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Speaking with Raquy

Raquy, how did you get into music?
What was the first instrument you played, when did you decide to become a musician and how did it go from there? How did you start to get involved with Middle-Eastern music?

I grew up in a family of classical musicians. My parents started me early. There are pictures of me playing in diapers! I was playing instruments before I could even go to the bathroom! Growing up I specialized in classical piano. All of my teachers agreed that my strongest talent was my rhythm. I always loved rhythm and math and fitting things into cycles. I also loved practicing. I would wake up at 5am just so that I could practice a couple hours before school!

As an adult I couldn’t figure out where I fit in musically until I discovered the dumbek and Middle Eastern Music in Israel in the late 90’s. It was as if playing the dumbek used all of my best talents. It didn’t occur to me that I would be a famous dumbek player, I just wanted to play all the time! My passion was validated by fact that one year after I began playing dumbek I was making a living in NYC as a freelance dumbek player, playing in Turkish, Greek and Arabic bands.

raquy wish

Tell us about your band, the Cavemen. How long do they exist and how did they develop over the years?

raquy1Raquy and the Cavemen

The Cavemen is currently me and my ex husband, Liron Peled. When we were living together, he was a hard core rock musician and I was a freelance dumbek player. It never occured to us to play together. Then one day we started jamming and realized "this hard core/ middle eastern combination is pretty hot!" We made the album "Dust" and started performing. Originally we were a six piece band but over the years we divested the members until we became the duet that we are now.

We play almost all original music. Half the songs are Turkish style drum pieces where I'm playing high dumbek and he's playing his "Dumset" (which makes him sound like 5 people). The other half are melodic songs in which I play the Persian Kemenche and he plays guitar and dumset. The latest addition to our sound is that we both do Mongolian Throat singing in harmony. It is not easy to fit us into a known genre, but we've developed a kind of cult followig among Pagens, belly dancers and percussionists. We have released one album a year since we began – currently we're working on our eight album.

Liron Peled has been your musical partner for many years. Tell us something about your connection and his role in your (musical) life.

raquy2with Liron

Liron is an incredible musician and the sweetest moopy can imagine. He and I balence each other out. He lets go and channels while I’m controlled and heady. He’s experimental and I’m a traditionalist. He’s a perfectionist and I’m better at staying focused and getting things done. The combination works great. I feel so lucky to have him as a partner. It’s a great feeling that each time we go on stage I know he will play great. Playing a show with him, I feel like a child playing with the most incredible toy in the world. We also have a blast together on tour, finding great vegeterian food, practicing yoga and meditation, being extremely silly and using car rides to work on our throat singing. He’s also very soft and comfortable to sleep on during flights.

Even through we went through a divorce we stayed best friends and didn’t even miss one show! People always tell us “You guys are the cutest ex couple I’ve ever seen!”

Besides the doumbek, you also play the Persian fiddle, the kementche. Where and how did you encounter this instrument? How would you compare playing a melodic and percussive instrument?

raquy2bShah Kaman
The King of Kamanches

The instrument I currently play is called the “Shah Kaman” which means the King of Kemenches.

I got my first kemenche almost ten years ago when I was drumming for an Iranian musician in NY. He had this beautiful kemenche which he wasn’t using and he offered to give it to me instead of money for the gig. I had background with viola, so I was able to start playing it.

The instrument I currently play is called the “Shah Kaman” which means the King of Kemenches. It was custom made for me by Peter Biffen (www.spikefiddle.com). He makes incredible instruments designed after spike fiddles from around the middle east. My favorite one of his has 12 strings - 5 playing strings which has the range of both the violin and the viola as well as seven sympathetic strings!

I don't play traditional Persian style. I've never studies with anyone so I do my own thing. I found a voice and feel very experssive playing it. I also find it very condusive to composing beautiful melodies.

It's very nice to play a melodic instrument in addition to the drumming, but I don't have that drive to see how good I can get technically like I do on the dumbek.

You have a lot of students, and you used to teach a weekly free Doumbek class in Brooklyn. You also organize Percussion retreats with famous Guest teachers such as Glen Velez or Mehmet Akatay and release instructional books and DVDs. What role does teaching play in your life and how do you approach it?

raquy3Catskill Mountains Retreat

A big part of my life path is to go to places like Egypt or Istanbul, soak up as much as I can like a sponge, and then pass it on to my students. It's a hard job but someone's got to do it.

It's very important for me to teach in a context that doesn't involve money. For the last decade, no matter where I am in the world, I offer a free class to honor one of my past teachers who taught me for free, the late Master Mulazim Huessein.

These days I have a group of serious students who I refer to as my "prodegies." Many of them play professionally and follow me to Egypt and Istanbul. It's such a pleasure to teach them because they are at a level where I can show them the stuff that I'm working on myself. For students of this level, money is not involved (although I happily accept bottles of kambucha). As a matter of fact this summer I have "office hours" in a little park by the river in my neighborhood and every night I invite my students to practice with me from 10pm –1am.

I also hold retreats in the Catskill Mountains near New York, the Sinai Desert and my beloved Istanbul. I often have celebrity guest teachers such as David Kuckhermann, Mehmet Akatai, my teacher Bunyamin Olguncan and coming up in July we're having Glen Velez. I try to give the students a taste of what it's like to be me. We start every day with yoga and meditation, eat vegetarian food, and practice all day and night. It's quite heavenly. There are always a few new people in the group, but I have a core of students who have been coming for years, so it becomes like a family.

As far as the instructional DVD’s, I feel that one of my gifts is the ability to break down and organize patterns and techniques in an accesible way. I’ve invented a notation system which people are using all over the world. I’ve made two instructional DVD’s so far which includes a book, cd, and dvd. I’m almost finished with the third one which features my teacher Bunyamin Olguncan.

You also practice Yoga and meditate. Which role do these things play in your life and how do they affect your music?

raquy4The Turtle Pose

My daily yoga and meditation practice benefits my health and well being and is an essential part of my training as a musician. Meditation helps to focus the mind, quiet the thoughts and improve moods. Yoga asana practice makes your body relaxed, strong, flexible and beautiful, and also helps focus the mind and quiet the thoughts. Through daily practice, the yogi evolves on both a physical and spiritual level.

I believe these practices to be beneficial for anybody, but for a musician it enhances the ability to relax, focus, and to be present when practicing and performing. These practices also clear up energy blocks, intensifying the ability to channel creativity.

All you need to to practice yoga and meditation is space on the floor, so you can practice wherever you are. I recommend finding a teacher in your area to guide you in the beginning, and then you can practice on your own.

Which role does regular practice have for you? How do you approach the subject of practice, do you have tips for drumming students?

raquy5Back stage before a show with Said's troupe

raquy6with my teacher Bunyamin

raquy7with Mehmet Akatai
(David, I think you were there that day, weren’t you?)

I could go on for hours giving advice about practicing, but here is the most important: Culltivate habits of focus and relaxation when you’re practicing. It will transfer over to the stage.Play everything as slow as you need to in order for every hit to be beautiful, consistent and perfect. Make sure that your body is relaxed no matter how difficult the passage. Also listen to yourself on a deep level, focusing on every hit. You’ll know if your practicing correctly in you are enjoying yourself. If you feel stressed and tense, it means you’re trying to play it too fast.

You spend a lot of time in Egypt and Turkey. You speak the languages and have strong connections to the local music scene. Tell us something about your time in those countries. What importance do these trips have for you? What is the funniest situation you ended up in?

Egypt

I used to play Arabic style so it was very important for me to go to Egypt, where somehow I’ve gotten several opportunities to perform as a soloist with the Egyptian King of Dumbek, Said El Artist, backed up by his 20 piece drumming orchestra. In those shows I play a duet with Said and I get to play one of my compositions with his incredible orchestra. When I’m on stage with them I really feel like Cinderella at the ball!

I’ve also had a bunch of television appearances in Egypt, so I get recognized in the street. Even the guy at the falafel restaurant in Brooklyn saw me!

Turkey

About 20 years ago a Turkish drummer named Misirli Ahmet invented the Turkish Split Hand Technique. Splitting boths hands creates possibilities of amazing speed and dexterity.Since then a drumming revolution has happened in Turkey. The drummers are taking darbuka playing to incredible new levels of skill and sophistication.

In 2009, after witnessing the Turkish drummers on You Tube, I decided it was time to make a pilgrimage to Istanbul to learn from the masters. I totally fell in love with that magical city, the incredible drumming style and the adorable Turkish drummers (hee hee). I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to have found a true master teacher over there, Bunyamin Olguncan whith whom I get to practice on a daily basis. Istanbul has become my second home and I’ve completely converted to the Turkish style which is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done musically.

Funny Story

Usually when I perform I wear pretty skimpy outfits, but when I'm in Egypt I have to cover myself up because the people are pretty conservative. Last year there was a huge outdoor concert at the Cairo Citadel with Said El Artist so I carefully chose some long white pants and a long sleeved button down shirt with my arms, legs and belly completely covered. It was not until after the show that several people pointed out that my pants were totally see through!

What is the one thing you wish someone had told you before you went into the music business?

I wish someone had said, “Do you realize how much fun you’ll be having ten years from now?”

Do you have any tips for young percussionist who want to become professional musicians? What are the important things one should keep in mind?

Throw away your TV, stop eating meat, do what turns you on, and treat every day like a precious gift.

In every culture on the planet drumming is essential to the well being of humanity. Drummers have the noble job of lifting the spirit, like doctors of the soul. Anyone privilaged enough to have this as their life calling should appreciate the importance of their work. And please explain this to all of your mother's friends who say, "so when are you going to get a real job?"

While most sound engineers have a lot of experience with drumsets, often with hand drums it's a different situation. Do you have some tips regarding live sound/mics/monitoring?

Travel with your own soundman. Thats the only way you'll have good sound every show.

Raquy, thanks a bunch for the interview, and all the amazing soy chocolate coko cakes you baked for us in NYC ;). Hope we have a chance to hang and play again soon.