INTERVIEW: Paolo Sanna (Italian percussionist)

 Paolo Sanna is an Italian percussionist who explores different facets of percussion and the possibilities of playing in different ways with a drum. Paolo Sanna  is a musician who has collaborated with different musicians always in the most experimental field. I had the honor of interviewing him and delving deeper into his music which is born from the ethnic influences to the music: jazz, classical contemporary or experimental current.

   By Manuel Knwell 

Paolo Sanna, when is your love and passion for percussion born?

I started as a child at 9 or 10 years old, I was very attracted to percussion. Little by little, I bought the first instruments that were Maracas, bells from India and cowbells, then drums from North Africa like Tbilat, Darbuka and 3 frame drums. Currently, I keep that percussions, what is more, I still play them today. The Drum set arrives years later at around 16 years old.

Do you influence ethnic percussions and which one has contributed the most to your music?

I play free impro experimentation. I’m very interested in studying and understanding ethnic percussion. I think it is very important to have a precise knowledge of the original techniques of ethnic percussion, precisely because they belong to a specific culture, to the people. I believe that inside a drum or percussion instrument, whatever it is, there is a history and life, the ritual, the joy, the dance, the laugh and the pain of that people. To all of these elements I have a great respect for these instruments and these people. The more we know, the more we share, the more we can understand and therefore have respect for all cultures.
I do not have a percussion instrument that has contributed more than others in my music. I like to think that there are percussions that allow me a more “intimate” use. I think of instruments like kalimba, udu that I always place above my thighs to play them, or berimabu that I almost hug to be played.

 I understand that you have about 50 gongs, how is that passion for gongs born to you and why?

For my thirteenth birthday, many years ago, my mother gave me an LP33 of original recordings of a Gamelan from Bali. I was hung up on it and I was almost upset by the beauty and complexity of what I was listening to. I started looking for other Gamelan and other Lp33 and CDs where the gongs play a central role. The research took me to Vietnam and other regions of Southeast Asia, in the Philippines. Every listening made me discover some very interesting realities. In this way, slowly, I had the chance to find gongs from Vietnam, India, Nepal, and China. My personal research on gongs is always “open” and I’m studying again. I have documented everything on one of my solo gong CDs. I have always been very attracted by metal percussion; I designed and built some metal percussion that are part of my sounds.

Listening to your work I realize that you use contact and condenser microphones as well as dynamics, with which you have had better results, have favorite model and brand? And use digital or analog recordings method?

Yes, I use 2 contact mic by  K& K. One on a kalimba that I built and that I “prepared” with small springs and other found objects that I place between the lamellas, and another mic on my Zither I always use “prepared”. I’m not an expert on microphones, I always rely on the experience of friends musicians who give me an important help. Today it is almost impossible to record in analog, now the norm is recording in digital.I use digital method.

I think, however, it would be nice to be able to record in analog.

 What do you think about the contribution to the western world music of drummer and percussionist Trilok Gurtu?

The first time I saw Trilok playing was about 30 years ago, even more. He had arrived in Italy recently and joined him with some Italian musicians. If I think of the Tabla, I want to remember a great man like UstadAllaRakha and also his son ZakirHussain … but the list could be very long. I would also like to mention an Iranian percussionist like HoseynTehrani, an immense Master of Zarb who brought Zarb to virtuous levels, not forgetting DjamchidChemirani, another great musician, and his sons.


 Have you listened to Peruvian Latin Jazz percussionist and drummer, Alex Acuña? Who played with musicians like: Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Corea or Peter Gabriel, what do you think about his work and contribution?

I know that Alex Acuña is one of the great percussionists. His works and collaborations prove it. I do not know his music very much. I believe that the indigenous culture of natives in Perú and Afro-Peruvian culture are very interesting! I would like to look very seriously in that direction.


Paolo Sanna, What do you think about electronic music and how the drum machine has been used?

If I think of electronic music, I shouldn’t think about drum machines. I hate drum machines. I am a musician who experiments in acoustics sounds and I adore collaborate with those who make a creative use of electronics, who experiment as in a continuous creative workshop of ideas that are born and develop in real time. The thing that really interests me a lot, when I collaborate with other musicians, is working on the energy that comes from the encounter between creative and visionary people like me.

 In general, do not you know that the vast majority of rhythmic patterns are made today were created in the 60s and 70s and that there are a few drummers who are doing something of their own, could you name some current drummers who create their own language?

If I think of that period I think of jazz drumming, in particular I think of the work done by drummers like Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins and also the ride cymbal of Elvin Jones, who first tried to break ideas and concepts, opening the drumming and freeing drumming from rhythmic figures that later, were frequently played exactly the same by too many drummers. Then, other great masters followed their example, Milford Graves, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, but the list is much longer. In the EU immediately the indications of these percussionists were understood and then percussionist musicians like Tony Oxley and John Stevens began to experiment and create a musical genre that today, thanks to a huge number of musicians interested in free improvisation, has its own identity. I also think that all of this I am saying is not known by certain drummers who have developed their ideas in other musical genres. I think Billy Martin is now developing own language.

 I see that you include noise in your music, how important is that genre of music in your work and what do you think of silence? Do you like it, do you enjoy it?

Yes, noise, sound and silence are fundamental elements for me! John Cage taught us that silence does not exist, I agree with him! … but I also think that there are different types of silences, without forgetting Cage’s great lesson. I often do a little exercise that I recommend doing to study silence: You need to get a recorder, a piece of paper and a pen. When the recorder goes into play it is necessary to write down every sound / noise we hear, after a minute of recording we compare what we have written with what we have recorded in silence. The surprise is always great!

 In the life of a drummer what methods are the ones that are most important to you in the formation of a drummer? The rudiments, paradiddles, phrasings, etc …

When I was a student at the percussion school I studied different methods. In my archive I have manuals about percussion and drums coming from many different parts of the world in many languages. The manuals I prefer are those that leave me the freedom to develop my creativity. I’m talking about Drums Wisdom by Bob Moses, Inner Drumming by George Marsh, and also manuals like 4 Way Coordination by Dahlgren and Fine and also by Stick Controll by Stone. But I also did some drumming studies of many drummers who interested me. For me it is always a work in progress in continuous development.

 Paolo Sanna: Is your favorite make of cymbals and why? There is some special model?

I have about 50 cymbals in my studio; I’m very interested in making combinations to find solutions that are interesting for me. I have a set of 15 cymbals by Bosphorus, they are handmade in Turkey, and there are some made for me, then I have some Zildjian, the rest of them are always handcrafted by artisans. I like the sound very dark in cymbals and I am also very interested in the bell cymbals, I have 2 Ice Bell by Ufip and 2 bell cymbals by Bosphorus who was made for me, and some bell cymbals by Meinl, and I have some china cymbals and prototypes too. I’m not interested in industrial and mass production of cymbals.

 In the 60s and 70s the most important manufacturer of drums was Ludwig, in spite of that industry has grown a lot since the 60’s until today why do you prefer those manufacture?

Ludwig made the history of the drum set. I have a snare supraphonic Ludwig made in November 1965. It’s a drum that I love, it’s very versatile. I do not have a real drum set, but I assemble very personalized sets every time because I have 2 snare (Ludwig supraphonic, and a custom model in maple wood), 3 bass drum ( 22, 16… and 14), a 12 tom and a 14 floor tom, some are custom model (16 and 14 bass drum) in addition to other drums. There are all drums that I bought little by little, according to my needs and with special measures. They are all from different brands. I’m not interested in having a drum set assembled in a factory. If I needed to buy a drum set, I would definitely buy a Gretsch jazz set.

 I imagine that he uses different types of sticks and pots, how many do you use and what models do you like the most?

I use many types of sticks. 5AR by Ideas for Drummer, they are handmade in Italy, then also 5A Barrel and AS5A by Vic Firth, to these must be added the metal and plastic brushes as well as different models of hybrid mallets and sticks that I build with rice straw, bamboo and more. Then I have a vast collection of African, Asian and South American percussion sticks.

 Do you use sticks with a plastic tip?


 What is the strangest percussion you use?

… no strange… but interesting. I like my Water phone!

Paolo Sanna: Have you traveled to different continents to study the way percussions were been played in some cultures or tribes around the world?

Yes, I traveled to America (north, central and south) North Africa, Japan, South Korea and all countries in Europa for concerts. I have always tried to meet musicians; I have researched books and musical recordings of popular, shamanic and ritual music. I believe, as I said before, that it is essential for those who move in the experimental area to try to study and understand everything in the best possible way.

What do you think of Billy Cobham?

I saw Cobham playing with a group, his own project; I think it was the end of the 80s. I’ve never been interested in that kind of drumming, I know very well that Mr. Billy Cobham is a virtuoso and a very important drummer, I was very impressed from his set, I was about 18 years old, he had 3 bass drum and a myriad of drums … I do not have his CDs at home.


 Paolo Sanna: What music do you usually listen to in your privacy?

I am involved in experimentation and free improvisation with percussions, so I listen to a lot of modern contemporary music, free jazz and European Improvising Music as I listen to a lot of extra-European ethnic and classical music, in particular I think the most primitive music is very interesting and very ” modern “… for me to listen to a song of the Aka Pygmies and then to listen Cage or Xenakis is very normal. I was lucky enough to study with Masters who did not limits on curiosity, creativity and they constantly recommended musical listening of all kinds. All this made me know much music and opened my mind.

Which are your favourite films?

I would like to have more time to watch movies, but it is not always possible. A film that changes my life was “One flew over the cucckoo’s nest” directed by Milos Forman from the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey. I was an adolescent and in this film I found some interesting elements such as the mental disagreement, the desire to forcefully resist the imposed rules but above all the disobedience.


What was the book that most impact you in your life and why?
It’s a very complicated question! I really like reading books and I always have a book that I’m reading …  there are so many books I could say. There is a book I recently read, translated into Italian, and which I liked is “La Violence et la Derision” by Albert Cossery, a French writer. Also in this case it seems to me that disobedience returns as an interesting element.

A book that I consider fundamental for any musician who practices improvisation is: “IMPROVISATION – its nature and practice in music” by Derek Bailey.

If you had to make an analogy of your music with a famous painting, what would it be and why?

The first name that comes to mind is Jean-Michel Basquiat. Perhaps because of his way of dealing with the business, he painted on what he found and where he wanted. The found objects can become, in my opinion, very interesting if experienced from the perspective of a percussionist.

 What have been your main collaborations with other musicians?

I consider the solo percussion my main project but it develops in different directions. One is the Percussion Duo that I manage together with the percussionist Giacomo Salis. This duo is growing steadily; some publications have already been released, in live and in studio recordings. The last two CDs issued for Confront Recording in London, “Kio Ge” with special collaboration with Jeph Jerman, a USA sound artist and recently “Humyth” where we worked with great balance and great mutual listening. Parallel to the CD Humyth we made a DVD in 50 copies of a live performance in an open space.Percussion Duo is constantly looking for sound, silence, noise, field recording, and in the future we want to open up new collaborations with other artistic forms, such as painting, theater, video makers, dance and more.

I collaborate with 2 other musicians who are Luca Santini, a Trentino cornetist, visionary and very good musician, with Luca we published a very interesting CD. Then I work with Mauro Sambo multi-instrumentalist in Venice, he plays a huge number of instruments, even in this case there are some CDs. In all of these years I have collaborated with a huge number of musicians, publishing about 50 CDs even if some only in digital.


With what musicians would you have liked to play and why?

I do not know. I would have loved to meet John Cage, not to play with him, he was and is a genius, but to ask him many questions, try to understand what elements fed his creativity. I believe that meetings between musicians must be very spontaneous. Whenever I meet musicians, I think I can immediately see if collaboration is possible, because many elements take place that go beyond music that allows the collaboration between creative people can be possible. I think this should have been strongly desired by the two musicians.

What do you think of the contribution that Bela Bartók made to the percussion of classical music?

I think that the work done by Bartok is important, he and not only he has inserted into the music elements that come from ethnic music. I also think of the work done by a composer like Villa Lobos, but also how certain music has strongly influenced the work of musicians of minimal music without forgetting the study and development of an artist like Harry Partch.

Did you influence the work Ionization of Varese?  

Absolutely yes! Varese but not only he was among those who knew how to develop new ideas and concepts. The list of names is endless … and so we must be watching the moon and not the hand that indicates it. 

What do you think about the Gamelan music and the influence it had on composers like John Cage, Oliver Messiaen or Stockhausen?

Yes, I said this before talking about gong. The Gamelan is very interesting! it is a masterpiece of rhythm and ideas, many composers and musicians were inspired by Gamelam. But I also want to say that, in addition to Gamelan, Indian and Arabic rhythmic concepts  have been borrowed by many.

Do you use the Hang percussion instrument? What do you think of it?

Yes I have a Hang by PanArt since 2004. In those years it was still a little known instrument, then there was a huge diffusion. My Hang is tuned with an oriental pentatonic scale, YU DIGO, at my request: F Eb C Bb GF Eb C, the central note F. The Hang of PanArt is the original one, for a certain period and even today it is not easy have one, in 2004 I waited 6 months for it. The hang is the development and fusion of different percussion instruments like gongs, still drums, Gatham.It is played by many street musicians and perhaps this has transformed it into the imagination of many people in a freak instrument. I think that the Hang if played well and inserted in the right context is a very interesting percussion instrument. Certainly its sound and also its shape intrigue a lot those who hear it. 

 How would you describe your musical work to a person who has never heard you?

I am a percussionist who experiments and researches on sound, noise, silence. My executive practice is free non-idiomatic improvisation. Many music critics talk about Improvised European Music when they have to describe this music, I think it is very complicated to talk or even review this music, because you enter the personal dimension of the musician who plays it, and also because it is practically impossible to understand exactly what they are the ideas and the inputs that bring the final result. Instead, I believe that we must let ourselves be enveloped, and have the ability to listen very carefully.

 The vibraphone replaced the human bones, would it touch with human bones?

I’ve never played human bones. In the shamanic and ritual settings we sometimes find human bones. I’m very interested in the use of natural materials like seed rattles, I have some seed rattles from Africa and South America… I am looking for it  everytime, and gourds and more. In animistic cultures these elements are present and are really important!

Revision of the text in English: Paolo Sanna by Violeta Teran Ortiz.

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