How do you write something that sounds traditionally ethnic? First, it goes without saying that “ethnic” or “indigenous” compositions of any kind benefit greatly from the input of musicians who are very experienced in those given styles. That’s not to say that you should just hire some musicians and let them write your score for you, of course, but it’s good to leave plenty of room within the compositions and arrangements for the musicians to do their thing. A lot of instruments don’t have a written tradition anyway, so for example, if you want an Irish bodhrán on your soundtrack, you don’t necessarily need to try to write a part for it – the player will hear the music and know what to do. Alternately, you can write a simple pattern and notate any salient hits or rhythms and let the drummer improvise the rest.
Traditional Irish and Celtic music is still very alive and evolving, and there are lot of “trad” musicians writing brand new tunes, melodies and songs. Many Irish musicians like to incorporate non-Irish sounds into their music, and I’ve been asked to play djembes, congas, bongos, dumbeks, talking-drums, shakers – as well as a standard drum set – on a lot of Irish recordings.
On the other hand, I really like playing the traditional Irish bodhrán in non-traditional ways, and with music that is not particularly Irish. It can be really cool to have an ethnic drum playing a funky hip-hop beat, or use a short pattern as a loop in a sequence. Adding digital effects and creative audio processing can give you some very unique beats that no one else will have.
Of course, producers should use real players on real instruments, rather than attempting to simulate ethnic sounds using samples and synth patches. Unless you’re very well versed in the style, using synth work is likely to be inferior to live musicians and will probably require much more work in the long run!
Steve Holloway, a member of Local 802 since 1993, is a drummer and percussionist. He performed for over a decade with the hit show “Riverdance” and is known for his skill on the bodhrán, the traditional frame drum from Ireland.