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Chops: Susie Ibarra Brings the Western Drum Kit and Filipino Percussion Together

The percussionist captures the rhythms of the world on her latest project

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Susie Ibarra
Susie Ibarra (photo: Tony Cenicola)

In a recent performance of RITWAL, her composition for the 2021 UnDrum festival in Montreal, Filipinx composer, drummer, percussionist, and sound artist Susie Ibarra mixed Western drums and Filipino percussion for an arresting 35-minute aural journey. Exploring extended techniques and indigenous rhythms, she created sounds that buzzed, quaked, surged, heaved, pealed, sighed, and swooned, providing flashes of tranquility and aggression, solace and suppleness. One moment they recalled the natural beauty of a rainforest at dawn, the next a ceremonial procession, the next a Krautrock-ish mechanical pulse. Ibarra’s innovations dissolve divides and unite cultures.

The Anaheim, California’s native’s accolades and achievements are many: 2020 National Geographic Explorer Storyteller, 2019 Doris Duke United States Artist Fellow in Music, Senior TED Fellow, and 2019 Asian Cultural Council Research Fellow. She’s recorded glaciers and water rhythms in the Himalayas for Water Rhythms: Listening to Climate Change (Fine Arts Foundation and TED Countdown on Climate Change), with glaciologist/geographer Michele Koppes. Her Rhythm Cycles for solo drum set was commissioned by the Bagri Foundation in 2020. With flutist Claire Chase, she created an urban soundwalk app for Digital Sanctuaries Harvard. Ibarra has composed Pulsation for the Kronos Quartet; a performance game piece, Fragility Etudes, for her DreamTime Ensemble; the recent album Talking Gong by the trio of the same name (New Focus); and the extended composition Fragility Etudes, filmed for the Asia Society Triennial 2021 with an upcoming premiere at MASS MoCA. 

When she first appeared on the New York scene in the late 1990s, performing with Assif Tsahar, William Parker, and David S. Ware, Ibarra’s drumming created an aura reminiscent of Elvin Jones and her longtime mentor Milford Graves. Her drumming isn’t the usual display of technique or style; she’s a sound sculptor, sourcing not only Western and Eastern cultures but something far more subtle and essential. Listening to RITWAL is like traveling the globe at perpetual midnight, ppp sounds married to faraway explosions, river deltas pouring over waterfalls en route to an ocean, small creatures scurrying through the underbrush—the rhythms of the world.

Currently streaming at the UnDrum Festival 2021/Suoni per il Popolo website, RITWAL is arranged as a seven-part suite, with Ibarra focusing on individual areas of her ultra-expanded instrument setup, which includes agong, kulintang, gandingan, kulintang a kayo, kubing, bamboo buzzers, sarunay, Yamaha drums, and Zildjian cymbals. On Talking Gong, commissioned by SUNY New Paltz in 2018 when Ibarra was the university’s Davenport Composer in Residence, southern Philippine Maguindanaon gong rhythms are juxtaposed with drum set (Ibarra), piano (Alex Peh), and flute (Chase). 

“I composed those pieces for Filipino instruments and Western drum set,” Ibarra explained over Zoom chat. “Gong-like passages are played on bass agong or the pan gongs called gandingan, which hang four in a row. They were originally used for communication. The gandingan rhythms inspired what I wrote for the flutes and percussion in my Talking Gong trio, where I play gandingan, kulintang, bell parts, agong, and drum set. In Talking Gong I’m using cipher notation, or number notation, that I may change to invite different scales to be played. Not necessarily using all the gong scales, but ideas or pattern templates, a way to move things around.

“My setup during COVID has become huge, because I’m doing more performance and music for films,” Ibarra continued. “Earlier in my life I downsized. But now I want to have the palette to paint and personalize the sound for what the music’s going to be, who the music is going to be played with, and the environment of the performance.”

Susie Ibarra at work on RITWAL
Susie Ibarra at work on RITWAL (photo: Tony Cenicola)

Ibarra’s standard drum kit is impressive enough (see box); the Filipino percussion in her expanded setup adds many more layers of complexity. To the left and slightly behind her hi-hats stand the large, four-pan array of gandingan, which she plays with small mallets. Closer to the hi-hats, a tray holds small bells, Chinese opera gongs, bamboo buzzers, and a kubing (jaw harp). To her right, kulintang: eight hollow brass or copper gong bells that produce a warm, ringing tone.

“My kulintang are recycled metal,” Ibarra noted. “I strike the bell with wooden dowels. The kulintang sits on two strings that resonate to spread its sound.”

On the floor below the kulintang is the sarunay, a metallophone consisting of eight tuned, domed, metal plates atop a wooden rack. Level with her floor toms is a small wooden marimba-like instrument, the kulintang a kayo—a Maguindanaon xylophone of eight laterally strung tuned blocks. 

Even when playing free jazz in the ’90s, Ibarra was fully immersed in “world” music: “I was playing in community percussion groups, but also Philippine kulintang, Indonesian gamelan. I was studying Latin percussion at Boys Harbor school [in East Harlem], and West African drumming with my Senegalese friends in Brooklyn. And with Milford Graves.”

In addition to her 17 albums as a leader, Ibarra has collaborated with Wadada Leo Smith, Eugene Chadbourne, Dave Douglas, Matthew Shipp, and most recently Laurie Anderson. Among her current projects, she’s creating listening rooms in Seoul, Korea; Edinburgh, Scotland (for the TED Countdown on climate change); and Beacon, New York, “scoring with actual water rhythms.” Another recording project is Insectum, a collaboration with composer, pianist, and guitarist Graham Reynolds and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. “It’s from the perspective of being an insect and what the world would feel like around you, thinking and listening to the insect in the space.

“I’m very much influenced by the environment,” Ibarra added. “We’re in such a dire situation now. That weighs on me. It’s not the what-ifs and the emotions involved—it’s about, how do we live in a world that is changing like this? Understanding that climate grief is real. Especially as a parent, I understand that. As a parent, climate change is something that makes me very aware.”


Susie Ibarra plays a Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute drum set, augmented by Yamaha birch and oak sets. Her snare drums include a copper Roy Haynes snare drum, a maple snare, and an 8-inch-deep bamboo snare, which produces a “very deep sound.” Her maple set also includes 8×12 mounted tom, 14×14 floor tom, and 14×18 or 14×20-inch bass drums. Remo Weather King Emperor or Ambassador heads provide playing surfaces, with a Remo Fiberskyn head on the audience side of the bass drum. A combination of Zildjian Sweet K and Constantinople Renaissance cymbals provide further tonal color: Sweet K/Constantinople 14- or 15-inch hi-hats, 19-inch medium crash/ride, 20-inch Renaissance Constantinople, and 23-inch Sweet Ride. Ibarra uses Vic Firth sticks, brushes, and mallets. 

Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.