Wooden Shield, an ensemble of percussionists, is one-of-its-kind. Jerry Peter, the man behind this pulsating soundscape, tells his ‘drum warriors’ find joy in little else
Listening to the Wooden Shield is like being in the centre of a thunderstorm. Beats rain down in torrents, cymbals clash and fingers fly across drum skins like lightning. There’s organised chaos as 13 musicians juggle 15-odd percussion instruments to drum up driving, deafening rhythms. War cries punch the air, claps and shouts ring out, and slow chants quieten their pace.
It’s a heart-pumping, heart-stopping affair.
In the calm eye of this storm, sits Jerry Peter, the man who envisioned, and now directs the Wooden Shield — a percussion-only ensemble. While they came into official existence in 2010, a decade’s worth of ideation, experimentation and practice have gone before it, says Jerry. “Drumming is the most basic, instinctive human sound. As a drummer, I wanted to create a group that would play with these sounds, to discover the variety possible,” says Jerry. Thus, Wooden Shield debuted in Kochi at a concert with four drum kits at St. Albert’s College grounds, where 25 drummers, all Jerry’s students, played only percussion tracks for four hours.
They took the stage next in 2012.
This period of public silence was however spent privately learning new instruments and creating new arrangements. “We wanted to expand the number and variety of instruments. So we added thumba, congas, bongos, timbales, four kinds of cow bells, shakers, a woodblock, rain sticks, tambourine and a triangle. We also introduced the djembe, an African instrument, which has four different tones varying by the drum-skin used,” says Siju Silvester, a senior member. Many of these instruments are no longer used in performances because their sound can be easily reproduced electronically, explains Benhar Thomas, who plays the bongos. “We wanted to bring them back onto the stage and show how well they can be used,” adds Raghupathy R.V.
This versatility of composition is reflected in the pieces Jerry has created specifically for the group. His music makes happy bedfellows of Indian, African, Latin American and Arabic percussion systems. A song idea always begins with a particular rhythmic pattern, explains Jerry. As the pattern grows in his head, he sets a target number of measures, embellishes each new repeat of the pattern differently, and leaves sections for solos. “The catch to playing in ensembles is that you can improvise only in your solo section. Otherwise, each member needs to know the composition thoroughly by-heart because one person’s error can throw the whole group off,” says Shiyas Koya.
One of Wooden Shield’s famous compositions is War Cry, a track which opens with the first verse of Alfred Tennyson’s poem Charge of the Light Brigade. It was performed first at a concert done in tribute to the Indian soldiers at Kargil. Another track named Jama, the African word for celebration, features the whole team playing the exact same pattern throughout, alongside a choreographed dance. Sometimes, compositions are written just to explore the creative possibilities of one instrument, says Jerry.
“For instance, Spirit Runs Free uses only four djembes through its entire 144 bars, solely to showcase the skill and techniques involved in playing the djembe,” explains Siju. Jerry also brings to the table his background in playing the mridangam. Sandstorm, therefore, includes many Indian rhythm patterns along with spoken chollukal, merged with a reggae feel.
The present line-up has stayed constant for the last few years, although favourable performance spaces have blown hot and cold. “Because the team and instruments are so many, it’s not easy to transport to different venues. Sponsors are hard to come by and even the audience needs to be open to new experiences like these,” says Robin.
At the start, even a practice space was difficult to find. “We used to practise in open air and people have threatened to sue us for noise pollution!” says Siju. Situations have improved since, and the Wooden Shield meets twice a week for rehearsals in a small sound-proofed room in Panampilly Nagar, darkened but for blue spotlights.
In their early days, right after the name Wooden Shield was conceived in honour of the wood which comprised their instruments, there was a tagline: ‘Journey of legendary drum warriors’. Although that doesn’t stand today, their story has been one of struggle. Each rehearsal is tiring because of the intense physicality of performance and each drummer spends almost four hours a day privately practising. Every member plays every instrument in the ensemble, thus exchanging instruments even mid-track. Some have resigned jobs and now work as full time music teachers. There’s joy in little else they say.