Malcolm Lim

An image of Malcolm Lim holding a drum
Malcolm Lim | Photo: courtesy of Malcolm Lim

Malcolm Lim

Percussionist fuels his creativity by exploring the rhythms of different cultures

Malcolm Lim is the acting principal percussionist for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the CEO of Rhythm Mastery. He spoke to The Storytelling Project about his creative journey, including several trips to Brazil.

What did you learn about percussion in Brazil?

In North America, drumming is separate from mainstream life — you really have to look for it in particular venues. In Salvador da Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, the two cities in Brazil I got to know, drumming and dance were more integrated into culture as a whole, especially in Bahia, where the African slaves first landed. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was a horrible business, but because of it, African rhythms mixed with European rhythms and as Jamey Haddad said to me (paraphrased), “Something new was born in Brazil.”

In Rio, people take drumming seriously, rehearsing in the baterias, or Samba School drum ensembles, on evenings after work. These drum ensembles could number 200 or 300 percussionists — and wow can they swing. In contrast, North American drumming loves to quantize subdivisions, so everything is very even. There’s beauty in all these approaches.

If you dig even deeper, the old African religions mixed and evolved into the new world Afro-Brazilian religions of Candomble and Umbanda. The celebrations involve drumming and dancing, very different from the choir and organ-led music of the Catholic services of my youth. The Candomble drummers make music not for congregations; they play for certain “forces of nature,” African divinities called Orixa, who are invoked by prescribed ways of drumming and singing. John Amira said to me (paraphrased) that in the African diasporic religions — like Brazilian Candomble, Cuban Santeria, Haitian Vodou — “the gods come to party with us.”

How did you get interested in percussion?

Beloved band teacher Arland Mangold (rest in peace) at St. Patrick’s Elementary in Taber, AB, started putting kids in band at Grade 4 — that’s practically unheard of now. Since I had been taking piano lessons, I thought I might play piano. I waited as he went through the list, and since percussion was at the end (no piano option), I thought I’d give it a go. If I wasn’t so naive, maybe I would have chosen something else, who knows? So a bit of randomness was involved.

However my entire family was musical: my dad was a church organist, my mom played violin, my brother piano and trumpet, my sister piano and trumpet. Probably without these role models and the fact that my dad took me to weekly lessons in Lethbridge, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.

Over the years I became a bit of an explorer. The field of percussion is vast — every culture has some kind of rhythm instrument. After classical music school in Montreal, I spent a few weeks hanging out in New York city studying with Glen Velez, an incredible musician who resurrected and promoted an entire field of frame drumming.

I got a grant to go back and I basically used New York City as a gateway school, taking lessons with people in different drumming traditions — Jorge Alabe for Brazil, Alessandra Belloni for Southern Italy, Michel Mirhige for the Middle East, John Amira for Haiti, and Jamey Haddad for frame drums. It was from this experience that I decided to try to get to Brazil, and eventually the Canada Council helped me out with a grant.

How do you live a creative life?

This depends on what we mean by a creative life. If by creative life, we mean being able to solve problems creatively and maximize our chance for insights, then everyone can potentially live a creative life on a moment to moment basis. My contribution would be to encourage people to learn to quiet the mind, even just a little bit, because you increase the likelihood of being able to discern new ideas, new connections, new links, which are very fragile at first. These insights are ephemeral, and if your brain is too noisy, they probably go unnoticed.

Here in Calgary there are some Asian inspired techniques you could pursue to learn to calm the mind. I was drawn particularly to certain Buddhist mental training practices embedded in quasi religious contexts, initially Soto Zen, and later Burmese Vipassana, in the lineage of Ledi Sayadaw. These are all instances of what David McMahan would call Buddhist Modernism (none of these practices escaped the contact with Western Modernity without evolving in particular ways). Nothing is as “pure” as some gurus might want you to believe. As a westernized Chinese immigrant, I came to these practices as an outsider, even though my ancestors transmitted the teachings to the Japanese, who popularized them in the West.

Now, if by a creative life, we mean creating something novel in a particular field that’s meaningful to your peers, well this takes time, training, effort, a willingness to push boundaries — and maybe a pandemic. This doesn’t have to occur only in the arts; it can occur in any discipline, but lots of training is required, followed by exploration, and then you have to get it past the gatekeepers in your field.

As the pandemic spread, and we were cooped up, I asked myself what I could contribute to the percussion world that was under-represented and also reflected my own personal journey over the years. Then came an insight about composing snare drum pieces using South Indian musical form. I ended up publishing a book, Two South Indian – American Rudimental Solos, through Bachovich Publications in New York, NY. Owner Andrew Beall said there was nothing like it in their catalogue. It was the fruit of many years studying rudimental and classical snare drumming as well as South Indian drumming with Trichy Sankaran. I recall the process being at times exhilarating and at times a monumental struggle.

Why does it matter to live a creative life?

I suppose survival would be one reason. How do we deal with the simultaneous challenges of the climate crisis, the renewed threat of nuclear war, and the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, which Yuval Harari says could create a whole new economic class — “the useless class.” We homo sapiens have created these conditions, these “progress traps” as Ronald Wright suggests. Well I have no idea how to solve these challenges, but it involves working together somehow, creatively. These days I wake up and wonder what it’s all about, how I can contribute, and then I practice my paradiddles.

About the Storytelling Project

The Storytelling Project raises awareness about Calgarians who, by living creative lives, are making Calgary a better city, effecting positive change and enriching others’ lives.

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