music from West Africa, Cuba and Brazil to help keep it alive. Obviously I love the traditional folkloric music and cultures. As the youth move towards or to the city and western homoginization takes over the roots do get lost sometimes.
It started with MTV and satellite TV. Pop music and therefore our culture was pumped in to the oddest places. Even outside the city in Bamako, Mali West Africa everyone gathers in the dirt street around the one TV to watch some corny movie or something that influences them, how they dress and their opinions of westerners as well. This is living in the modern world I guess. we all share.
Living in other cultures has definitely taught me a lot about community, sharing and surprisingly enough appreciating living in USA! It is so comfortable to have a nice bed, fast internet in my own home, a car and all the other luxuries that may not be available in other places I have been. As I write this I am really looking forward to my soft bed in California right now!
When I go into Whole Foods after a long trip I am always amazed at how much great food we have access to! And honestly I am grateful for it. I need to leave to appreciate what we have in the USA. And for me, especially California.
MJ: Following your music and group over the past year, it has inspired me to one-day travel to expand my own growth, what advise can you give me?
MP:I always advise to create a soft landing for yourself where ever you go the first time, especially if you do not speak the language. I always say, it is not where you go, it is who you know when you get there. You need to know the places to go, how to get there and many other important factors to make your trip happen in a meaningful and effective way.
The two of us can go to exactly the same place and have a completely different experience. This means you have to do your homework before you go and make sure you are well connected AND have back up plans a and b when you go to a third world country to visit, travel and or study.
If you do not have a set up and strong foundation where you are landing you can have a miserable time in another country. It is no fun getting stuck, not having food or going somewhere to study and there is no teacher, or if there is they are not qualified or charge too much for example.
For some people organized group study trips are the best way to start in places sucj as Cuba, Brazil and West Africa. Some of them are quite good. You are guaranteed food, lodging and classes in an orderly manner. I highly recomend them. On the other hand I learn the hard way and some times run into some magical moments that I might not if I were in a group and other times I get stuck in the muck, not speaking the language and not knowing where to go or what to do next. So far it’s all worked out, though!
MJ: What is your own belief system (Buddhism, Christianity, etc), and how has the experience of learning about the music in the indigenous cultures enriched your own belief?
MP; My beliefs are personal. Suffice to say I believe we are all connected, there is an energy that runs through the us and the universe. There is spirit. This is a long topic, but I believe believing is seeing rather then seeing is believing.
I have been part of many powerful rituals and gatherings around the globe and it has changed my thinking, life and belief systems .
MJ: What is your group’s main goal playing and learning new cultures, which can be a positive reflection to spread to our western world?
MP: I can not speak for others in my music groups. My main goal is to archive and help preserve. I have been called the “grand archiver”, (lol) of traditional drumming. I like to help preserve the culture by learning, studying, filming, presenting and teaching what I have learned. I have been at this since 1977.
MP: My hope through documentation such as Youtube and my blog.website: www.michaelpluznick.com is to help preserve the music and culture, to show previously unseen masters, music styles, musicians and dancers to the world and anyone interested, especialy those not as fortunate as me to travel to these places.
MP: My youtube videos have achieved 2 million vies. This is actualy, small comrade to rap videos and many others but this is 2 million views of people places and things that have not had a lot of exposure before so I am happy about it.
MJ: I see you are visiting many of the Buddhist temples at this moment, can you explain a little of what you have witnessed (ceremonies, festivals, etc)?
MP: At the temples I basically like to sit quietly and meditate. It is a chance to clear out and clean out. Very basic and simplistic for me. I almost always go to a monk there and do some preyers with him and get blessed!
I also take a lot of photos because I love the architecture, art, sculptures and design of the buddhist temples in Asia as well.
MJ: If anything is to be remembered and respected about indigenous cultures, what would you say is the most important?
MP: I think in my experience I am left with is the importance of community and “the group” vs the importance of the individual and “ego” in western culture. Sharring is a big part of my experience in non western cultures.
When I was studying in Mali I bought a chinese motorcycle to commute to my classes . It was cheap and I was there for a while and then I would not have to depend on taxis, etc.
Durring my class people would take my motorcycle to run errands and do things. At first I felt like I was being used and I was quite offended, Then later I realized this is the way things are done there and I was actually being accepted!
MJ: Finally, in your opinion, why is music the backbone to keeping our cultures alive for the future of our world to come?
MP: In my experience, music in it’s purest form represents or brings out “spirit”. Something tangable that can be felt and enjoyed by anyone who is open to it. It is something that can be enjoyed and shared. To me this is incredibly important.
I do not know if music is the backbone. I think “spirit” and heart is the backbone, and this is what the highest forms of music bring through it. MUsic can be part of the back bone for keeping traditional cultures vibrant because it represents the past as well as the future. Guinea pop music from West Africa is some of my favourite. It combines electronics with traditional drum and song.
Like I said the ethnic music I have studied from Cuba Brazil, Haiti and West Africa is part of a situation or ceremomy for example. At a wedding in Mali you have griots, keepers of the tradition who sing praise songs, drummers and dancers. With out all of this you do not have the party.
With out all of the elements you do not have the wedding ceremony so it is important for them to have everything in place.
Music is important but I think it is also important to realize that when you hear djembe drumming or congas or ethnic drumming, it is part of a “whole”scenario. It comes from a tradition. Unfortunately people sometimes still equate congas with Ricky Ricardo and djemebes with people flailing on the beach. But there is much much more to it.
If you are seeing drumming with out the dance, song, and therefore with out group spirit or intention then it is now something different and for me personally, lacking. I like to have all the elements there when I am performing or playing. Song, dance, drum and community/group participation and spirit.
I love a drum circle ocasionaly and have a great time connecting with others and forming community on the spot. That said, it is different then traditional drumming, dance and music which has it’s own set of functions.
I think it is important for any culture to retain their heritage no matter what culture it is. Without the begining there is no end