Urban Folk Quartet - Percussionist
Percussionist Tom Chapman’s main project is The Urban Folk Quartet, with whom he has recorded seven albums and toured internationally for over a decade. Considered a pioneering European cajonero, he appeared in 2006’s documentary “Los Caminos del Cajon” and created two series of “Creative Approaches to Contemporary Cajón” for iDrum magazine. Tom has extensive session experience, appearing on dozens of albums, as well as sessions for commercials and television. Best know for hybrid drum and percussion setups, Tom has worked with many leading folk artists including Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee and BBC Folk Award winners While Matthews. Outside of contemporary folk, Tom has guested with artists across genres, including Joss Stone, The Violent Femmes, Cerys Matthews, Roby Lakatos, and Neil Yates. When not playing percussion, Tom is busy drumming with bands on the UK's swing dance scene and working as an educator, including as a visiting lecturer at The University of Chester.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
All I really know is that sometime around the age of seven I had a burning desire to play the drums! I have a strong memory of being in the corridor at school, realising that when I moved into year 5 I could have drum lessons and deciding it HAD to happen! So I started drum lessons just before I turned nine. My mum maintains that when I was four, she took me to a library workshop with Jamaican radio presenter and percussionist The Man Ezeke. She says he sat me on his lap with a djembe and told her I was going to be a drummer. I have no memory of that at all but it really reinforces my belief that all kids should have the opportunity to experience music and cultural activity.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
The late Sam Catchlove was my first teacher, through the local music service. Sam had me doing plenty of pad work before I even touched anything else. I could already read music from recorder and choir, which really helped. Sam explained very clearly to me and my parents that he thought I had potential and that if I would put the work in, they should encourage it. He could be very serious but also incredibly fun and charismatic and that balance of discipline and expression really inspired me.
What instruments/resources did you have?
To start with it was just a practice pad, a pair of sticks and a metronome. The kit was always in my imagination and there was one to try at school but it was really clearly laid out to me that this came first and then “we’ll see”. My parents were incredibly supportive but had no musical background at all so I owe a lot to Sam for communicating with them and instilling this solid foundation in me - not to mention the fact that all of the musical experiences I’ve mentioned so far were offered for free in the 90s.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
Listen to music. Really listen to it whilst you’re not doing anything else. Music just gets bigger and bigger - you’ll find more and more to hear in it the more you listen. If music does anything for you or to you, then take that feeling into your practice. The old line is true - it’s much better to practice little and often than for hours all at once. If setting goals works well for you, or you need points and qualifications, then grades are great - but use them as helpful sign posts on a bigger, simpler musical journey. There are enough exams and points to score at school - don’t forget that music is also a chance to get away from all that! It’s called “playing” for a reason. You can do useful practice on a cushion, a table, or even just in your head if you love music, so don’t worry too much about instruments when you’re just starting out.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
If you get any opportunity to play with others, or in front of others, take it! Music is a form of communication, after all.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
When I was twelve, the local music service took all of its groups to the Royal Albert Hall for a big concert. I was playing the kit in a concert band medley of Queen songs. I got to kick it off with the classic “We Will Rock You” groove. I was so nervous! The responsibility of navigating through a medley of tempo and feel changes was terrifying too - but it was a buzz that lasted for days! That was when I wanted to do this forever. There were a few difficult conversations with well-meaning teachers and others to get through in the years that followed but they couldn’t undo that feeling! By sixteen I was playing whenever and whatever I could. I was playing original material at local rock clubs as well as playing percussion in lots of groups and kit in a local youth jazz band tutored by Nick Smart. Nick was a great teacher - now head of Jazz at The Royal Academy - and he was crucial - a real professional voice to counter any others that were telling me that auditioning for music college was too risky compared to university.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I went to Birmingham Conservatoire to study jazz drums. At first, I mainly learnt with the inimitable Gene Calderazzo but over the years was lucky to come into contact with a roster of great teachers. Tony Levin was a huge, huge influence on and off the drums. Jeff Williams and Malcolm Garrett saved me from tendonitis and Andrew Bain opened my ears a lot. We were very lucky to have masterclasses with all sorts of professionals and a small group class with Jim Chapin was life changing! I continued to study percussion too and Lekan Babalola had a big impact on me.
Why did you decide this pathway?
Whilst I definitely loved jazz, if you wanted a performance degree on kit back then, a jazz course was the only real way to go. I have to admit that had a lot to do with the decision too. I still believe study of jazz is brilliant for any musician but it’s been amazing to see other options grow so quickly since then too.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
I played professional club gigs and functions from my teens and throughout college but after graduating my first “proper” tour was with the brilliant singer-songwriter Chris While. That was a wonderful introduction to the arts centre and theatre circuit and a learning curve in “playing for the song”. I played for a track on Chris’s album and then got the gig through my friend Joe Broughton who produced the record and was in the band. Joe led the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble and the ensemble was a huge part of my life at The Conservatoire. I’m still involved with it now, seventeen years later!
What happened next?
I had always planned to go to London but I was really fortunate to find myself in working bands and found Birmingham a great place to tour from. I was playing Celtic jazz with Neil Yates, sometimes in his band, sometimes in mine. I had a progressive, jazz-influenced folk band called The Old Dance School and my current main project, The Urban Folk Quartet, was just starting to take shape. I was running a jazz club one night a week, had one day a week teaching, a few workshop gigs, a few sessions and spent the rest of my time working with my bands.
You specialise in cajon and hand drumming, how did you get into this and what would your advice be to young percussionists wanting to go down this route?
I took up cajón when they were barely available in the UK and fell instantly, madly in love with it! That was around 2004. I set up the myspace cajón players group and was incredibly lucky to have a video spotted by cajón maker Paolo De Gregorio, who featured me in his documentary about the instrument’s history and growing global community of players. This exposed me to the playing of some incredible cajoneros - pre-YouTube! I had already studied hand drums but this was the start of a whole new thing for me. The cajón is falling out of fashion a bit now, so my advice would be to ignore trends or backlash and check out some of the amazing players and instruments from Spain, Peru, Cuba and elsewhere to get an idea of what the instrument’s really all about. Not many people realise it has a long history and rich culture behind it!
You have performed with many ensembles, artists and have also played on multiple records and sessions. What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?
We’re so lucky to have such a wide range of music that we can be involved with as drummers and/or percussionists. It pays to be versatile but ultimately the music leads and we all end up with skillsets that reflect who we are and what we’re into - so I find the community to be a really diverse and welcoming one.
Are there any challenges?
Any largely freelance lifestyle has challenges. Especially now! There are quiet periods and moments of uncertainty as well as moments keeping on top of multiple projects at once. There are also a fair few declined wedding invitations or missed birthday parties! But like everything else, if you’re making a living, it takes practice and you’ll be glad to do something you love. As percussionists specifically, we can feel the need to have “chops” ready on every instrument but I think it’s OK to specialise if you’re getting something worthwhile out of that route - with any luck you’ll be doing this for a long time, constantly learning and picking up new toys as you go!
You are a visiting lecturer at the University of Chester, what's this like?
I love it! I lecture on the Popular Performance course and get to cover aspects of ethnomusicology, improvisation, performance and more lately online content and digital marketing. I really enjoy research and am so happy if I can pass on any useful knowledge or ways of working.
When and why did you start teaching?
I don’t do much instrumental teaching these days but had periods earlier in my career of it being a really useful addition to my income. In general, finding ways to communicate about music excites me and having any part in helping young people develop as artists is incredibly rewarding.
Does teaching help your performing career?
Teaching can definitely help you better understand, evaluate and appreciate your own music making. Sometimes students become ardent supporters of their teacher’s music and it can be lovely seeing someone you taught years ago turn up at a gig!
You are also actively involved in outreach projects, what do you enjoy about this side of your work and how does it differ from teaching?
Music is an amazing, very human thing. Music is collaborative and communicative whilst also being self-enriching and individually liberating - the group, the audience and the individual benefit from a shared experience. Music helped us get out of the savannah as early humans! We often have it backwards, narrowing our focus on climbing the hill of technical practice, hoping that emotive expression and a joyful experience will somehow be waiting for us at the top, if we ever get there. It’s so important to remember that the joy bit, the communication bit, has been within our reach since we started. It’s why we started! I came from a non-musical background via free provision and I really believe that musicality can be nurtured in anybody. So rather than handing out methods for climbing, if through outreach projects I’m able to help reawaken or cultivate some of that real enthusiasm at the heart of music in anybody, I feel very, very lucky.
What is your career highlight so far?
I’ve been so fortunate to to consistently have an audience and to cross paths with so many musicians greater than myself. I wouldn’t want to downplay any big festival stages or collaborations - which have been wonderful - but I think the highlights are those nights playing our own music somewhere, when the band are on top form, locked in together. We have fun, the audience is warm and interactive, I’m with my best friends and it feels like a job well done. Once or twice that’s happened and I’ve found myself sitting in some beautiful spot out in the wide world somewhere, that I’d never have visited without music. That feels like a pretty full cup.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
I think my last answer just about sums it up. That said, a lot of people talk about the importance of doing something you love for a living and I think young people hear that a lot before they’ve ever really tried anything at all for a living! From my perspective, there was a love of music all along but more importantly, music has proven to be something that there’s more and more to find to love as I’ve grown alongside it. I also make a point to remember that even if one day I have to do something else to survive, I’ll still have music.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Follow the music - listen to it, love it and act accordingly.
2. “Your thing” might well get you the gig but being friendly, reliable and adaptable works wonders too.
3. If you’re at all lost or overwhelmed, see tip 1 and take a manageable step. There’s an old saying: How do you eat an elephant? Bit by bit.
If you would like to find out more about Tom, please check out his website:
Follow Tom on instagram: @tomchapmanmusicuk
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Tom is endorsed by
Cajón De Gregorio https://cajondg.com/artistas/?lang=en
Istanbul Agop Cymbals https://istanbulcymbals.com/artists/257/tom-chapman.html