The first time Lonnie Powell noticed the drums was when he was a kid at a wedding with his mom.
He watched the drummer in the wedding band and thought to himself, “I want to try that.”
But it wasn’t necessarily the drumming that caught his attention.
“He looked so happy,” Powell recalls. “I wanted to do whatever he was doing.”
The joy of drumming has remained Powell’s fuel as a musician. It also marks the experience of watching him play.
Powell is a much-requested drummer on the local scene. At the recent Atlin Arts and Music Festival, he was onstage so much you were more likely to notice when he was not the drummer.
And while he’d rather discuss the Yukon’s strong community of musicians than be singled out himself, it’s an understatement to say he is one of that community’s pearls.
Watch Powell once and you’ll understand why he’s in demand. Perched at the back, seated behind his kit, Powell’s percussion both backs up the band with a steady hand and explodes into the forefront at all the right times.
He’s the kind of musician who manages to sound simultaneously free and superbly technical. His joie de vivre as you watch him play is infectious.
Fittingly, Powell’s class at this year’s Yukon Summer Music Camp is titled “The Joy of Drumming.” It’s his second year at the camp, and his approach to teaching reflects his own education as a drummer.
“Drumming is just like dancing with your hands,” he says.
Focusing on feeling rhythm more than practicing technique, Powell likes to guide students of all ages to participate with the music. Students start out on hand drums and graduate to kits.
“They’re basically the same thing,” he explains in another pared-down and bang-on observation. “You’re just 16 inches farther from the target.”
Throughout the week, Powell gets people playing with both hands and feet. There is a moment of metamorphosis, he says, where independence begins to emerge.
Powell’s own background includes a crazy-quilt mix of mentors, as well as independent study and years of experience.
The legendary Jim Blackley taught him that, “How you live your life is how you drum,” a philosophy which requires a life lived authentically.
His admiration of Cuban drummers also reflects his view of music as an inclusive, community-building tool.
“The Cuban guys know [music] is for everyone. There’s no magic here…There’s no such thing as talent; you do the work or you don’t.”
Another particular inspiration was the renowned Puerto Rican drummer, Giovanni Hidalgo, whom Powell calls “the baddest drummer ever, because he’s so in the moment.”
After years of distilling his practice down to key truths, Powell’s drumming emanates total absorption in the moment and an appreciation for community.
In a conversation, he frequently widens the lens to thank those who brought him to Whitehorse and helped start his career here and keep it on the rails—in particular, musicians Bob Hamilton, Dave Haddock and Paul Stevens.
Clearly, the Cuban approach to inclusivity has shaped Powell’s life as a musician.
It’s a whole lot more than technique you get when you learn from Powell, or watch him play.
Sit back and witness one of those magical moments in music when somebody’s playing grabs all your attention—without any pomp or circumstance.
Powell’s hands dance over African beats. His jazz sizzles. His rhythms are executed with mathematical precision.
But better than that, you can’t help but feel good when Powell plays. He has become that guy who looks so happy you want to do whatever he’s doing.
More information about the 25th annual Yukon Summer Music Camp, which runs from July 30 to August 4, is online at www.yukonmusiccamp.ca.