Kansas City Percussionist's New Musical Adventures Go Far Beyond Drum Safari
Brandon Draper will not be getting a summer vacation this year.
Draper is a percussion and music business instructor at the University of Kansas, and this month, for starters, he's touring Italy and France with KU's top jazz ensemble.
When he’s not in Europe, he’s scheduled to play almost 100 dates across the United States with his wife and daughter in Drum Safari, an interactive percussion performance group for children. Draper is a protégé of the late Kansas City children's entertainer Bongo Barry (Bernstein), so he and his family bring hundreds of percussion instruments to libraries, day camps and other children's events. After a little guidance, kids get a chance to just cut loose and play.
Given that schedule, it’s not surprising that Draper needs a way to relax — or that he's sharing that with audiences, too. He's just released "Meditation Music, Vol. 1," a yoga-class-length musical meditation.
“I went into the studio and recorded 47-minutes non-stop, meditating with my instruments in the exact same way I do when I accompany yoga classes at different spiritual institutions,” he explains.
With tabla (an instrument from northern India) and hand drums, Draper put together a session to help his audience achieve mindfulness.
“The preparation for that album has been the last twenty years of playing these percussion instruments for my own meditative and mental clarity,” he says.
“It’s nice to have a safe place to get away to,” Draper adds. “I use music to get there.”
But he's also using music to get somewhere else this summer: the 1980s.
In August, he’s set to release another record, "The Summer of 808," inspired by the nostalgic sounds of the Netflix series "Stranger Things," and its stories of kids in danger in an upside-down world.
“A year and a half ago, when 'Stranger Things' first came out, the music just blew me away,” he says. “It sounded like vintage sounds. After watching the show and getting inspired, I went into the studio and started making all of these sounds.”
He made those sounds authentically, with vintage ‘80s electronic drums and keyboards, recorded on cassette tapes.
“The most popular of those drum machines is the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Performer — the 808,” he explains. “It came out in the early ‘80s, and I was born in ’79, so I heard of all of those sounds, with the dawn of hip hop.”
Listening to the tapes, Draper realized he needed a format to match the sound (which is one reason there's not a sample of this music online).
“It was recorded with cassette; I wanted to release it on cassette,” he says.
Draper knew about a cassette-only label in Tulsa, Oklahoma, called Cult Love Sound Tapes, run by Natty Watson, one of Draper’s former music business students at KU.
But who besides vintage technology enthusiasts could hear this new record? Ten people, at least.
“The first ten pre-order cassettes will go out with a Walkman, headphones and batteries,” Draper says reassuringly.
Everyone else might have to dig through their parents' basements, visit thrift stores or arrange rides in Draper's Jeep, which still has a cassette deck.
"The Summer of 808" project might seem like a fun one-off for a guy who can't stop making music, but the return to cassette technology is consistent with his other work: it requires the kind of mental focus he enjoys.
“When you have a cassette, and you have a cassette player, and that’s it, you don’t have five million options to be played on a satellite radio, or iTunes, or Pandora," he says. “When you just have one tape, you have one tape.”
Draper goes back to teaching music enterprise at KU this fall, but it might be hard to teach any of his students how to achieve the trance-like state he reaches through playing.
“When you’re really into the music, whether it’s meditative music or playing a show with an ensemble or performing solo, if you’re able to completely let yourself go and really be in the moment, be present, when you’re finished playing, it’s almost like you’re waking up.”
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.