Greg Ellis: The Rhythmatist
Though you may not know my name, I’m sure you’ve heard my drumming.
American drummer and percussionist Greg Ellis‘ name may not be familiar to many, but the prolific musician’s sound certainly is. Over his 30+ year career, he has recorded and performed with some of the biggest composers and artists around the globe, amassing a credit list of hundreds of albums and over 150 film scores, including pop-culture phenomena The Matrix: Reloaded and Revolutions, the 2007 period action film 300, Marvel’s Iron Man, and 2012 Best Picture, Argo. One would not be mistaken to say an entire generation was nurtured and moved by the sound of Greg’s rhythmic prowess.
Influenced by the colourful culture of Jazz, Soul, Classical and R&B of San Francisco of the late ’60s and early ’70s, Greg admits he was first moved by the groove of music, rather than its technicality. Picking up the drums at the age of 12, Greg began to teach himself to play, using just a pair of headphones, and his collection of rock and roll records.
“Being self-taught gave me a different sense of music, I think. Music wasn’t something I was learning, it was something I was feeling. There was a sense of discovery in music that kept me searching further for different types, and for the purpose of music.” Greg says.
Greg’s quest for discovery has taken him on a sonic journey of the world and its many cultures, indulging in African, Indonesian, Asian, South American and Indian music. Influenced by this cacophony of sound, Greg’s work took on the quality of a multi-lingual love letter to music. Learning from and playing with the modern masters of Indian classical music, including Zakir Hussain, Lakshmi Shankar, Bickram Ghosh, Pandit Shankar Ghosh, and more, Greg elaborates on his deeply personal and profound connection with the sounds of India.
“I think Indian music really gave me a deeper sense of responsibility in how I approach rhythm, drumming and my own music. A sense of mastery that was exhibited not only in technical virtuosity but in music’s spiritual effects.” Greg explains.
This pursuit of understanding of the world’s many cultures and their rhythmic languages is what inspired Greg 20 years ago to shift his focus as a professional rock and roll drummer to world music and hand percussion. He has since amassed a unique collection of hundreds of musical instruments from over 30 countries across the globe. From his first nagara drum, gifted to him over 20 years ago on his first trip to Pushkar, to gongs from Java, China and Bhutan, singing bowls from Tibet, udu drums from Nigeria, darbukas and frame drums from Turkey and chanchans from Bali, Greg’s collection boasts a musical diversity most spend their lives trying to achieve. Of his most prized possessions, Greg explains, a number are surrounded by an air of unique spirituality, and of almost macabre allure.
“I have a kangling and dumru from Tibet. I acquired them in Kathmandu on a trip to Nepal. These are the most sacred of my instruments. They are Buddhist ritual instruments made out of human bone; the kangling is a horn made from a hollowed-out ulna (leg bone), and the dumru is a drum made from two human skull caps. These bones are from deceased monks who played these instruments, so their physical body becomes an instrument after they die. It’s quite profound. I never use these instruments on recordings.” Greg explains, “I had them blessed by a Tibetan Rinpoche who was visiting my home. I was worried I needed to return them to their original home, or if they were considered contraband. I played them both for him, and after he said if instruments of that quality had ended up in my possession, that they are meant to be with me.”
With a roster of over 150 culture-defining film and TV scores credited to his person, Greg reveals that his work with The Matrix films, 300, and Argo have been his most cherished. “The look of some of these films was ground-breaking at the time, and you knew you were working on something brand new that would have a huge impact on culture,” Greg explains.
At the peak of his career, however, the world began to witness a shift that would change the landscape of music and sound forever. As the world marched in sync with the Spartan army to the powerful beats of Greg’s drums circa 2007 in the film 300, digital sound libraries were being developed, soundlessly, in the shadows. Soon, the art of sampling would infiltrate the recording industry, ushering in a new normal, which would change the face of popular music as we know it.
“Not only most mainstream music, but specifically the world of film scores has distanced itself from many live musicians. My work was literally taken over by the sampling and pre-recorded sound libraries. My collection of instruments are now just sounds that are available to anyone at the touch of a button.” Greg explains, “What’s lost is the moments of working with live musicians, that created something fresh and unpredictable. That used to be of enormous value among film composers but that value has diminished greatly as studios and producers want it all to sound the same. The unpredictability of new sounds and approaches to film scoring became something of the past.”
What is your earliest memory of rhythm? Was it the first record you bought with your allowance, or the first show you ever attended? Perhaps it was the first instrument you ever learned to play or the first song you fell in love with. Whether or not we remember it, we all began our journey as human beings to the sound of the same rhythm; the unadulterated, raw sound of nature performing its most vibrant of miracles; It all begins with a heartbeat.
Our relationship with sound and rhythm transcends the confines of a single species, of countries, borders, and religious belief. From the early primates of over 8 million years ago, thumping their chests to assert dominance or mark a perceived threat, to the crude percussive instruments unearthed by archaeological finds, left behind by early homo sapiens, life began speaking in nature’s native tongue, the language of sound and rhythm, moulding communities and paving the way to civilisation. From this universal language were born the dialects of dance, of song, of chanting, and of course, of drumming.
From time immemorial, early civilisations all marked the passing of time by watching the rhythms of nature, and that of the beating drum. That was, until 800 years ago, when technology paved the way for mechanical time-keepers, diverting our collective pursuit of natural rhythm towards the conquest of mechanical precision. This phenomenon is what eventually gave birth to the metronome, establishing a mechanical standard by which human rhythmic performance may be judged.
It is this very standard that Greg’s upcoming docu-series, The Click aims to build a discourse around. Named after the recording feature known as the click track, the current standard for time-keeping in recorded music, The Click has been something of a passion project for Greg, and has been in production for almost a decade.
“It explores our sense of time through the history of the drum and the clock and looks at the way mechanical time has affected our rhythm, our life and our sense of time itself. It’s named after the click track, which is the digital metronome all music today is recorded to. It denies the musicians, especially the drummer, to ebb and flow with the energy of music. There is no fluctuation in a piece of music from the first beat to the last. As it became standard in the late 80s, due to the onset of synthesisers and digital recording, to use a click track, it also meant a drummer’s performance in the studio was judged solely on how well he could play to the click. If you weren’t able to play like a machine and stay perfectly on time with the click, you were replaced.” Greg explains, “The click track is what eventually allowed drummers to be replaced by drum machines and loops.”
An effort to view this mechanical standard from a holistic, cultural perspective, The Click is Greg’s witness statement, narrating a tale of a global culture moving away from the intrinsic rhythm of nature, towards a mechanically-induced state of uniformity.
“Aside from looking at its effect on music, I also use it as an analogy to compare our lives also being run in a similar way by a click track.” Greg explains, “Every one of us in the world is on the exact same time, our natural sense of rhythm being overruled by a digital timekeeper, and now it’s not just musicians being replaced by robots. The Click will hopefully remind us that the best parts of who we are as humans are not digitally replaceable. The nuances and infinite possibilities of what it is to be human, I feel, will always rise above.”
A commentary on the current state of society from the perspective of music and the music industry, Greg believes the issue is a cultural one and is part of our journey of invention and reinvention.
“I think the adverse cultural effects are coming more from our social media and device addiction, as well as the constant ingestion of digitally sourced information, including music. I think any adverse effects from EDM and similar genres of music lie more in how it’s changed the way we perceive and engage with music itself. There’s room for all of it, but to some extent, it’s taken away what is special about becoming a musician. Mastery has been taken over by popularity. It’s just something I miss- the musicianship of musicians creating all the sounds you hear in real-time.”
Drawing parallels between an unhealthy diet or lifestyle and our collective consumption of and reliance on modern technological innovations, Greg explains that while the consequences of the former are easily identifiable, and can be treated with minor alterations to our daily lives and habits, the latter remains more ambiguous in its long-term effects, a fact that may pose a more mysterious, albeit sinister threat.
“When I compare this example to music, I feel we have an enormous imbalance in the sound and music we consume. There just aren’t many ‘healthy’ alternatives. But unlike our diet and our bodies, we really don’t have ways to measure the effects of this imbalance. But I think if you observe certain ways society acts and reacts, it’s quite apparent that something has gone a bit off.” Greg explains.
While the series aims to educate and inspire a new generation of music lovers and conscientious living, Greg does not seek to vilify electronic music genres or drive the masses back to ‘organic’ music.
“I have no judgement on electronic music, I don’t consider it a lesser form of music. I’m more concerned with its lack of nutritional value. It’s like fast food, in a way. It can satisfy your hunger, but over time, if that is all you consume, it’s lack of health benefits will be revealed” Greg explains, “It’s also not whether the masses will return to organic music, it’s whether the organic music will be available to the masses. The listeners are the ones that are consuming it, so they’re clearly not aware or concerned about the “nutritional” content of what they’re listening to, but the true artist finds themselves in the process of creating their art, overcoming their own limitations, and realising they can always go further. The more shortcuts available to avoid the hard parts means less time in the process. And that is diluting the power of music to be a catapult for transcendence.”
While the unstoppable force of modernisation may well have transformed much of the popular music industry as we know it into a grand machine of rinse-and-repeat self-expression, other industries find themselves looking to the natural world for guidance. While modern medicine is still the standard, recent years have seen an unprecedented rise in alternative medicine, with more and more people turning to natural and holistic remedies for physical, emotional and mental distresses. Sound therapy, the practice of healing through the medium of sound, has been performed by our early cultural ancestors for thousands of years and is seeing a massive resurgence in the 21st century.
“I feel music itself was originally created as a way for a group to feel connected and safe. Rhythmic trance rituals have been a part of every culture around the world at some point in their evolution in the form of drumming, chanting and dancing.” Greg explains.
Inspired by this global resurgence, and by his concerns regarding the ‘nutritional’ aspects of popular music, Greg was moved to take the healing into his own hands.
“Knowing the way modern music was being recorded and manipulated for a pre-determined response, I started RhythmPharm as a way to offer pure organic rhythm in a therapeutic form, like a rhythm pharmacy. I recorded 7 CDs and call them RhythmTonics, I call the tracks dosages and the instruments are the ingredients. What is most distinctive about it is in the usage of only organic instruments played in real-time with no edits or samples or loops.” Greg explains, “Without using any electronic instruments, the listener experiences the full spectrum of sound and frequency. And without using a click track, the rhythms can ebb and flow naturally which creates a sense of weightlessness when listening.”
This pharmaceutical approach to music and rhythm takes on a more tangible, experiential form with Greg’s live sessions, titled RhythmTrance, where the musician uses gongs, bowls, and other atmospheric techniques to induce a state of deep trance. The sessions, which have never been recorded, are committed to the present moment and are Greg’s “over-the-counter” prescriptions to the state of naturally-induced transcendence he hopes to propagate with RhythmPharm.
“What has happened with the advent of social media and digital news platforms, is that it’s allowed not just for opinions and ideas to be manipulated, but for the actual truth to be manipulated. The term ‘fake news’ has destroyed the ability to reason with some people and get them to see the truth. This is unprecedented.” Greg explains, “I think it’s dangerous to hide behind our technology and depend on it for most of the choices we make. From the music we listen to, to the food we eat, to the people we’re drawn to. We’re at a point where we don’t trust our own intuition and instinct, not only externally, but internally as well. Again, it’s just a matter of balance.”
While this balance is still skewed, there is hope for the future, and for more wholesome consumption and production of music. As we part ways, Greg leaves us with a powerful message for musicians and music-lovers.
“Pandit Shankar Ghosh once said to me: ‘Don’t forget where you came from.’ Don’t forget that to become a true musician means to understand where music comes from. True music comes from the soul and the heart, not the mind. There is a responsibility to remember that.” Greg says, “We need to want to learn about the deeper aspects of music instead of just its presentation as quickly as possible. Take time in your practice and listening, to really feel the potential of your instrument, to effect people in really incredible ways. That relationship with music only comes through this understanding.”
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