An Artist in Profile: Han Bennink

July 6, 2010

By Simon Miminis

Freedom, exploration, creativity, simplicity, and a realization that all you really need to play good music is to listen. These are all things I learned from a great musician named Han Bennink on my recent trip to Ottawa. For those who don’t know, Han is an experimental percussionist and visual artist from Zaandam specializing in free and improvised music.

When I first saw Han arrive on stage with the Eric Boeren Quartet I didn’t think too much of it, to be honest, I thought he might have even been a little crazy (and when you see him play you’ll understand why). He arrived on stage only asking for a snare drum, somewhat perplexed I asked him if he would like to use the drum kit that was sitting already set up on the stage, but it was no drumkit for Han, all he requested was the single snare drum. All I thought to myself was “Ooooo Boy, this is gonna be boring, what’s this cat going to do with one snare drum?”… Was I ever wrong! As he put on his multi coloured/patterned bandana (amidst some chuckling from the audience) he counted in the band and laid into a swing groove that must have swung harder than anything I have ever heard in my life… On a snare drum!!!

The band, comprising of a ½ scale upright bass, a trumpet, Michael Moore who played alto sax, saxophone, clarinet and of course Han on the snare proceeded to play some of the most beautiful renditions of Ornette Coleman standards I have ever heard! One would not be able to tell that a form was even being followed amidst the intense interaction happening amongst the musicians. Despite the beautiful playing of everyone involved my attention kept drifting to Han who would effortlessly create blazing pulses in half time and double time feels creating beautiful comping rhythms complete with dynamic and rhythmic interaction that just pulled you in for more and more on nothing else but a snare drum.

His unorthodox way of pulling sounds from the instrument was something I had never seen before. Switching constantly between brushes, sticks, dampened snare sounds (with a towel or his own foot!), using his bare hands, foot stomps, the floor and even the occasional yelp and scream amidst everything that was going on! He somehow managed to communicate more on a single snare than I have ever seen anyone portray musically using an entire drumkit, the performance literally goes beyond description.

Just as inspiring is his philosophy on playing music. I asked him what inspired him to play the way he does, he explained to me that he was never about playing with massive set-ups (you know drummers, the 60 roto toms, 3 bass drums and 70 cymbals). He explained that music could be made on something as simple as a snare drum and that it was more important to play with heart, conviction and creativity than on a massive set-up.

Today I see musicians who immerse themselves in gear, hundreds of pedals, cymbals and various gear of all shapes and sizes, sometimes I feel that people miss the point. It all starts with human creativity and interaction, probably the best piece of gear you own is yourself! Not to say there is no need for a certain amount of gear, however, seeing Han perform the way he did really forced me to look at my own playing before I look at another music store. Everything a musician needs to create great music exists within themselves, all you have to do is say it on something and not be afraid to explore all the musical possibilities that are out there and most importantly of all, not be afraid to listen.

To learn more about Han please visit his website at http://www.hanbennink.com/. Also don’t forget to check out Simon Fisk’s clinic at the 2010 Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival featuring Jerry Granelli and Christian Koegel where Simon and his trio will discuss spontaneous improvisation. See you there!

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