Rhythm Discovery Center: Feeling the heartbeat 

Michael Kenyon, the Executive Director of the Percussive Arts Society, can remember the moment he knew drums would always be part of his life. It was 1963 and Kenyon was just three years old. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas and Kenyon's family - like families all across the country - was watching the funeral procession make its way down Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. A horse, with boots turned backwards in the stirrups, was being led down the middle of the street to the somber beat of drums.

"I remember going back to my closet and pulling out my toy field drum and playing it," says Kenyon. "I remember that to this day - the experience of watching those drummers go through that as the horse went down Pennsylvania Ave. I wanted to be part of that."

Kenyon went on to become a professional musician, play the drums with jazz groups in New York City and earn a college degree in music education. Now he's the head of a professional music service organization dedicated to educating, promoting and building awareness about the role of the percussive arts in all styles of music, from marching bands to rock, from movie music to world music.

The Percussive Arts Society moved its headquarters from Lawton, Okla., to Indianapolis two years ago. The PAS not only brought its administrative headquarters here, but an annual convention that attracts percussion artists and educators from across the country and different parts of the world, as well as the Rhythm! Discovery Center, a permanent public exhibition space that combines interactive exhibits with multi-media displays and artifacts to convey percussion's rich history and wide variety of forms.

"We hope we can serve three groups of people," says Kenyon. "One is our members, as they come through for the annual convention. Then we want to serve people who come downtown casually, whether as visitors to the city or residents. We also want to play an important role in the community as a cultural arts organization that includes education programs for students, participating with other organizations and finding ways to collaborate and be a member of the community."

The Rhythm! Discovery Center is the PAS's way of putting its best foot forward, although some folks may have to look twice before they find it. That's because the Center is located below street level at the corner of Washington and Illinois streets, underneath the Weber Grill barbeque restaurant. Indeed, the telltale aroma of grilling adds a subtle dimension to the Rhythm! Discovery experience.

Visitors who ride the escalator or take the elevator down a floor are rewarded with a 15,000 square foot facility, including three feature galleries, equipped with multi-media displays, that allow for plenty of hands-on interaction. You can bang a gong, beat an eight foot drum, try your hand at an antique sound effects set lifted directly from the old Paramount Theatre in New York, or enter a sound-proof practice room where you can adjust the acoustics to simulate what it would sound like to play in an arena or a cathedral. You can try to play along to a Simpsons episode to get an idea of what's involved in scoring a soundtrack for TV and film.

The center also has an extensive collection of percussion instruments from around the world, many of which have been donated by PAS members, including Emil Richards. Richards, who lives in Los Angeles, is a legendary session percussionist who, for years, toured the world with Frank Sinatra. Wherever they went, Richards sought out and acquired exotic instruments that he could add to his repertoire of sounds. Now, a large portion of Richards' collection resides in Indianapolis. The collection includes pieces like the Marxophone, a chordophone modeled after an autoharp that's struck with a hammer or mallet; and a Zapotecano, or "Buzz Marimba," a wooden instrument with a distinctive resonance that's associated with the music of Guatemala.

Although it has yet to take the form of an exhibit, the PAS Hall of Fame consists of musicians, educators and industry leaders who have made a lasting impact on the percussive arts. Mickey Hart, best known for his work with the Grateful Dead was recently in Indianapolis for his induction ceremony during the PAS convention. Other members include John Cage, Gary Burton, Evelyn Glennie, Edgar Varese, Steve Reich, Gene Krupa, Avedis Zildjian, Elvin Jones, Harry Partch and Ringo Starr. Kenyon says the creation of a Hall that people can visit is part of the PAS's future plans.

As is the desire to regularly refresh what people can experience in the Rhythm! Discovery Center. "We're really interested in making fresh and renewed content," says Kenyon. "We want someone to be able to come back every year and have a unique experience. Percussion is so wide and there are so many stories to tell that you can't do a permanent exhibit. You need to tell stories, and the idea is that we'll keep telling more stories about the different aspects of percussion."

Jon Feustel, the PAS's Director of Marketing and Communications - and a drummer himself, adds: "We want people to understand that rhythm surrounds all of us. We wanted to stress rhythm, with an exclamation point. We're not trying to tag it as a museum because it's more about getting your hands on instruments, feeling the heartbeat. That's what rhythm is to all of us. It's not just for percussionists."

At a preview in advance of the Center's grand opening on Nov. 21, a wide array of adults in suits and ties, including Mayor Ballard and Don Welsh, the head of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, seemed to be having a ball letting their inner percussionist loose with the wide array of instruments at hand. "If you walk up to a piano, it's immediately intimidating," observes Kenyon. "Even though you might want to try and play it, it's pretty tough. A drum is as simple as putting out your hand and touching it. You can make sound. I don't know if it's primal, but there's something about being able to play - people really like that. And we try to create those experiences."

Kenyon's favorite instrument in the current exhibition is one of the first instruments you encounter on your way in, a bass log drum. "You can feel the vibration from it and you can also create a wide variety of sounds."

But Kenyon's greatest pleasure so far has been in watching people interact with the center as a whole: "Watching people be really tentative and than, as they go through, get really comfortable and start getting it and open up. I think we have to find ways to trigger that just as quick as possible."

Chuck Berry said if it's got a backbeat you can't lose it. But why, exactly does the percussionist's art get under our collective skin the way it does? The PAS's Jon Feustel has a theory: "Rhythm is innate from your mother's heartbeat before birth," he says. "You naturally have that rhythm."

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David Hoppe

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