RAY’S BIG ADVENTURE CARVING RHYTHMS, “SKIN ON SKINS”

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By Peter Dewar

After forty years, and playing with some of Australia’s contemporary musical greats, master drummer and teacher Ray Pereira knows there’s more to a prolific career than following your passion. “That’s not enough. You’ve got to get good at it,” says Ray in his distinctive baritone voice.

On his first drumming pilgrimage in New York, he remembers practicing for over eight hours a day ‘religiously and rigorously’ – for the entire six months.

I’m treated to an insight into the respect Ray commands in Melbourne’s music scene as a well-known musician, member of popular 80s band The Models, bowls over to chat – as longtime colleagues do at chance meetings.

A centuries-old drumming heritage exists in Sri Lanka, Ray’s birthplace, which may account for his natural sense of rhythm. Quite possibly, the everyday pulse of drums at festivals, temples or the cricket left an indelible imprint that he unknowingly carried to a new home: Ray was sixteen with no musical aspirations whatsoever when, along with family, he migrated to Australia.

It was purely by accident that music became the tiller to steer Ray’s vocation. At post-performance parties for the band Ray drove to gigs, he played around with conga drums. Ray was a natural, thanks to fast hands and that acute feel for beat. Not long graduated from Melbourne University and working, Ray’s career as a civil engineer ended as quickly as it had begun. It was 1978, and he was soon performing on the congas – and obsessed with rhythm.

That meant finding a suitable teacher. By chance, iconic Santana was touring Australia: the African Cuban drummers in the band were Ray’s heroes. With a disciple’s pluck, the budding percussionist simply telephoned the Hilton Hotel, where they were staying. A session was arranged with the late, great Raul Rekow.

The encounter served to quicken Ray’s fascination. In 1980, he travelled to New York to study Afro Cuban drumming. Ray returned and played locally, consolidating his professional reputation. But the growing hunger for a deeper knowledge of rhythms and drumming styles needed satisfying, so he set off again: to Cuba in 1990, and then Ghana in 1994. “Tradition is where the knowledge is,” says Ray.

The list of Australian musical giants Ray has performed alongside is comprehensive. Standouts among them: Paul Kelly and Vince Jones. Ray currently tours with award-winning Way out West. The highly-rated jazz ensemble originated 16 years ago in the inner-west – song title ‘Footscray Station’ among its collection. The band’s current composition incorporates traditional instruments from Africa, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. It’s an ideal band for Ray: rhythms are multi-layered, more interesting to a master drummer and musical improviser than the obvious beat of commercial music. “I’m big on studying tradition, but I don’t play traditionally,” Ray says. In Way Out West’s ‘Anthony Blaise’ (a composition dedicated to Ray), he draws on his mastery of rhythms, fashioning an uncommon beat. “There are no traditional African rhythms in 5/4, even though I’m playing an African drum,” he says.

RAY PERERIA ON DRUMS

Ray and family live in West Footscray. “I prefer this side of town … I feel comfortable in a multicultural community,” he says. Ray’s politics and social outlook informs how he plays, and who he collaborates with. But mostly, it’s about the rhythm. Taking on students came at a time when touring was losing its shine. “Teaching enhances my understanding of rhythms – which is what interested me in the first place,” says Ray. Besides, it suited to be closer to home now Ray and his wife had two young boys to raise.

He approaches teaching with the same reverence he holds for his craft and instructs starters, himself. “I think beginners should begin with someone of my experience,” says Ray who also conducts drumming sessions for young Footscray Primary School students. The Afro Lankan drumming style he teaches is the product of a collaboration with student, Kanchana, a master Sri Lankan drummer.

There have been calculated risks along the way. Ray believes performing is the same. The urge to play with his hands was tested when, in the 90s, electronic drums were all the craze. Yet, by remaining steadfast over the long haul, Ray has influenced the local music scene, cultivating a growing awareness of polyrhythms among his contemporaries. A generation of Ray’s students now enjoy their own success. I suspect an enduring love for his craft is what keeps Ray youthful, open-minded. The next pilgrimage takes him to his birth country where he’ll study under an author of several books on Sri Lanka drumming. Master becomes apprentice, and he is under no illusion as to how it will play out: “He’ll kick my arse,” Ray says.

For all that’s been accomplished, on return visits to Sri Lanka, Ray chuckles as he hears old friends introduce him: “This is Ray,” they begin. “He’s a civil engineer who also plays drums.” Preamble: As a boy, being a musician was the farthest thing from Ray Pereira’s mind. Destiny had other ideas. Melbourne’s foremost Afro Lankan drummer performs, teaches and has devoted decades to understanding musical rhythms.

For details on Ray Pereira’s upcoming performances, drumming classes or the 2018 Sri Lankan group study tour: www.raypereira.com

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