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Worldly Beat

While some adults struggle to determine their true calling in life, Todd Hammes determined his vocation as a young boy. As a 5-year-old sitting in front of the television one day, Hammes had an illuminating moment.

"I can remember it like it was yesterday," he says. "I saw the drums on Sesame Street. I knew I wanted to play the drums then."

Hammes followed his passion throughout childhood and into adulthood, playing the piano and drums. He was a music performance major at the UA and graduated in 1992. Representing himself as a "Western classical musician," Hammes has performed as a percussionist at more than 2,000 events. This includes performances with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, where he began playing in 1989 and became a contracted member in 2001. Hammes founded the Tool and Drum Ensemble, a collective of seven percussionists, in 2004. As a composer, he makes music for modern dance and gets commissions from around the country.

But Hammes' background expands even further to include another form of music--Indian classical. "I've been playing the tabla for 12 years as a faithful student," he says. According to sahai.org, the tabla is a pair of tuned drums played with the hands. The drums include a high-pitched, precisely tuned right-hand drum--the dahina, and a low-pitched, less-precisely tuned left-hand drum--the bayan.

"The tabla is by far the most complex form of drumming on the planet," says Hammes. "There are at least 32 sounds on the tabla that can be manipulated in very subtle ways. There's something so human about the sound. It's very expressive. It's possible for (the sound) to speak and tell stories in a more human way than words can ever do."

Hammes says the tabla is used in both classical and popular music. "It's the most popular drum in India. There are more people on the planet that play tabla than a drum set. ... It's so prevalent in Europe; they couldn't live without the tabla. It's a very happening instrument everywhere but here."

Hammes began studying the tabla in 1993 when he attended a seminar conducted by Pandit Sharda Sahai, considered one of India's greatest tabla masters. Pandit Sahai was born in Benares in 1935. His great-grandfather, Pandit Ram Sahai, developed the tabla solo into a high art form. "He's been charged with upholding that tradition in Indian classical music. It's taken very seriously," says Hammes.

Each year, Pandit Sahai holds a summer workshop for students. This 24th year, it is being held in Tucson; it started June 27 and will run through July 8. At 8 p.m., Saturday, July 2, Pandit Sahai performs in concert at the UA's Alice Holsclaw Hall, at the southeast corner of Park Avenue and Speedway Boulevard. He will be accompanied on harmonium by Bob Becker, founding member of the Steve Reich Ensemble and the percussion group Nexus. Todd Hammes Tool and Drum Ensemble opens. Tickets are $15 and are available at the door only. A full house is expected, so arrive early. For more information about the concert, e-mail tmhammes@aol.com. For more information about Pandit Sahai, visit sahai.org.

Hammes describes Pandit Sahai's performances as "draw-dropping virtuosic and incredibly entertaining. He will stop in the middle and talk to the audience. He plays so fast, you can't see his hands move. It's very magical."

At 70 years old, Pandit Sahai is considered "one of the last great old-world masters," continues Hammes. "He's very kind and generous. He's a wonderful person, very spiritual. And he's incredibly serious as an artist and performer."

So much so that Pandit Sahai formed a charitable trust, Pandit Ram Sahai Sangit Vidyalaya, named after an Indian musician of the 18th century. Set up in 1987 with Dr. Frances Shepherd, an ethnomusicologist, the aim of the trust is to promote education and activities in the performing arts.

As a tabla master, Pandit Sahai has performed more than 1,000 concerts worldwide. In Tucson, he will be accompanied by Bob Becker. "Bob is by far the most accomplished Western person on tabla," says Hammes. "He has performed at public solo concerts in India. They wouldn't let him leave the stage, they liked him so much." Becker will play a repetitious melody that acts as an accompaniment to the solo performed by Pandit Sahai. Hammes' Tool and Drum Ensemble opens the show, although Hammes will not be playing the tabla. The Ensemble will perform Hammes' original works, with two percussionists accompanying him.

Hammes believes the concert will entertain all who attend.

"It's not like anything you heard on the radio," he says. As concert presenter and host, he wishes to share his love of percussion with others. And as a proclaimed "crusader for percussion," he hopes people will see something in the music that they can relate back to their own lives.

More by Irene Messina

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