The Box Office Jam
My husband just bought me a cajón last week, and it’s been my new, favourite hobby lately. For those who don’t know what a cajón is, it’s a hollow, wooden, box-shaped percussion instrument. The player usually sits atop, creating sounds by slapping or tapping the front side.
I had been curious about one for many years. I first saw a cajón at the Quadra Island Fall Fair back in 2014 while enjoying some live music. There was an impromptu quartet pieced together for the occasion, who enlisted a cajón player for the percussion. I used to work for the town newspaper, and knew all four band members as various clients who ran businesses on the island. The cajón player owned a coffee shop, and when I next had an opportunity to talk to him, I asked him what the instrument was he was playing that day, and that’s when I learned what a cajón was.
I hadn’t done anything about it, but then again, I hadn’t ever forgotten it. You see, me n’ percussion go back to when I was about eleven years-old, which is how this story really beings.
My older brother joined his junior highschool band program in Grade 8. I don’t really know why he selected the drums, but he did. I was confused and slightly disappointed when he came home with a trumpet one day. He endured some ribbing about it, but not long after, he was placed on drum-duty, and eventually managed to bring a kit home, which he kept in his bedroom.
I always thought my brother had the coolest stuff. He was often gifted things at Christmas or his birthday that interested me more than him, such as his microscope, telescope, model trains, and gadgets and techie stuff that I wished I could have been able to use. I was gifted the gender-safe girl toys. So, to get some satisfaction, I would sneak into my brother’s room to use (not play) with the very items he seemingly ignored.
That’s when the drum kit happened. I don’t have much recollection of sneaking in his room to play the first drum kit that he had, but I certainly remember the second set. When my brother showed some promise in Grade 9, my parents bought him a gorgeous, golden-maple Slingerland kit which included the usual bass, snare, and high-hat, but also concert toms, a floor tom, and two crash cymbals. (That was just to start. He later added more toms and cymbals.) This drum kit was much more involved, and had to be kept downstairs in our family room. Furniture had to be cleared in order to make room for it.
Thanks to me (yes, I’m taking credit), he met my best friend’s two older brothers who were musicians themselves. One was a bass player, the other a guitarist. The three of them were between the ages of 16 and 18, who formed a decent trio, playing what we now know as classic rock. If one didn’t know any better, any neighbour might think we had another Rush in-the-making. The guys brought over their strings and amps, and together, the trio made noise that the entire north side of PoCo could hear whether they wanted to or not.
But I still needed to sneak. My brother didn’t have much confidence in his then-11 year-old little sister. I had to develop sharp sneaking abilities since no matter what I asked to use of his, it was met with a sure-fire “no”, no matter what.
While he was out, I remember sitting on the rotating throne, picking up the sticks and lightly letting them bounce off the snare and toms. Even trying my best to be quiet, the sound thundered. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I certainly knew enough to place those sticks exactly where I found them when I was finished, leaving no evidence that I was even there.
Then one day, he had figured it out. I’m not sure how he knew. Did I leave the throne too low? Did I not place the drumsticks back with the brand name facing the same way? My brother was irritated by the fact I had been sneaking onto his drum kit, but at the same time, he was uncharacteristically accommodating. I specifically remember him saying to me: “If you’re going to play my drums, I’m going to show you how to play them properly. I don’t want you sitting here, doing the wrong thing. When you play, you do it right.”
Astonishingly, he taught me some basic techniques, which gave me the green light to work on them whenever he wasn’t home. This way, I no longer had to sneak. I could use the kit with his blessing, as long as I could prove that I was respecting his property. He warned that if he found anything damaged, my privileges were over. I didn’t want to disappoint. I practiced, and played by the book.
By the time I was twelve, I had learned to play rock beats and paradiddles. But something else was going on with me: the guitar.
Grade 6 was a very musical year for me. It just so happened that my teacher that year was also the school’s music teacher. She was relatively new to our school, and we hadn’t had much musical cultivation. No real music program, just choir and recorders. To add to the stereotype, she was unusually crusty most days, and had very little patience with us kids. But if any child showed any musical ability, she magically favoured them. I only found this out by accident. It must have been her influence that the school suddenly had a guitar and violin program. All students who were in Grade 6 and 7 took part in learning the acoustic guitar as part of our daily learning regime, but only eight students who showed interest and promise could take the violin program, held privately while our teacher had a substitute manage the rest of the class. I was one of the selected eight.
Violin aside, I had fallen in love with the guitar quite quickly. Even after class, I was given permission to continue playing with one of the school’s guitars on my own. Not long after, my parents bought me my first acoustic guitar. I brought it to school one day and my teacher seemed genuinely impressed. I used it in place of the ratty, banged-up, scratched acoustic guitars one day, but quickly realized it might be kept safer at home. I still have that guitar today, and as I type, it’s approximately four feet away from me right now. Playing guitar and being somewhat good at it improved my standing at school. I was only soft-bullied by a few kids (strangely enough, by kids who had their own problems with others bullying them), so being able to play a music instrument like a guitar gave me some Grade 6 street-cred.
But this doesn’t end my story about the drums. I was still “practicing” at home, and knew it wouldn’t be long until my own junior high days were beginning, and I could walk in to Band 8 and proudly say that I wanted to play drums, and actually have the chops to back it up.
That moment came, with some bittersweet reaction. First of all, I had attended a different junior high than my brother. We had moved from the north side to the south side that year, so I had attended a different school, with a different music program, led by a different band teacher. Had I gone to the north side school, I would have had a little bit of back-up. Just my last name alone would have been testament enough. Talented by association, if you will. But this was going to be a challenge from the moment I headed for the drum kit.
Band 8 at my school was a frazzled mess. My band teacher was a lanky, quirky, dorky guy with no direction and no ability to control any of us. In Canada, the school band program often consisted of limited instruments that would make up a small ensemble of about 20-30 students to create a concert band. There were usually only about nine or so instruments available to us: flute, clarinet, oboe, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, tuba, xylophone, and drums.
On day one, all of us 12- and 13-year-olds in Grade 8 simply stated what instrument we desired and it was noted. Had the guitar been available, I would have certainly selected it. But I knew that I was working my way to the drum kit in the school band, and had practiced enough to win my position. So, when it was my turn to express my instrument of choice, I proudly said “drums”. The kids snickered. I wasn’t surprised. I was a fluffy-looking girl, usually not trying to make a spectacle of myself. I knew what I looked like, and I knew that the drums were often regarded as a testosterone-driven, aggressive instrument. The girls were the ones playing the wind instruments. The boys often looked after the brass and percussion. That’s just how it was.
This is when a thorn in my ass named Dave tried strong-arming the position. He was a scrappy, skinny, freckled kid with a blond spiked mullet. He was almost half my size both in height and weight, but he had a pesky voice and personality that made up for it. In this small package, he had a big attitude. It was Dave who laughed the loudest when I announced my desire to play drums. No one had even heard me play, and yet it seemed funny to everyone. Not surprising, my teacher didn’t make assumptions, and simply asked each of us to “demonstrate” our abilities to see who would be the main drummer.
Dave immediately snatched a pair of drumsticks, and hustled to the kit before I had the chance, almost precedingly claiming the position. My teacher asked him to play a groove, to which he clumsily batted out some confusing beats, out of time, and very evidently unpolished.
Though Dave was awful, the musician in me saw some potential and hoped he would improve. I felt my brother’s words haunting me: “If you’re going to play, play them properly. Don’t do the wrong thing.” Dave had the confidence and style, wanting to be the drummer. I could tell his motive was to add some cool-factor to his character. It was obvious he was going to choke in Grade 8 unless he had it, and this was probably his only hope.
Then it was my turn.
I took the sticks, adjusted the throne, found my footing with the bass and high-hat, and just simply churned out a 4/4 rock beat. I even added a short filler on the toms for effect when I got comfortable in front of all of the widened eyes on me.
“Shit, Dave,” one kid sneered out of nowhere. “She’s way better than you.” The remark garnered laughs and agreement. I’ll never forget how Dave’s face looked. He tried laughing it off, but his ruddy complexion just turned him into a tomato. That said it all.
The truth was I didn’t want to be better than Dave, I just didn’t want to lose the drums. I didn’t want to be disregarded and not have the chance. Back in 1980s band class, being a girl at the drums was unheard of. Today of course, we see female drummers everywhere.
What’s more, another girl in Band 8 named Renae also wanted to play drums. I secretly loved this, the fact that another female was trying out her chops against the arrogant boy who simply assumed he’d be selected. I cheered Renae on, and when she also showed some potential, I was gleaming with pride. I had hoped it would be a joint effort between Renae and I, as we liked each other, and I thought it would be the coolest thing to have two females managing the percussion section. But it was not to be.
The problem was that Dave showed no talent for anything else. He was simply useless at every other instrument. Since there was no expelling Dave from Band 8, there had to be an alternative, and that came at my expense, being versatile. You see for a few years during my childhood, I had learned to play the organ and had even taken lessons. It gave me some experience using a keyboard. Since we only had one drum kit, and one useless kid who could do nothing else, Dave was given the drum kit and sternly warned to practice at it. Renae and I were thwarted from the drums, but the job was more or else rotated between the three of us, while favouring Dave. Renae too, was multi-talented. While I was standing at a xylophone – a hybrid instrument between keys and wind, Renae was somewhere in the pit excelling at her second-choice instrument.
Standing at the xylophone was secretly embarrassing. It meant that I “lost”. Because of Dave’s ineptitude for anything else, he was the one that got to sit at the kit. I had even showed him how to do some grooves. Me. The girl. The one person he laughed at.
At that junior highschool age, I had just wanted to jam and have the same experiences my brother did, playing an instrument that I really cared about. Since the drums were becoming out of reach for me, I returned to the guitar where I knew no one could take that from me.
I had eventually bought an electric guitar with some babysitting money. It was a black, imitation Stratocaster, and when I plugged it into my amp, I felt like mini-Lita Ford. I wasn’t all that good, but then again, who is when they start? But the point is that I had some licks, and anyone who knew a barre chord and how to turn up the reverb and distortion could sound a little bit like Angus Young in-the-making. I had also learned how to do the Eddie Van Halen finger-tap, and transitioned between rhythm and lead when I played. I loved the blues, so I found myself happily playing blues riffs more than anything. I had even taken lessons and switched off between acoustic and electric, turning my private lessons with my teacher into half-hour jam sessions.
In Band 9, the schools in our district had gathered for a recital. We schmoozed with each other’s respective orchestral sections and got to hear the other school’s skills and choice of pieces to perform. This was a chance for the Band teachers to beam with pride to sort of show-off to their peers from the other schools how well they did.
I have to say, we weren’t bad. Dave, Renae, and myself took turns on the drums and all went well. Our teacher had the satisfaction of gleaming with pride after we seamlessly played our repertoire.
At the end of the recital, there was a “fun” activity between the schools, whereby each section had some kind of face-off with their instruments. When it came to the drummers, the drill was simple: do a drum roll. The kid with the best and longest drum roll would win on behalf of their school. My brother had taught me how to do a proper drum roll when I was eleven, and it was something I practiced to loosen my wrists. Between Dave, Renae, and myself the choice between who would represent us was simple, but it was surprisingly Dave who was my biggest supporter. He handed me the sticks (that he often had clutched) and cooed, “Get ‘em. Get those sons of bitches.” This must have been what Rocky Balboa felt, getting his pep talk from Mickey.
“They got nothing on you,” he said. “They’re terrible. Listen to ‘em. You got this.”
The lead had called our school by name, not me as an individual. It was our turn. But really, it was my turn.
I was surrounded by at least a thousand pair of eyes, from teachers to the students, and the parents to the organizers. I thought that the 14- and 15-year-old drummers before me had crumbled simply due to nerves. I just relaxed and sat before the snare. My used, chewed up sticks that were technically school-property were still warm from Dave’s clammy hands. I’m not sure if he had reacted to giving up the sticks to a girl, or just the simple fact that he knew he couldn’t do a drum roll.
So, I began rolling. Just like my brother taught me. Tips at the top of the snare, relax the wrists, and let the sticks do the work. I rolled to the centre of the snare and back up again, lingering for as long as I could. The applause made me feel light-headed. I did it. The smiles and slaps on the back from my own friends and even Dave were overwhelming. I felt like skill and love for the instrument prevailed over ego and pride.
But wait, there was one more student to participate. The last kid who was called by his school’s name. I’ll never forget what I saw. He was a tall boy, with bright orange red hair and freckles. He looked like a real-life Archie Andrews. He touted his own snare, and his drumsticks were sleek and new, very obviously his own. What’s worse, he wore wristbands. I hadn't seen anyone wear wristbands other than Tommy Lee and Alex Van Halen. It was a tell-tale sign that he meant business. He was confident, but not cocky. He self-assuredly positioned himself in front of his own snare and without even thinking about it or even worrying about it, he knew he had us all beat. He started his drum roll, and ran up and down the snare for more than triple the time than any of us. The sound was so tight, that it sounded like one continuous sound.
There wasn’t much to question. He had “won” this friendly competition for his school. That same boy came over to me personally afterward and said, “I thought I was going to win until you went up there. Gotta admit, I really thought you had me.” It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me.
After that, Dave and I actually became friends. We shared the same love for thrash/punk metal music such as DRI and the Suicidal Tendencies, and attended the same underground rock concerts at Vancouver’s now-closed York Theatre.
I was very interested in jamming with friends the way my brother had with his friends, but truth-be-told, at that age in that time, there wasn’t much room for a girl. The boys who were interested in playing in their basements already had Dave in their back-pocket for a guy-drummer. Dave’s father bought him his own drum-kit by that time, so most of the jams were held at his house. All I had left was my guitar. I plugged in and impressed a few people, but the reality was that the guys wanted to play with other guys. They didn’t exactly want to be upstaged by a girl, or potentially upstaged. I was dismissed, and the only few musicians who gathered together were guys who were already friends.
This meant that Dave eventually practiced and improved simply because of our social situation. I never got to experience drumming with others, except for the school band, and I wouldn’t exactly call that cool. I wanted to exercise my chops at rock and blues, but it was never meant to be.
While Band 8 saw the creation of Dave becoming a bit better player, we switched off between myself and Renae eventually noticed that Dave started respecting both of us as musicians. I figured it was mainly because he realized how much work it took to actually figure out how to play an instrument, and we had already laid down our groundwork. Dave liked my guitar-playing, and even rallied for my position to play guitar with their basement band, but the other guys suggested that I “find other girls to form a girl group”.
It turned out that our school band’s tuba player was a good-humoured girl named Lisa who I remember fondly as resenting her being relegated to the tuba. It was bigger than she was, and watching her puff her cheeks to make any sound while her eyes narrowed said it all. While I was blipping on the xylophone, and she was making noise on the tuba, we battled through it, knowing our potential was ignored. It wasn’t until Band 9/10 that Lisa’s efforts had her graduating from tuba to electric bass. It was just the coolest thing to see her ditch the brass for some strings. It was like watching a caterpillar breaking out from her cocoon.
So why didn’t we just create a “girl group”? It could have happened. Lisa on bass, Renae on drums, me on guitar. Why not? Well, ‘why not’ is because none of us actually thought about it. I guess we were too busy measuring ourselves up to what the boys were doing that we forgot about the pool of talent we had together. I didn’t think about that until my adult years when it was obviously too late. Who knows what would have become of us? Then again, we were after all, three girls who were from very different social circles at school. Renae was the cute jock, Lisa was the preppy cool chick, and I found myself hanging out with the wild, rocker crowd. We were so different that I think that that reason alone is why it never was considered. We didn’t certainly didn't hate each other by any means, it was just that we didn’t really talk to each other.
Fast-forward many years: I periodically lay my acoustic guitar on my lap practicing my chording and finger-picking techniques. You see, my lonely electric guitar was eventually sold off, as it never really got the workout I had hoped. Playing my acoustic wasn’t anything serious, but it made me happy and sometimes calmed me. It was perfectly okay to be a solo acoustic guitar player at home with no one to jam with.
I eventually bought a tenor ukulele and joined the Vancouver Ukulele Circle. It was a fantastic crowd of people – even though I didn’t know a single person. I just showed up at the strums each month and got to love yet another instrument. When I left the city and moved to a small town, I missed my ukulele group immensely. It was the one time in my life I felt like I got to jam with people. Because really, that’s what music is all about, right? To quote Alex Van Halen: “Music is all about people, meeting people and playing for them.” Out of all the instruments I played (or rather, dabbled in), the ukulele finally let me experience this in a raw sense. There were no competitions or expectations the way it was in school, and there was no one to impress or win over as it was in a garage-band setting. It was just people having fun.
I enjoyed the ukulele and still do, but I never stopped…drumming.
I often found myself doing paradiddles and various beats on the kitchen counter, the kitchen table, the steering wheel in my car, my office desk, my chair’s arm rest – you name it. Once you learn how to drum, you never not drum. Your fingers tap, your feet tap, and you tend to respond heavily to beats more so than melody.
How strange it is that the drums were my first real instrument to learn and take seriously, yet it’s the one instrument that I had never actually owned myself, or had kept up through the years. To say that I first played drums thirty-five years ago isn’t a lie, but I only actually had about four years of experience, and that was all on kits that weren’t my own.
Once my brother moved out of the house and my junior high days were over, my drumming career was over. I chose not to continue into Band 11/12 simply because of the let down I felt over my circumstances. Dave and any other kid from our rival school in senior high would have certainly taken their rightful place, leaving me only the alternative of playing the xylophone, which I never expected to play or wanted to play. (To this day, I secretly hate xylophones.) With my luck, I would have likely also had the cowbell or triangle added to my band duties.
I had no dreams of stardom or even popularity when it came to anything I played. I just wanted to have fun. I wanted to enjoy practicing something where I already felt a natural ability to progress.
I don’t have any musician-friends to play with, and as I write this during our uncertain times during Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions, I doubt it will happen any time soon.
So last week when I was at a music store purchasing an item for my mic in my home studio, while waiting for assistance, I was tapping on a cajón. My husband noticed this and said, “Do you want to get one of those?”
I did, actually. The thought that I could be going home with one made me so happy. He picked out the finest cajón in stock and I’ve been enjoying it every day ever since.
Thirty-five years later, I'm sitting on a box in my office, playing for nobody but myself. I may have made peace with the fact that I lost my chances to play with friends in school, or that my dreams of following in my brother’s footsteps could have happened in senior high where yes, they surely would have remembered my brother.
What was important was winning over the one person I had overlooked this entire time: myself. I should have kept playing because I loved it. I shouldn’t have ever stopped because of set-backs or who might have felt like I wasn’t worth investing the time in. I shouldn't have stopped because other people might not have been available to jam with right there and then. I should have thought about the fact that just playing made me happy, regardless of who heard me or not.
Knowing this now, I couldn’t be happier slapping at a box on the floor, with a handkerchief wrapped around my wrist. I wear it to protect my bracelets. But I like to think it’s because it also makes me look like I mean business.