Catching the eternal rhythm | Efrain Toro percussion masterclass

World-renowned percussionist Efrain Toro speaks to MaltaToday about his life in music, and the philosophy of his teaching methods as he prepares for ‘Rhythm in Essence’ - a masterclass he’ll be holding next week at Knight Music in Luqa 

Efrain Toro
Efrain Toro

Beginner’s magic

I come from the very small town of Cabo Rojo in the south-west of Puerto Rico, and was born into a family of professionals who grew up as farmers. My musical journey first began when I tried my hand at the guitar -- my father was a huge fan of Segovia and Montoya… but it didn’t really work out for me. Luckily, changing tack to drumming did! I got my first kit at 12 years old and was making music -- and money! -- within a week! So I haven’t looked back since then.

Taking on the world… and surfing back home

When I hit 19 and was on my third year of the University at San German (Puerto Rico), I suddenly made a decision to head to Boston. I transferred to the New England Conservatory and in my second year there, I landed a gig with the legendary Stan Getz, after which we ended up touring across Europe together, and recording ‘Another World’. Then in 1979 I moved to Los Angeles, where I stayed for around 20 years, being fortunate enough to work on a number of film soundtracks, commercials, TV shows and music albums. My next stop was Spain, where I played alongside and recorded with top flamenco, jazz and pop artists for four years. After that it was South Africa for another four years, and then I went surfing for five years… back to Puerto Rico.  

Spreading the knowledge

Writing has helped me structure my approach towards teaching drumming - I wrote books on the subject pretty much wherever I landed - in LA, South Africa and most recently in Western Australia, where I wrote my latest work focused on a whole new approach in teaching rhythm. Now, I look forward to heading to Malta!

Drumming priorities

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to just groove along with the people. If you can somehow manage to channel your talent in a way that latches onto people’s general wavelength, you will do fine. Masterclasses of this kind -- where you learn in groups -- are actually great because they allow you to hold on to the groove of others: to ‘catch’ what they’re doing and let yourselves be carried along with it.

Individual sessions have their purpose too, of course, but they should be reserved for working on specific problems and issues that may need to be ironed out… otherwise, I think that on the whole group learning should be preferable. What I teach are the fundamentals of the art. It’s when you go to the fundamentals, to the real root of things, the advanced and complex elements of the craft simply reveal themselves to you. I want to help my students create a relationship between everything -- if you only focus on fragmented details, you will not reach the fundamentals.

Contemporary challenges, ancient solutions

The biggest challenge that any musician faces nowadays is being able to tap into tradition without letting it get in your way. We live in a world where we are bombarded by the new, the fragmented and the unrelated at every turn, which makes it difficult to forge significant connections, allowing uncertainty to fester. As contradictory as it sounds, to be modern is to be traditional! Picasso realised this when he channelled African art, Einstein realised the same with his gravity waves. We need to remember that nature is ‘counter-intuitive’... which does not mean it’s opposed to what we are, simply that it’s different to what we expect, and that we should pay closer attention to it.  

How this all relates to drumming is clear: coordination is built into nature, and it is a flip-side to rhythm, which is a fundamental aspect of the practice, as it incorporates the inevitable -- and still necessary -- element of chaos into the mix. In short, this is what I in fact teach: coordination in movement, as it is associated with music.