Westland man drums Arabic rhythms with heart, soul
Roger Kashou’s fingers flew across the stretched plastic skin of a goblet-shaped drum resting on his lap.
They coaxed a bright, melodic series of “tek tek tek” sounds from the sweet spot along the rim of the drum. Then they flicked and tapped the center of the skin, alternating with strokes along the edge, making the drum sing in rapid-fire pops and raps as Kashou’s hands seemed to blur with acceleration.
“They don’t bleed anymore. This used to cut open when I used to hit,” he said, showing his fingers and open palm after a drum demonstration during an interview at his Westland home.. “So I went through the pain to get my hands to accept what they are doing. I have been playing a long time so all the cuts I used to have are calloused. Now it is smooth sailing.”
The Wayne Memorial High School graduate has played the Middle Eastern doumbek drum in the National Arab Orchestra since 2010. He’s one of five percussionists in the group and will perform with the Orchestra during the Haflah Arab Fusion Festival concert, Saturday, Sept. 19, at The Music Hall Center for Performing Arts, 350 Madison, Detroit. The show features the National Arab Orchestra and the Michigan Philharmonic Orchestra, along with the world premier of a composition by Kareem Roustom, Emmy Award-winning composer.
Kashou’s fascination with Middle Eastern drums formed years before he joined the National Arab Orchestra. His father, Raja Kashou, drummed during the 1970s and 1980s, playing in clubs, at weddings and other gatherings. Kashou said he remembers feeling chills just watching his father perform.
When he was 9, and his father was on a trip to visit his native Jerusalem, Kashou asked his mother, Hala, where his father kept his drums.
“I picked it up and never let it go since that day,” he said. “I used to practice every single day. I’d lock myself in the bathroom. I tried to keep it private, especially when I was young. I liked to focus on my craft. No one really showed me the guidelines on the drum. I just picked it up and never let it go. It’s like a love.”
He said he felt embarrassed at first to let anyone watch him play. He eventually showed his parents and older sister, Jaclyn, and occasionally played at family gatherings.
After high school he took on a temporary job with a wedding band after its percussionist got sick. His first gig was in New York playing with the band that also took him to New Orleans, La., and Iowa.
“That was my first experience on stage and he was the best around, too. I was lucky to play with him.”
He played in a club for about a year and then joined another wedding band. Four years later he was at another club when Michael Ibrahim asked if he wanted to join his new orchestra. Kashou told Ibrahim, founder and director of the National Arab Orchestra, that he would join.
“It’s beautiful, beautiful music. I love the Orchestra because it taught me to be disciplined on the drum, because I was a little wild monkey,” he said, with a laugh. “The Orchestra taught me to respect every musician.”
Kashou buys his drums from Egypt through the Internet. He’s not sure what happened to his father’s drums, which were made of fish skin, a material that broke easily.
“You have to put me in a room with 100 of them so I can feel them. It’s all about feel and sound,” he said. “I’m ordering from overseas. Every time I buy them it’s a chance I’m taking.”
Although his played clarinet while in school, Kashou hasn’t read music in years. Familiarizing himself with it is his next big challenge, along with increasing his knowledge of the Arabic language. He understands some Arabic, but isn’t fluent like his parents.
“You can play a little better if you understand the words. Now that I am surrounded by more Arabic people, I’m picking it up. I’ll get there. Every day is a challenge.”
When he’s not practicing, Kashou helps out behind the customer counter at his family’s shoe repair store in Canton. He also teaches doumbek.
What makes a good drummer?
“Good ears, good tone and not to be too much with the drum because you don’t want to hear blap blap blappity blap all day. Discipline on the drum is very important.”
Tickets for the Haflah concert range from $30-$65 and are available at michiganphil.org.