I had the good fortune recently to have a Q and A session with the incredible Michael Markus. Known not only for his great drumming, wit and humour he is co founder of the Wula Drum company, Wula Dance Retreat and runs the World Percussion Center in NYC. For many years he has been one of the premier non African djembe players in the USA.
Michael Pluznick: “What is Wula Drum and what does the name Wula mean?
Michael Markus: “Wula means (in Susu) the forest, referring to deep in the forest- where the special wood is. The name was given to us by Master drummer M’bemba Bangoura, my long time teacher and close friend. He is our advisor, our musical director, and helps to oversee all communications and movements in Guinea. He is an integral part of Wula Drum.
Wula Drum is a company we created which provides products and services-all related to the djembe and percussion music of West Africa. We hand make and distribute the best and highest quality African percussion instruments from Guinea, West Africa.
We have djembe’s, dunun, balaphones, sticks and many other related products and accessories as well.
All of these products are state of the art, meaning they have been created over time and represent many years of development. The Wula djembe drum and related instruments have evolved over the past years both in West Africa and abroad and much of this evolution can be directly related to innovations introduced by members of the Wula team.
We also offer a wide range of educational programs, events, entertainment, and wellness programs- all related to drumming and dancing.
Our Wula Drum And Dance Retreat is going on its 18th season. Last year it featured M’Bemba Bangoura, Bolokada Conde, Moussa Traore, Yousouff Koumbassa and a host of others.
At the Wula Drum And Dance Retreat there are not only West African drum classes and dance classes but Afro Cuban, Brazilian and Shekere workshops as well. We even included a jam room last year (led by Michael Pluznick) which was a huge success”!
It is located at a beautiful upscale retreat in the Pocono Mountain range. *(Please see the link below for more info).
MP: “What services do you offer”?
MM: “We have a wide range of services. Classes, workshops, and retreats to learn hand drumming and dance. Within our wellness programs we use drumming to assist with various therapies for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, stress reduction, autism, etc). We offer corporate team building, youth empowerment programs, entertainment, performances, and even instrument making and repairs”.
MP: “Who is your clientele”?
MM: “All good people everywhere. We believe that music and dance truly bring people together and break down barriers of race, class, age, gender, religion and political views. We distribute drums worldwide and travel near and far to teach and perform”.
MP: “How long has Wula Drums been around”?
MM: “Started very informally in 1995, as a side business, and has organically grown each year. Named as Wula Drum in 2007. However, 2011 was the year we more formally incorporated”.
MP: “How and why did you start it”?
MM: “It was a gradual transition. From teaching and fixing drums on the side, Wula Drum grew out of the trips to Guinea with M’bemba Bangoura starting in 1995.
I noticed the synergy created with the djembe and all the ways in which people wanted to be a part of it. Some folks want to purchase a drum to play, some to study the culture, others to attend performances, take a trip to Guinea, or have a school presentation.
After 2006, we increased both the drum production and amount of programs offered. My former partner, Tom, stayed in Guinea making drums, and I developed the company in NYC, along with serveral others involved at various levels.
We could not separate or restrict the route in which people experience the music and dance and wanted to facilitate the ability to become totally immersed in all aspects. It is important to realize the difference between Wula Drum and so many others.
First of all, we are a company, a small company, but a company nonetheless. Each person has a role, or a few roles, and we all work very hard towards a common goal. We also offer educational programming and not just instruments for sale”.
M.P. “What is your experience building drums? Who did you learn from”?
MM: “Our team of carvers and mounters are in Guinea and most all drums are assembled there. We take pride in having a fantastic group of incredible craftsman.
M’Bemba Bangoura my long time teacher has always guided me along my path with his own masterful knowledge as well as his close friends, and family. He introduced Tom and I to all the carvers in Conakry who we worked with. He brought us into the culture, me in 1995 onward, and Tom several years later when he came on our trip in 2002, I believe.
Wula Drum take great pride in including in every product we produce. Its this fine attention to small details, the little things if you will that helps set us apart from some of the other companies that are rushing out drums to the market place with out full development programs. We do not rush our people, we want to get it right”.
MP: “What is your experience as a drummer, who did you study with”?
MM: “I grew up playing drum set from the age of 12. My teacher, Lee Diaz, was half Cuban, so he introduced me to the congas. I immediately took to the drum and them to me. I was hooked on hand drums!
The journey had started. Now it was off to music school at Ithaca College to get a degree in Percussion performance.
While at Ithaca, I met a man, who became my mentor. His name is Maurice Haltom and he changed my life. He taught me congas, dance, Kung Fu, Tai Chi, and introduced me to the djembe a little bit.
He interrelated all the skills he knew and it was a very, very wholesome and holistic experience. Here is where I learned so many things about drumming, but more so about life.
Maurice really prepared me to be able to focus and eventually learn from the masters in Guinea”.
MP: “What is the philosophy of Wula Drum”?
MM: “We believe that music and dance truly bring people together and break down barriers of race, class, age, gender, nationality, religion and political views. Communication is key to learn about each other and Music and Dance are a great form of communication. Through this communication we build community. Because it is all about coming together, bringing people together through the spirit of drum and dance”.
MP: “Can you please explain the process of what happens when you receive a shell from west africa? A lot of people do not realize that the drum they are playing has had a variety of work done to it”.
“Wula Drum is a company. We MAKE our drums, we are not just middlemen who buy drums, like so many others. We make everything to the highest quality we can from the very beginning stages all the way to shipping it to the customer.
Each drum shell is carefully hand carved from hand selected logs, all of the highest quality. All of Wula’s drums go through 25+ stages of production. We have developed several different models of djembe, each which has a different level of craftsmanship, and at a different price point.
Some drums are custom orders and this is a unique process where we work hand and hand with the customer to bring his creative vision, his ultimate drum to life”.
MP:.” Without giving away any secrets, can you please tell us what you do to a shell and what goes into “building a Wula Drum? *(leveling out the drum, bearing edge work, oiling the shell, etc., etc.)”
MM: ” There are so many steps to making a drum! It’s not just thrown together and it is indeed a sacred art form. It takes years of experience for someone to carve the inside and also the outside of a Djembe drum or Dunun drum.
Most people do NOT realize how much work goes into hand crafting a quality drum. Each step of the process has to be correct or it will affect the results.
All the way from making a ‘rough shell’- to naturally drying the wood. Carving the interior (by hand) , carving the exterior (by hand) , sanding, planning, leveling, oiling, waxing. Decorating (by hand) , making rings, shaving skin, pulling the drum tight. Packed and shipped across the atlantic….”
Each current individual drum represents years of experience that our carvers have put in to get their skills at a masterful level. In the world market place all djembes are not the same. Drums may look similar, but the work you do not see, what is done on the inside of the drum, the degree or carving and perfection is as important as what you see on the outside of the drum”.
MP: “How much work goes into prepping a drum?
I ask this because I have been ordering a few drums drums from West Africa from different companies, and each drum always needs more work.
There is always shell work to be done, bearing edge work, rope work.
The drums always I order always need something. Yes, it gets better each time, but it takes years to get a relationship with a carver and to order and get a drum exactly as you want it”.
MM: “As I mentioned there are the 25 stages and of course the final inspection. Our relationships with our carvers are fantastic and because we have been at it so long we have worked out all the kinks that you are speaking of.
If for some reason something is not right, the drum must be reworked. We do whatever it takes to make the best sounding and best possible product on every level. From start to finish every step of the process is related to a formula for success we have developed through our many years of experience.
Packing and shipping is an art form unto itself and it must be done very carefully as well to insure the master piece gets delivered in one piece!
Many people have lost drums in shipping so this is something else that has taken time to develop. Over the years we have carefully developed effective ways and means to get our drums here to the USA and abroad and most importantly to you”.
MP: “When a customer gets or orders a custom drum what are his or her options?
MM: ” Wood type, measurements, diameter, height, model type, form, decoration, mounting style, skin thickness, type of rope and colour. Also weight is important to many people.
We understand the needs of many people for lighter weight drums and have introduced a new line of Melina wood drums with this in mind. This wood is super light weight, durable and produces very nice sound. They are really nice- I urge folks to check them out! Please click on the link directly below and check out Kolipe playing an 11″ Wula Drum Melina djembe in a video!
The many types of decoration, carvings and add ons is endless. Stone inlays, cowry shell configurations, and different colours are all possible options to name a few.
Basically every aspect of the drum can be decided by the client. Our carvers work from photos and can carve basically any design or idea. We can also give you ideas and help you develop your own.
Wula Drum is known for its decorative exterior carvings which are by and far some of the nicest on the planet bar none. Each carving is a unique art piece unto itself.” Not only are the drums beautiful they are durable as well”!
MP: “What are your price points for drums”?
MM: “We retail and wholesale
Although many people know we offer very high end, top shelf quality drums, we have designed several models of djembe to fit almost every price point. We do not, however make any sub quality, inadequate drums- all our items are made well, using excellent materials”.
So, for retail we have price points of$250- 950. As far as Djembes, for $350 and above we offer excellent quality djembes.
We also Wholesale, so there are many price points”.
MP: “What innovations has Wula been responsible for”?
MM: “Although the djembe world is getting bigger and bigger, it is amazing how small it is in the sense that everyone knows everyone and watching. Many small companies, other independent drum carvers and the like, have copied Wula Drum over the years. I would say Wula’s innovations are in the form of the drum, creating different model tyes or classes, and the decorative style.
Each year we do something new, and so many immediately copy us. Sometimes people copy our style thinking it is the thing to do, even if we made changes for other reasons.
For example, one year, in order to conserve our finances, we only decorated ¼-1/3 of the stem on many of our drums. Everyone else started doing this too. It amazes me how many ‘follow suit’ and have little creativity or originality. I guess it is ‘flattery’, yes”?
MP: “How much repair and head replacements are you doing”?
MM: “Various depending on what time of year. Our repair shop is always ready willing and able!
Currently we are repairing drums, and looking to expand our services over the next few months. We are setting up a separate space from that of our showroom to get everything tidy and organized”.
MP: Where do you see Wula Drum Company in 5 years from now, in 10 years from now”?
MM: “Slap, Tone and Bass will continue until the end of time. We are continuing our growth and expansion one step at a time, inch by inch.
There are some new and exciting innovations and products on the way and we are working with various professional musicians developing some very interesting new thing. Keep your eyes and ears open!”
MP: “That has great interest to me. Can you tell us more along these lines? Is there any future product or anything you would like to let us know about to look forward to in the near future”?
MM: “Yes. Currently Wula is working on expanding its instrument line to handcraft other types of drums in Guinea. We have a prototype for a Bata, and Ashiko. Next year we plan on solid shell one piece Congas, Bongos, as well as different styles of Djembes representing Mali, and the Ivory Coast. In additional we are on the brink of releasing a ‘play along’ audio project showing the rhythms, solos and enabling the student to really practice along with the music”.
MP: “Can you give the names of any Wula endorsers or famous people either using your drum or who you have put heads on for”?
MM: “Wula Drum has provided instruments for many well known musicians, companies, productions, etc.
From dozens of Master Drummers, to studio Musicians, Broadway shows, (The Lion King, Tarzaan -Phil Collins, Fela, Beauty and The beast, to schools and Universities, we try to be accessible and have something to offer everyone.
What is Wula Drum about? A quality instrument of their dreams. Look at our ‘Who Plays Wula’ page on our web site”.
MP: “Does Wula support any replanting or tree regrowth in West Africa?”
MM: “YES. In the past we have plantred several thousand trees, but it can be complicated working with outside organizations. Trees need to first grow in a nursery, then transported once they are a certain size. So we have had starts and stops. HOWEVER, we are currently planning a huge step forward starting in the fall of 2016! We hope to be planting thousands and thousands of trees. This is one of our main goals and focuses.
Also good to know our mission is to pay a higher wage and help encourage sustainable incomes for all working with Wula Drum”.
MP: ” Who ha been the major inspiration in you life/company/music, etc”?!
MM: “M’bemba Bangoura
He gave us the name. He has been a mentor to me personally, a great teacher, and an advisor for Wula Drum the whole way trough. Also Michael Pluznick- he typed this interview up. Oh and James Brown”
MP: “LOL! Thank you for your time Michael Markus, it was really interesting chatting with you and I hope everyone else enjoys this interview as much as I did. And thanks for putting out such a great product line and more importantly your continuous support of West African drumming, dance and cultural events that you have been supporting for over 25 years as well”!
Please click on the links below for more information.
Some of the drum teachers Michael Markus has studied with:
Lansana Kouyate (balaphonist)
Gbanworo Keita (RIP!!!)
Boka Camara (RIP!!!)
Mamoudouba ‘DEL MUNDO’ Keita (RIP!!!)
ALSO VARIOUS OTHERS>>>>>>
Bangaly Bangoura (RIP!!!)
Paul Camara (RIP!!)
ALSO VARIOUS OTHERS…..