Toni Drums Part I

ToniDrums.JPG. Toni Drums is a Latin Greammy-nominated Panamanian percussionist, drummer, and musician. Courtesy of Toni Drums.

Feature image: Toni Drums is a Latin Greammy-nominated Panamanian percussionist, drummer, and musician. Courtesy of Toni Drums.

PART I: How Toni Drums Discovered His Art of Percussion in Panama

Toni Drums is a legendary Latin Grammy-nominated Panamanian percussionist, drummer, and musician. His passion for percussion and music has taken him on tour worldwide with everyone in the Latin American music industry. This is the story of how Drums has polished his vibrant art of percussion since his childhood.

Abdiel Antonio Morales Williams, better known as Toni Drums, is a legendary Latin Grammy-nominated Panamanian percussionist, drummer, and musician. Drums was born in the city of Chilibre, Panama, and music has always been a part of his life. As a child in Chilibre, he listened to a lot of different music in his neighborhood, thanks to his grandparents and uncles.

He spent most of his time listening to salsa and merengue. His first encounter with music was taking his mother’s trastes, or dishes and plates, and hitting them with sticks. At that time, he had no instruments, so he was unconsciously seeking a way to create music.

Then, he moved with his family to the area of Río Bajo in Panama City. There, his father built a church, and Drums’ story in music began.

“There were no instruments. So, we took the tanks used to wash clothes. We turned them around and placed them between our legs. We’d play with that. Those were the church’s drums, and they had the rings from a car’s tires,” Drums said. “We’d hit it with sticks, and it would sound like a bell.”

Those were his first approaches to music, but what would formally introduce him to percussion was the church. When he was six or seven years old, he’d bend down and hit the wood benches while attending service.

“When I went to church, there was this man named Isaí. I’ll never forget about him. He was the one who gave me a tambourine. I followed the rhythm on time, and he told me: why don’t you come tomorrow,” Drums said. “We’ll see if we place you there playing the tambourine because I’m the only one playing the guitar, and there’s no one else.”

ChildToni.JPG. Toni Drums as a child with his bongos. Courtesy of Toni Drums.
Toni Drums as a child with his bongos. Courtesy of Toni Drums.

That initial interaction sparked Drums’ interest in percussion and led to his love for his favorite instrument: the tambourine. Afterward, pastor Jaime Robinson introduced him to congas and bongos. Drums began learning about those instruments by watching videos of Puerto Rican percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo and Cuban percussionist Luis Quintana, better known as Changuito. Watching their videos taught Drums about the different percussion techniques and styles.

Music and Percussion as a Destiny

Acquiring that “street-style” knowledge was an indication that Drums was meant and destined to devote himself to music and percussion. When he was 12 or 13 years old, he was at the Soloy Hotel in Panama City. He ran into Gilberto Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa is a renowned six-time Grammy award-winner Puerto Rican bandleader and singer of salsa and bolero. When Santa Rosa saw the little boy, he asked him what he was doing with the bongos he was carrying and how he played them.

Drums sat down and played the bongos, and Santa Rosa asked him to help him play at his event. That specific moment was a defining one for Drums in the early stages of his musical career.

“When playing the solo, he asked me what my name was. I said Toni, and he told me he’d fix that. Then, he presented me as Toni Drums,” Drums said. “And Toni Drums stayed for history. He’s my musical godfather.”

 ToniDrums2.JPG. Toni Drums in action playing the drums. Courtesy of Toni Drums.
Toni Drums in action playing the drums. Courtesy of Toni Drums.

And just as that, Toni Drums’ bright musical career was born. His path and destiny to make history was just beginning. After that experience, he had a new opportunity: touring with Panamanian singer Basilio.

Drums remembered he was still a minor at the time and was not aware of what that meant because of his innocence. He went with his uncle and lived in Basilio’s house in Miami for a while. That was his awakening to understand that music is his tool to generate money and a discipline that means everything to him. It’s something serious for him, but also something that he thinks accompanies every person’s daily life and actions. There’s nothing you can do without music.

In understanding music as happiness, he also grasps his art of percussion as one that’s the best thing in the world. One that brings a lot of sabor or seasoning into life, especially in Latin America. To hone his sabor and craft, Drums has mastered and learned to play a wide variety of percussion instruments, including the congas, bongos, timpani, djembe, goblet drum, Chinese drum, pandero (plenera), typical Panamanian and Colombian drums, castanets, bells, maracas, gong, and triangle.

He also plays the bass, a bit of piano, guitar, trumpet, and trombone, but his base is the percussion instruments. Within the percussion instruments, he has found a direct relationship between them and music. What connects them is the BPM – or beat per minute – the rhythm and the song’s tempo. These require a vast musical and instrumental knowledge to understand the tempo and melodies.

An “Unusual” Musician and Percussionist

With all this knowledge, you’d think that Drums would define himself as a legend, extraordinary musician, and percussionist. But that’s not the case. He thinks of himself as a musician who is constantly learning.

He classifies himself as a two out of ten on his musical scale.

“I’m more of a street-style [musician]. My thing was to go directly to the beat. I grasped the instructions later on with the years. From the age of 8 to the age of 25, it was all street-style. I played with the old [musicians],” Drums said. “I learned with those who made calypso here in Panama. With the salseros. I also learned with the gran combo. I went first to the “war” to learn what was there and then I educated myself.”

He then ventured to learn about music theory.

“That’s why I give myself a two as a musician. I’m not the musician that should be normal. The normal musician is the one that goes to school, learns, and then goes out to the streets,” Drums said. “I went first to the streets and then to learn.”

ToniDrums3.JPG. Toni Drums and U.S. pianist, composer, and record producer Sergio George. Courtesy of Toni Drums.
Toni Drums and U.S. pianist, composer, and record producer Sergio George. Courtesy of Toni Drums.

Yet, he encountered a new challenge when he enrolled in formal music classes. The professor told him to beat the bongos in a specific manner. When he did so, the professor asked him if he already knew how to play. Drums told him to do the class as if he didn’t know anything.

That compromised the professor because he asked Drums how he’d teach him if he already knew how to play. Drums replied he wanted the theory because he didn’t know it, but the professor told him to stop going to class. Instead, he gave Drums a music theory book and told him to learn from it.

That particular experience reminded Drums that he’s in music in a different manner than a traditional musician because he has expanded his knowledge to other musical branches. One day, he might be working as a producer. The next day, he’ll be repairing and giving maintenance to instruments. And then, he’ll be helping out at a school or performing with popular artists and bands.

“That’s my characteristic in music and percussion because I not only live it or play it, but I also repair it. I think I have a bit more comprehension than a normal percussionist because I can take apart an instrument,” Drums said. “I know which is its attitude, tuning, and where its parts come from.”

 ToniDrumsSeñorLoop3.JPG. Toni Drums and Panamanian band Señor Loop on stage. Courtesy of Toni Drums.
Toni Drums and Panamanian band Señor Loop on stage. Courtesy of Toni Drums.

When Drums plays an instrument, he knows what he’s playing, its history, and where it comes from.

“When I play, I acknowledge and respect the instrument. Percussion instruments are alive, and they can answer you. If you ask the correct question, they can answer you,” Drums said.

Asking the right questions about his instruments means he knows their function perfectly. It means he knows where to source the meat to cure the leather and to assemble his instruments. He goes to a meat slaughterhouse to get the leather. He waits there for the person to cut it. He then takes it, cleans it, and takes it home. Then, he cures it, assembles it, and, lastly, shaves it to grease it.

The Rhythms of Latin America

But it also means that he’s studied the different Latin American rhythms and styles. As a child – during his time learning in church – he was hungry to perfect those rhythms. He started out with the Dominican Republic and then moved to Panama. Afterward, he “traveled” musically to Puerto Rico to learn about bomba plena and salsa. Then, he “moved” to Colombia to study ballenato, puya, and merengue.

In that search of Latin American rhythms, he also found himself on the lookout for the people who played them, the instruments they used, and the songs they performed. That’s how he perfected his craft as a child. As an adult, he now knows every rhythm because he memorized them.

That musical journey also led him to “travel through time” and learn about Giovanni Hidalgo and Changuito’s techniques and styles. He listened to their music to try to play like them and then play with them. He studied the different beats for the congas and bongos.

He played like Changuito.

And he then learned to play like Hidalgo.

And then he studied Gran Combo’s rhythm played by their conga player.

“See how it sounds different? Each one had their own way of playing and you’d say: ah, that’s a certain conga player. That’s that musician. I know what they’re playing,” Drums said. “Each percussionist must have a personality when playing and that’s learned.”

He’s also learned that percussion is inherently tied to Latin American identity. He sees it in many forms, whether in the way that Latin Americans speak, the way they walk, or their heavy use of drums in the music they produce.

Whenever he travels throughout Latin America, Drums pays attention to how people speak. He believes people speak melodically or percussively, as it is in the case of his home country of Panama.

“Us Latinos are very melodic or very percussive. Even in our way of speaking or walking. That has its personality, but I think Latin America has completely stolen the percussive part. Everything. The drums. The rhythms. We’re strong with that,” Drums said.

Even with the most mundane activity, Latin Americans come through with its sabor and rhythm. For Drums, it’s clear whenever it’s a Saturday in Panama. It’s the perfect day for cleaning and doing house chores. He listens to women cleaning and bursting the speakers with sassy music portraying their greatest vengeance and heartbreaks. Even if they’re not feeling those intense emotions, it’s just the best dramatic music to get the chores done because it evokes motivation and liberation to clean. It’s in the ordinary screams as Drums imitate them.

Drums joins in the dramatic cleaning and sassy house cleaning chores by carefully curating his soundtrack for dusting, scrubbing, and sweeping.

“I play Héctor Lavoe’s old salsa. I sing and clean to Cheo Feliciano’s old salsa. I loved playing with him. I’m mentioning people I’ve played with, but I really love their music,” Drums said. “Oh, and Elvis Crespo. He’s great for cleaning because he goes fast. So, you’re also cleaning quickly. Píntameeeeee! Te lo dije que estoy…fu, fu, fu and you go there sweeping. It’s very sabroso.”

The Drums of Latin America [or Africa]?

In that mundane and common Latin American experience, you won’t skip a beat of the drums that are inherent to the region’s culture and existence. They’re always present, but they were taken or “stolen” from Africa, as Drums explained.

“The Africans were the first ones to use the drums. They didn’t use it as music. It was their medium for communication. The tribes communicated with each other through the drums,” Drums said. “Usually, percussionists are called troglodytes because we know how to beat and hit. Supposedly, for musicians, we don’t make music. We’re a necessary evil. But that necessary evil is what they need to be able to create.”

 ToniDrumsSeñorLoop.JPG. Toni Drums and Lilo Sánchez with Señor Loop during their concert in Costa Rica in March. Photo by Elizabeth Lang.
Toni Drums and Lilo Sánchez with Señor Loop during their concert in Costa Rica in March. Photo by Elizabeth Lang.

According to Drums, it's an instrument that has traveled around the world and ended up being of Latin America. It’s something that Latin Americans carried in their identity and transformed into something else.

“The Latin Americans stole that because they probably learned from an African. Plenty of Africans and Jamaicans came here to Panama. They taught us to create their drums,” Drums said. “Those are things you learn with time that define a region. It defines Latin America. It defines Latin Americans’ personalities because Latinos are very rumberos [dancers]. They love music. Weekends are normally for alcohol; I’m not going to mention the other thing and music.”

Weekends in Latin America are also for dancing along with reggaeton’s contagious beat – another one of the major rhythms that Drums has played since its beginnings. Drums is from Panama, a country that plays a key role in reggaeton’s history. It was the place where Jamaicans migrated for the construction of the Panama Canal. Jamaicans brought their reggae with them. Then, Panamanian pioneers, including Nando Boom, El General, Chicho Man, and Ness, created the reggae en español based off of Jamaicans’ influential reggae.

ToniDrums&ElGeneral.jpg. Toni Drums and El General in Panama. Via Toni Drums’ Instagram.
Toni Drums and El General in Panama. Via Toni Drums’ Instagram.

Living the History of Reggaeton and Reggae en Español

Drums knows these pioneers. At some point, he played with them and became their friend. Drums is part of Panama’s reggae en español and reggaeton’s history, even if he doesn’t feel like it. He lives in the history of a revolutionary music genre that changed the world’s music industry.

“Sometimes I feel like I haven't been part of anything, but I always have someone like Roko next to me reminding me about it. He always tells me: bro, remember you’ve been playing since Nando Boom, Chicho Man, El General,” Drums said. “I mean, at that time, I wasn’t playing with El General, but in the way, I don’t know what happened and we became friends. I’ve also known Nando Boom for a long time. I played with him, Renato, and Ness. With the pioneers of Panama’s reggae [en español].”

His producer friend Roko always tells him he’s part of the history because not everyone has played with them. Drums reflected that most of those artists stopped playing and that he was the last one to perform with them. Due to that – he said laughing – he’s a dinosaur in the urban music.

It also made him reflect on his Puerto Rican friend, Ledif Franceschini.

“He was one of the first drummers to play in the urban [genre]. He played with Vico C. Playing with Vico C is basically saying: I started reggaeton in Puerto Rico. He was the one who started as a reggaeton drummer in Puerto Rico,” Drums said. “I played with the Panamanian reggae artists. So, we’re two people who’ve known each other for years and we’re both founders in our countries as musicians and drummers or percussionists from the género [genre].”

In a moment of reflection, Drums said it was something heavy to think about because he did not perceive it that way. He even recalled a time his famous reggaeton brother Sech was interviewed and asked who he thought was the most influential drummer in reggaeton.

“My brother [Sech] answered: my brother! He’s one of the pioneers in the urban music in Panama. It’s in two ways: the commercial music and the Christian music,” Drums said. “I’m also part of those who started making Christian urban music in Panama. I’m a dinosaur in the urban part, but I’m still active making instrumentals and making my music thanks to Roko.”

ToniDrumsSeñorLoop2.JPG. Toni Drums and Lilo Sánchez with Señor Loop during their concert in Costa Rica in March. Photo by Elizabeth Lang.
Toni Drums and Lilo Sánchez with Señor Loop during their concert in Costa Rica in March. Photo by Elizabeth Lang.

Reggaeton is one of the many music genres that Drums has mastered throughout the years. It’s one of the many rhythms he has honed through his vibrant art of percussion because he’s a legendary percussionist, drummer, and musician.

To learn more about Toni Drums, follow him on Instagram at @toni_drums and on Spotify at Toni Drums.

Stay tuned for PART II to find out how Drums tours around the world, creating percussive Latin American culture.

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