On a trip to Costa Rica, Altoonan Erro Gutshall remembers driving through the rainforest with his windows down, ears perked searching for a distinct sound.
Then in the distance, he thought he heard it - the sound of a djembe, a traditional African drum. Gutshall didn't care where the sound would lead him. He simply followed.
"I followed it and followed it and here's this Spanish guy sitting there, working on a drum, and he has students there," said Gutshall, who has played the djembe for 12 years. "I thought 'Well, I'm home.' I drove there and stayed for the next two weeks."
Drumming has not only allowed Gutshall to meet people on almost every continent, it has built him a group of students and friends in the local area. On most Tuesday nights, you can find a varying number of them gathered in Gutshall's photography studio for a lesson.
And whether he's teaching a traditional African rhythm or just jamming in a drum circle, Gutshall said drumming is like a form of meditation for him.
"I know when I'm playing drums, I feel great," he said. "It allows me to remove myself from my every day. It's almost like meditation. I forget about my personal problems, any life troubles. All that stuff goes away when I'm playing music, so that's what music does for me."
Mirror photos by Gary M.?Baranec
Erro Gutshall (far right)?of Altoona teaches African drumming techniques to (from left) Colin Lennox, Jeff D’Angelo and Lance Jones at his photo studio, Dance of?Light Photography in Altoona.
Gutshall said he's always wanted to drum, but just never knew how to get started. He was even given a drum set by his parents when he was a young child, but beat each drum so hard he broke them in one day.
"[My parents] said they'd never get me another instrument after that," he said with a laugh. But then when a friend came to visit Gutshall from Hawaii and knew of someone selling djembes at a good price, he ordered one.
"It came four days later and I just got addicted," he said.
Less than a year later, Gutshall was on a plane to West Africa, specifically Guinea and Senegal, on a quest to train with the masters.
He said finding them was difficult because drumming is not as embedded in the culture due to the Muslim invasions.
"Some professionals still remain," Gutshall said. "I went out with some drummers village to village where we drummed, and that was the entertainment for the night. Each little village may have three light bulbs or somewhere where there's electricity. That's where we would gather and play. All the community would come out in their finest clothing. These people had nothing, no possessions, but they would come out in nice clothes."
While teaching the rhythms he learned from his time in Africa, Gutshall makes sure his students know the cultural significance and meaning behind the music.
"When teaching these rhythms, I want to give background and pay homage to the masters who taught me," he said.
For Lance Jones, a student of Gutshall's for about a year who graduated from Clarion University with a degree in percussion and teaches music in the Northern Cambria School District, learning the stories and about the African drum culture has made him feel invested and connected in the craft.
"You can play rhythms and mess around and just have fun, or you can really dive into the whole history and culture of a people," Jones said. "That's what really intrigued me, is that it was more than just playing something for the fun. And it is fun, but I really like diving in and learning something new that's very in depth."
For Colin Lennox, an Altoona native as well as a multi-instrumentalist with his main focus on the didgeridoo, said drumming gave him ambidexterity and the ability to "think separately."
"With the drumming, it's absolutely helped me become a better didge player," Lennox said. "All of that stuff kind of works together."
Lennox was Gutshall's first student, and they have been drumming together for about eight years. He said that through drumming and playing the didgeridoo, he's been invited to play with many local bands of multiple genres. It has also allowed him to broaden his own musical horizons, Lennox added.
"It definitely makes you look at your own culture a little bit differently," he said. "I can't help thinking [about how] there's a whole bunch of different music out there."
Gutshall said he's glad drumming and teaching has allowed him to get involved in the community, and he invites anyone who's interested to come take a lesson or watch a performance.
"You don't have to know anything about it to enjoy it," he said. "People benefit like they would benefit from going to a ballet or opera or rock concert. You feel it, you want to hear it. With the African drumming, by playing it you become part of it."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.