From the Great Lakes to the Amazon River with the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble

by Carey Rutherford

When MUSICAlive! asks David Skidmore of the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble what instruments he’ll be playing when they premiere their “Paddle to the Sea” performance in Calgary (8:00 pm, April 8 at the Rozsa Centre), he goes on, and on, and on . . . listing 16 different instruments!

“I think that’s it, he laughs. “I can’t promise that’s everything, though!”

If you were born in Canada before it became nostalgic to talk about the ’70s or ’80s, you may remember an iconic National Film Board release which appeared in schools, film festivals and late-night moviethons called Paddle to the Sea. This remarkable little half-hour movie (about a hand-carved kayak and paddler that a First Nations boy sets adrift in the Great Lakes, hoping it will reach the ocean) stirred the imagination of this world-class percussion ensemble: they decided to update the music that accompanies this legendary film.

“I understand it’s a big part of the culture,” David remarks, acknowledging the film’s Canadian fame, “but it’s also (well-known) here in the States. I think if you grew up along the Great Lakes in the States, you had a high probability of seeing it as well. (The Third Coast Percussion Ensemble) got turned on to this film because . . . we were talking to (Tom Welsh, who programs concerts at the Cleveland Museum of Art) about projects, and he mentioned the film to us.

“He said ‘This is something I grew up with, and I really love it, and something tells me you guys would connect with it.’ And we did!. . . We watched the whole thing and were really drawn to some of the themes of the film. It’s a really very simple, but really very beautiful story.

“And we particularly connected with the idea that this figure, Paddle, washes ashore or comes upon a boat, and people interact with him. And then ultimately they put him back into the water, sometimes through a decision that’s made, and sometimes (not). There ’s the little boy who interacts with the figure, and he’s careless playing with him, accidentally sending (Paddle) back out in the water.”

For those who have never seen the film, originally shot with magnificent landscape footage in 1966, it is often from the point of view of the toy boat’s occupant, and there is a significant dramatic tension when the little wooden craft survives a surrounding forest fire, sea locks with freighters bumping up against him, and being frozen into ice and snow for a period of time.

David enthuses: “Carved on the bottom of the (boat) is ‘My name is Paddle to the Sea, please put me back in the water’ because the little boy who carves him wants him to reach places he’ll never reach. There was just something about (the story) that was really beautiful to us, and really inspired us to write the music.”

MUSICAlive! tells David about our rediscovered pleasure of imagining the original scenes while listening to the new Paddle to the Sea disc they’ve just released, and he points out that they have built other musics around the pieces that are specific to the original film. Like “Madeira River”, the first track on the album, or “Amazon River”, which closes out the disc 20 tracks later.

“As we were deciding what to write on the soundtrack of the film, we took this idea of Paddle interacting with people, and people interacting with him and always putting him back in the water, as a metaphor for how we were gong to do the music.

“So we took existing works and drew themes and ideas and sound worlds from those existing works.. . .” They adapted them to work with the ensemble and the album as a whole: creating visuals to accompany the re-fashioned musics, and taking images from the film to accompany the new works the film inspired.

“New video with old music; new music with old video,” David deadpans, and then laughs again, describing how this all comes together for this multi-media tour across North America. MUSICAlive! notes the wide variety of performance genres Third Coast has moved through already, whether multi-media or chamber or world music, and asks about how this plays out on the “Paddle to the Sea” performance and album:

“We perform some traditional music from Zimbabwe, from the Shona people, and that’s part of the pre-existing music that we’re drawing from in the music that we created. It’s a tradition of music that we started studying maybe 3 years ago, and it’s . . . really incredible.

“We went to a conservatory the same way a string quartet would: but at the same time, as percussionists, we’re drawing on cultures and percussion instruments from all over the world; in some cases studying Indigenous music, rather than Western classically composed music . . . And that’s one of the things that we love about being a percussion group: our instruments are found in jazz, rock, hip-hop, pop, and Indigenous cultures all over the world. AND classical music, to name a few. So while our primary training while we were coming up was classical, we’re finding ways of interacting with music from all over the world, and a wide spectrum of what’s being created today.”

As a result of our conversation about the mix of musics he’s described, David recommends that the audience members get up and dance if they feel like it, because the music certainly goes there sometimes. But he makes no claims about how Calgary Pro Musica will feel about that. Decide for yourself, as the MUSIC is definitely Alive!