Q&A with Canada-based drummer Sarah Thawer, a passionate musician known for her joyful and skilful performances

"I feel so lucky to be supported by incredible women and men in music. There are incredible women who have paved the way and now I truly believe we are in a time where women are just killing the game. Sheila E. has been one of my heroes since I was a little girl and now she supports me and other incredible women in music. "

Sarah Thawer: Feel The Beat & Joy

Sarah Thawer is a drummer and recording artist based in Toronto, Canada. She is self- taught and has been playing since the age of 2 and has been performing on stage since the age of 6. She was introduced to music at a very young age, as she comes from a musical family. Sarah is currently freelancing, collaborating, doing session work and performing with international artists playing jazz, latin, gospel, hip hop, funk, r&b/soul, fusion, indian and world music. Sarah is currently working internationally with different artists and musicians, as well as solo and with her own band. Sarah has performed and worked with various artists including Jacob Collier, Steve Vai, George Watsky, Sheila E., Jon Batiste, A.R. Rahman, Nicholas Payton, Myron McKinley, Sekou Bunch, Mark Lettieri, Tegan and Sara, and Osman Mir.                      (Sarah Thawer / Brendan Mariani Photography)

She studied jazz and world music at York University and was the recipient of the Oscar Peterson Scholarship, the highest award given by the institution, in addition to graduating with the Summa Cum Laude distinction. She has been recognized and shared the stage with many popular artists including AR Rahman, Ruth B, Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, Del Hartley, D’bi and the 333, Rich Brown, Re.verse, Salim-Sulaiman, Dean Jarvis, Benny Dayal and Funktuation, Thompson Egbo-Egbo, The Battle of Santiago, Maria Mulata, Grisha Goryachev, Roger and Sam Grandinson, S S Thaman, Steve Koven, Vijay Prakash to name a few. Sarah has also been featured and interviewed on various television and radio stations such as CBC News newscast, Jazz FM 91.1, OMNI TV, Rogers Daytime, Vijay TV and various others.

Interview by Michael Limnios       Special Thanks: Sarah Thawer & Amareen Brar

How has the Jazz and India/World music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Jazz and Indian/world music has taught me that we are all so beautifully and uniquely different, and in our differences, we share so many similarities. I grew up primarily playing and listening to Indian music, and later found out that what I was listening to encompassed so many genres and various music influences, including jazz.

I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and it is so culturally diverse that if you are a working musician, it is so important to listen to and play a wide range of music genres. One day I would have a straight-ahead gig, then a Cuban-jazz recording, then an Indian/Bollywood festival, then I would play gospel music in church every Sunday. Having such diverse gigs, I couldn’t bring the same drum gear or mindset, so each day required that I put on a different “hat.” For instance, playing straight-ahead, I was all about the ride cymbal, whereas in church I would be hitting that snare drum on 2 and 4 with my heart, and at the Bollywood festival I was hitting the accent on 1 and 3!

Jazz and Indian music have especially taught me to be versatile and the importance of being authentic at the same time, and it has led me to touring and playing with so many different artists and musicians from all walks of life. 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Every meeting and encounter has been an important experience for me. One of my favourite pieces of advice was given to me recently, and it was to listen and follow my gut/intuition.

"Jazz and Indian/world music has taught me that we are all so beautifully and uniquely different, and in our differences, we share so many similarities. I grew up primarily playing and listening to Indian music, and later found out that what I was listening to encompassed so many genres and various music influences, including jazz." (Sarah Thawer / Photo © by Tre Bullen)

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What touched you from the sound/act of drums? 

Music is what taught me drumming, not a book or rudiment. My dad is a musician—he plays keys and primarily Indian music—and I remember playing drums and percussion as he would babysit me. He would turn on some Bollywood and Indian music and I would sit on the drums/percussion and play for hours! I grew up in a time where YouTube was not prevalent, nor did I have a drum teacher or book at my disposal. My dad taught me how to “feel” on the drums/percussion—he would tell me to listen to the Indian grooves of songs that stemmed from percussion, and he would tell me to close my eyes and feel the feeling of the groove so I could then incorporate and relay it on my percussion and drum set.

The feeling that came from the drums touched me since day one. It was all about the feel. Along with the feel came the joys of creativity. As a kid there was no one to tell me that I was playing the drums “right” or “wrong,” so my focus became, “Does the groove feel right?” I would take those Indian grooves and play them for hours to make sure they had the same feel on my drum set as they did on the tabla and dholak (Indian percussion) in the original song.

Later on, I started playing in big bands in high school and getting into jazz fusion and drum books to clean up my technique. My sound varies depending on the situation I am in, but I love to think of my drumming as a dance between stability and chaos. The pocket/groove is the stable and consistent foundation, and the chaos is the experimentation I love to do on top of the foundation. I always test myself to see just how far on the spectrum I can take my experimentation without losing the pocket/groove. If I become too experimental and crazy, I ask myself how I can bring it back to the groove (or not!). I love having fun on this spectrum!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths? What do you think is key to a music life well lived?

There are four major lessons I’ve learned:

First: Be patient.

Second: Never ever give up. 

Third: Take time to work on your mental health. Rest, and don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Enjoy your days off and live life! Balance is so important. I used to only prioritize music – I’d be in the practice room if I wasn’t performing or playing, and vice-versa. With time I found that my musicality and music improved drastically when I started living life, taking time off, and being mindful.

Last, but not least: Enjoy the journey. It truly is the best part. 

"The feeling that came from the drums touched me since day one. It was all about the feel. Along with the feel came the joys of creativity. As a kid there was no one to tell me that I was playing the drums “right” or “wrong,” so my focus became, “Does the groove feel right?” I would take those Indian grooves and play them for hours to make sure they had the same feel on my drum set as they did on the tabla and dholak (Indian percussion) in the original song." (Sarah Thawer / Photo © by George Burrows)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I truly believe that each era of music is special. I love embracing music from the past and present. One thing in particular that I love about music is that I get to play it with people. I am so happy that we were able to collaborate virtually from our homes during COVID because of modern-day technology! My hopes for music is to keep it going!!!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It would be that every room became soundproofed automatically when you hit the drums. That way, you could play drums anywhere, any time!

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I feel so lucky to be supported by incredible women and men in music. There are incredible women who have paved the way and now I truly believe we are in a time where women are just killing the game. Sheila E. has been one of my heroes since I was a little girl and now she supports me and other incredible women in music. 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would want to see all of my favourite drummers play live, then tap them on the back and ask them if I could please sit in!

Sarah Thawer - Home

(Photo: Sarah Thawer)

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