Sarah Thawer chats to SA Drummer

Sarah Thawer is a drummer based in Toronto, Canada. She is currently freelancing, collaborating, doing session work and performing with international artists playing jazz, latin, gospel, hip hop, funk, r&b/soul, fusion, indian and world music.

Photo by Brendan-Mariani

Okay to start off, can we get some back story? Where were you born? Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada.

When did you start playing the drums?

I have been playing drums for as long as I can remember. My parents have footage of me playing the drums at age two, so I usually go with that!

Were there any other instruments before you found the best one?

Drums were always number one, and they will always be! 🙂 We had so many percussion instruments as well as drum kits in the house. I played various world percussion growing up, such as tabla, dholak, dhol, ghatam, Kanjira, Cajon, Tumbek, darbuka, congas, timbale, bongos, etc. I also studied western classical piano for over ten years as well as sang in English and various other languages. I feel that playing all of these instruments on top of playing drum kit played a huge roll in my development as a drummer and musician.

What was your earliest musical performance? Age six if I’m not mistaken?

Close! 🙂 My first performance on stage was at age five.

Did your dad being a musician have a very large influence on you with regards to your passions for drumming and just music in general?

My dad’s passion for music was the way I got introduced to music. He would have rehearsals a few times a week at our home, and there would be instruments laying everywhere. My dad would babysit my twin sister and me by having us three jamming on instruments for hours. I would fall asleep with either hearing music from my dad’s band rehearsing or my parents having us fall asleep to different albums playing every single night.

Since my dad is a self-taught musician as well, I learned music in a very organic way. I first started off playing percussion in his band then moved to the drum kit. Being the drummer in his band, he didn’t always hire percussionists, and he would ask me to play all the percussion parts on the kit. Indian music is very percussion-based, and he would ask me to cover tabla, dholak, dhol, etc. parts on the drum kit. That forced me to tap into my creative side. That also became a hobby of mine, where after school, I would listen to Indian music, hear the grooves, play them on Indian percussion and then hop on the drum kit and see how I could voice them on the kit. I would try imitating the clicking of a ring hitting the shell on the dholak, and using the rim on the kit to simulate that sound.

Two big lessons I learned from playing with my dad was learning the right “feel” in the music and developing intuition. Anything I played, specifically the Indian genres of music such as ghazals, bhajans, qawwalis, folk, etc., I would start playing them in rehearsals for the gigs, and he would say, “It doesn’t feel right.” Because he was self-taught, he didn’t know why it didn’t feel right, so he would just say, “It doesn’t feel right, fix it and come back and play me the groove.” I developed intuition by playing with my dad because he would put me in so many situations where we would be on stage, I wouldn’t know what song we were about to play, and when we would start playing it was a song that was never rehearsed and chosen on the spot. On stage, he would quickly beatbox the groove to me and tell me just to feel the song and figure it out. His band was (still is) kind of a house band for different artists coming from India, for local gigs and various festivals, so the repertoire is massive, and of course, each artist’s style is very different.

My development as a musician was unorthodox. I never had formal lessons on drum set growing up. I learned on the bandstand and from the music, from watching and transcribing percussion onto the kit. I never learned how to hold a stick or never used a drum book until I went to university.

Was your mom a musician as well?

My mom is not a musician, and she’s an electrical engineer. She has an incredible work ethic, discipline, and this constant desire to learn in every area of her life. She inspires me to practice, work hard, and her motto is, “Never leave a page unturned.”

I feel so fortunate that my parents have been incredibly supportive of my music journey for as long as I can remember.

– Sarah Thawer

 Growing up in a traditional Indian household, even with your dad being a musician, did you experience any resistance when it came to your dream of being a musician/drummer?

My parents did not want me to become a drummer because they never wanted me to suffer, and they cared for my well-being. Their reasoning was the life of a musician/drummer can be unpredictable and not consistent or reliable, and it includes staying up late nights, carrying gear, and on top of that, drummers are always at the back and that no one cares about drummers. They said if I wanted to be in music, I should become a singer/songwriter and pianist, so that I will always be at the front of the stage since I am the ‘artist,’ and that I will not get treated poorly, and make more money.

As a result, they enrolled me in western classical piano lessons for over ten years, as well as Indian classical singing and pop singing for more than ten decades. At the time, I hated it but got forced to attend these weekly lessons and practice piano and singing daily. However, they quickly noticed that all I cared about was playing drums and how hard I worked towards being a drummer. So they told me to take the mindset of being an artist and translate it to the drums and become a “drummer-artist” and have a name for myself.

How did you convince them to go along with your dream of being a professional working drummer?

I feel so fortunate that my parents have been incredibly supportive of my music journey for as long as I can remember. Since I was a little kid, I asked them to buy me so many instruments, and they would never say no. They bought me over three drum kits growing up, over 20 percussion instruments, pianos, guitar, you name it. They always encouraged me to practice, to keep learning, and getting better. My parents, especially my mom and grandfather, believed in getting educated at the post-secondary level. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to university for music, I just wanted to play. She forced me to go to university and told me that the condition was that they would continue to support me after high school only if I went to university and got a degree. So I went to study at York University in Toronto to study jazz and world music performance, was awarded the Oscar Peterson Scholarship, and graduated with the Summa Cum Laude distinction. I thank her almost every day that she forced me to go to university. University exposed me to so many genres of music and exposed me to so much that I did not know was out there.

Can you tell us more about your piano education and training, and how it affected your perception of music, your thinking and performance on a kit?

My parents forced to take piano classes weekly for over ten years. I studied western classical piano under the Royal Conservatory of Music program and completed until grade 9 (which was the second last grade for the program). Then in university, I took harmony, counterpoint, jazz theory, harmony, and composition also. Understanding theory and playing the piano is so important. It has helped me see music from various angles and helped me understand what is happening in the music, so I don’t always have to respond to rhythms— so that I can respond to chords and melody. I love listening to music without any drum kit, and I especially love listening to ballads. My theory and piano education connected me emotionally to melody and harmony. I feel so emotionally invested in chord changes, melody and can respond with an emotional connection on the drums.

You told your parents that if they supported your drumming career, you would give over 100%, and it’s evident that you did seeing as you received the Oscar Peterson Scholarship as well as graduating with the Summa Cum Laude distinction. Have you always been a hard worker? Or was this you proving a point?

To be honest, I don’t think I work hard enough. The thing is that I love what I do, and because I enjoy it so much, I can’t tell if I am working hard— I’m just having fun and enjoying the journey. It’s funny because when I am doing laundry, I feel like I have worked extremely hard and need a reward and a break. But when I practice three hours on the drum kit on an average day, I just want to keep going, and I know there’s still so much to learn and do.

Do you feel there were benefits to growing up in Canada, Toronto, with regards to the music scene, culture, etc.?

Most definitely. Toronto is extremely diverse in regards to the culture and especially music. You can listen to any genre of music, and you can find a venue that will suit that genre. One of the main reasons I love living in Toronto is because I get to play at least three different genres of music weekly. Every Sunday, I play gospel music at a church (this will be the fourth year since I started playing there), then I’ll have a straight-ahead jazz gig at The Rex Hotel and Blues Bar. The following day I’ll be playing Cuban music at Lula Lounge, later some R’n’B and hip-hop at Poetry Jazz Cafe, then some middle eastern music at the DROM, and then I’ll play some Indian music at a festival. By the way, this is just scratching the surface.

Photo by Brendan-Mariani

You strongly advocate taking Indian rhythms and applying them to the drums in a modern way. How do you go about translating or interpreting these ideas?

A simple example of interpreting, for instance, the tabla on the kit would be to take the bass of the tabla (Baiyan) and assign it’s pattern to the kick, take the high pitch sound of the tabla and assign it to the snare. The hi-hats would be emulating the ghost notes that get played in between the accents on the tabla, which really helps with the feel. To go another step further, the syllable “Ghe” being the bass of the tabla would be the kick, the “Tin” a more open sound on the tabla could be simulated by the cross stick and “Ta,” a sharp accent could be the snare.

My approach to translating Indian rhythms and grooves came from just having fun and being creative. Growing up, I was a kid who was a drummer but loved the rhythm and grooves that came from percussion. It became a mission of mine and a hobby to hear a tabla, or dholak or dhol groove, for instance, and then find many ways to voice it on the kit. My favorite rhythms to translate on the kit were from genres such as ghazals, qawwalis, folk, classical, semi-classical, Bollywood, and so many others.

A little back story on why I started translating Indian rhythms onto the kit:

Indian music was the only music I was surrounded by and listened to growing up. On these records, the rhythm section is filled with various and diverse percussion instruments, with drum kit being played like a percussion instrument rather than it being in the forefront, such as in western music. I would line up all my percussion instruments and drum kit in the basement and would use my elbows, fingers, hands, hold the stick in funny ways, hit cookie jars, hair straighteners, and the locks on doors to try and achieve and copy the sounds and grooves that I heard on those records. I even remember hiding in the corner during family gatherings to make drum and percussion grooves on my dad’s drum machine: BOSS Dr. Rhythm DR-660 and on the SPD 30. I still remember some of those grooves.

Growing up, I never conventionally played drum kit – I never thought of coordination, independence, rudiments, or any of that stuff. That came later on. I just tried playing the grooves, beats and tried to emulate the sounds from those records, as mentioned earlier. Then, I would start to improvise. I would sit for hours and just play with the floor tom. Looking back now, I did develop some independence as many of the grooves had a theme, and then one limb would do different variations, but I never thought of it like that. My drumming journey never started with a drum book, a rudiment, or a drum teacher. It started with my ears, listening to the music, on stage, and diving into creativity of how I could achieve the sounds and have a creative approach without even knowing how to hold a stick correctly and understanding various grips. That mindset of listening to percussion and playing grooves that stem from percussion on a drum kit has molded me into the drummer I am today. It’s like seeing the kit in a whole new way. 

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