Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Being the Desert Drummer

It's been a few years since I've performed as a solo drum set artist and I am really looking forward to getting back into Desert Drummer mode. My last appearance was at the Music Instrument Museum for a special weekend when they were opening a six month exhibit called Beyond the Beat: Drums of the World. I was honored to be invited as one of the featured performers but then was soon back into the grind of the working band situation and it's hard to believe that I put my own creative project aside for the next few years.

Solo drumming is not an easy sell and things have not been the same since 2008 when the economy took a major hit. Prior to that I had so many gigs doing my solo drumming act that I remember once showing up to a band rehearsal and as we were about to rehearse a tune that featured a shuffle beat I struggled for a bit and then realized that I hadn't crossed my lead hand over to the hi-hat in order to play a standard back beat in about 6 months! Times have definitely changed.

Through a series of personal reflections and encouragement from a dear friend who is more like a guardian angel to me I decided to give my solo drum set act another shot. Prior to that I kind of accepted the fact that maybe it was something that people just weren't interested in seeing anymore. The music business is tough at all levels and it can really discourage even those who appear to be the most driven. I have learned that sometimes you have to not only adapt to the current scene but also accept the fact that your stuff may not be what an audience is looking for. I wasn't really upset about the possibility of putting the whole Desert Drummer thing to bed. In fact, I kind of felt a sense of peace about it because to me it was just time to accept reality for what it was and move on. It wasn't like I wasn't still performing with musicians that I enjoyed working with so why sit around and feel sorry for myself when I was still out there performing on a regular basis?

However, it didn't take long to realize that I was in fact living in a state of denial, which led me to hit the networking trail again in order to see what awaited me in the solo drumming world.  Yes, the struggle is still there but I am really surprised how many people are interested in at least learning more about what I do with some already booking me for a future event.

So who is this Desert Drummer that some of you have heard about? I do talk about it a bit in my music memoir but I'll try to share some things in this blog that might be at least from a different perspective than all that I shared in my book:


It all started when I bought my first African drumming CD. I knew that all of the Latin rhythms that I heard growing up had come to this continent through the slave trade but I never took the time to hear the rhythms in what I call their original form. I wanted to explore these rhythms beyond the way they were used in the music of my childhood so I bought various African CD's or would check out CD's from various libraries that had world music titles in their collection.

Before I knew it I wanted to see if I could apply these rhythms to the drum set. This surprised the few people who knew what I was up to because they immediately thought that I would start playing on African drums and maybe join an African drumming ensemble. That was really never a thought that crossed my mind because I am not only a drummer but I am proud to say that I play the drum set and while many percussionists learn several instruments during their collegiate studies I believe that the drum set can be a life long study the same way people focus on instruments such as the piano, guitar, voice, etc. I have nothing against playing other percussion instruments as I in fact own several different types of instruments but the drum set has always been my first love as a musician.

On another note, the reason I shy away from the authentic instruments (besides the fact that I am not as wealthy as Mickey Hart and Stewart Copeland and don't have the room they have to store all of this stuff) is the amount of respect I have for those who created these beautiful rhythms as well as those who continue these traditions today. I did not grow up in these cultures so I would rather do something that is more of my interpretation of what they do rather than try to recreate the masterpieces that these amazing artists have already given to the world.

When I started to experiment with these rhythms I fell in love with the whole process. It wasn't as challenging as I thought it would be because I had already been working on Afro-Cuban rhythms for a number of years, which means that 4-way independence was not a foreign concept to me. To some that means that I have already been working on African rhythms but what I prefer to focus on is the fact that I had already been orchestrating rhythms around the drum set for some time. Still, it was more about playing each of these rhythms well and making sure that everything grooved so the key to getting it right was to play them over and over again.

But then it was time for the real challenge: soloing over ostinatos played with my feet. If I'm going to groove then the groove has to continue and there was no way that I was going to just stop keeping some kind of groove going with my feet while I went for it with my hands. That and the fact that I wanted my hands to do something more than just the typical type of drum soloing we normally see from drum set players. I wanted my solos to say something it wasn't just about being able to improvise over these ostinatos. I also had to be worked on phrasing various patterns over my feet and make sure these patterns said something. The best example I can give is a blues guitarist playing that painful lead over the back up band. It's not enough to just plug in your guitar and let loose. You have to tell a story with that you are playing and that is not easy to do.

The first thing I did was something I had never really done before and that was to record my practice sessions. I would listen to my grooves and my soloing ideas and I noticed that I wasn't just going from one thing to another but actually arranging different variations of each rhythm in a precise manner. In other words, I was playing a song on the drum set! And I noticed that some of these tunes went longer than a couple of minutes and to my ear it didn't seem to repetitive. I could be on to something here.

Hitting the Stage 

It was 2006 and I was gigging off and on with a friend's band in Southern California. One night we were preparing to do a 2-hour set at a local rock club so while we did a lot of their original songs we also added some covers to fill the time. Still, when they timed the set we still fell short of having enough material so that was when my buddy decided to approach me a couple of questions I didn't expect to hear from him: "Can you do a drum solo and can you do one that is longer than most?"


So that night we hit the stage at a place called DiPiazza's in Long Beach, CA, which was right by my old university stomping grounds of Cal State Long Beach. We did our thing as a band for quite a while but I was still excited when it was time for me to do my solo. The other guys exited the stage and that's when it was time to give the drummer some. 

Now this was far from my first drum solo in front of an audience but this would be the first time I took my new drumming ideas based on world rhythms to the stage so I was curious to see how the audience would react. I must have played for a good 5-6 minutes as I did a bunch of stuff around a 3:2 Son Clave. Yes, it's known as a Latin rhythm but I went further than just playing the rhythms that people usually heard on Santana songs. I incorporated the Kpanlogo drum patterns onto the toms before kicking into the improvisational part that was played over the Clave and Tumbao rhythms that my feet did throughout the solo. I then brought it back to the grooves I did at the beginning of the solo and then ended it.

The crowd roared its approval, which was the last nod I needed because if a rock crowd liked what I did then I could only imagine the reaction a crowd that was really into world rhythms. I had no idea what the future would hold for me but this encouraged me to at least give this idea of mine a shot.

I began to network my new solo act in the Southern California music scene that I had been a part of from 1991-2006. My wife and I had already made the decision to move to the Tucson area and it was now the spring of 2006. I knew I had a couple of months before leaving the state of my birth and I was determined to perform at least one time before moving away. It wasn't easy to say the least. To my surprise many of the booking agents were intrigued by the idea of what I was doing but were a bit gun shy when it came to giving it a go. Most of them were actually really encouraging when they declined to give me an opportunity to perform on their stages as they did appreciate what I was doing. They just had to think more about what they knew would make money rather than give something new a shot at performing at their venues. I totally understood even though it was always disappointing to be turned away.

To my surprise the venue that went for it was The Blue Cafe in Long Beach, CA. My performance would be in late May of 2006 and was literally less than two weeks before I would pack my drums and head to the Arizona desert. I was really moved by the fact that members of my family, several friends & former band mates along with some of my underage former students who schmoozed their way in to the venue came down to see what I was doing as a solo drummer. I practiced so much for the event so I felt comfortable in terms of what I was going to play but I still had no idea how the audience would react. Well, the reaction was better than I could hope for so it would not only be an encouraging night for me as an artist but also a nice way to say good bye to the Los Angeles music scene as a local performer.

Becoming the Desert Drummer 

It didn't take long for me to create this identity if you will since I was going to live in the desert but I was a bit surprised how quickly I was able to get gigs as solo drum set artist. I played at city sponsored outdoor events, in Master Class settings at colleges, high schools & other educational venues, on local television & radio shows and even in several clubs both in the Tucson and Phoenix areas. The best part about it was that all I really needed was a flat surface and enough room to set up my drums and I was off. Most importantly, I had a blast doing it!

There are two highlights for me that I would like to share with the first one being the featured musical performer at the Arizona Black Film Festival, which was held the year I performed there at the Phoenix Convention Center. Here I was surrounded by filmmakers and fans alike and I was scheduled to go on right after they presented Hollywood actress Lynn Whitfield with a lifetime achievement award. When she finished her speech she was actually the one to introduce me to the audience so I looked over at her and smiled when she called my name and then I was off. To say I was nervous was an understatement because I was in a packed house of people wearing African inspired clothing playing African rhythms all over my drum set. If there was ever a time to be on it was then and to be honest, I was in fact in the zone!

The second highlight for me was being invited on three occasions to perform at the Music Instrument Museum in Phoenix. The first time I was there I spent the day leading two Master Classes for museum patrons with my next two performances being solo performance spots for special events. This museum is incredible and is known around the world for several good reasons. So, to be invited there to perform on multiple occasions was a great honor indeed.

Now, after a bit of a break (or self-imposed exile if I want to be a little dramatic), I am back! I am happy to say that I am hitting the streets again while hitting the woodshed and not only relearning some of my old grooves but also working on new ideas for both solo performances and Master Class opportunities. For the past two school years I have been teaching percussion at St. Augustine Catholic High School and had a blast sharing all that I can with my students. Now, the idea of doing the same thing with other drummers excites me more than ever. I hope to share not only a different way of playing the instrument but also, perhaps I can inspire someone to have the courage to not only step out of their comfort zone but to try something on a creative level that they never saw themselves doing.

After all, I never saw this coming and now it is a passion of mine that simply won't go away.

I hope to see you all real soon at a Desert Drummer appearance. You can get regular updates on my solo performance schedule at:

Here is an older promo I did for Soultone Cymbals that features some of my solo drumming:

All inquiries for Master Classes & performances can be messaged through any of these social media websites. 

Carlos Solorzano

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