Joy Lapps and Larnell Lewis on the nature of rhythm

For Joy Lapps and Larnell Lewis, rhythm is a way of life.

Lapps is a steelpannist, composer and educator who recently released her fifth album Girl in the YardThe all-original blend of samba, West African sounds, Afro-Caribbean and contemporary music pays tribute to the women in her life who have helped develop her mastery of the steelpan.

Larnell Lewis is a drummer, composer and educator whose most recent album Relive the Moment features reinterpretations of six of the original compositions from his Juno-nominated debut. Lewis is also a member of the multiple Grammy-winning group Snarky Puppy, who are about to release their new album Empire Central.

The married couple are both part of Flow Fest, an international drumming festival at the Rose Theatre in Brampton.

Lapps and Lewis joined us together to talk about the highly personal stakes that went into Girl in the Yard, the teamwork it takes to make a Snarky Puppy record, and the intrinsically communal spirit of rhythmic instruments.

Joy, you’ve dedicated Girl in the Yard to the women who have supported you during your musical journey. Tell me a little bit about that process of making the album.

Joy Lapps: I did a master’s of composition at York University, and my thesis was around history, development and composition for steelpan in the jazz idiom. I had the honour to interview Andy Narell, Rudy Smith and Othello Molineaux, and write music that was inspired by their music and by other jazz steelpan compositions. But I was also thinking about the people who inspire me and the people who allow me to be an artist, a composer, a mom, a wife, and me. There’s work on the record about my sisters, my mom and other folks. I’m looking at myself microcosmically, but also thinking about the contributions of women, named and unnamed, to the steelpan movement. We see this large spectacle, we see music, but who was behind the work? For my record, I know that these women in my life are behind my work, and I want to also look at who’s behind the steelpan movement.

I love the notion that it’s not only just the people we know who have supported us, but there are people out there whose names we may not know but have somehow been a big part of what we’ve done, because they have been in that same place. As you say, it’s the known and unknown who are out there giving support to us.

Joy Lapps: Absolutely.

The steelpan is such a mysterious and exotic instrument. Tell us a little bit about the mechanics of it. Is it tuneable? Does it go out of tune?

Joy Lapps: That’s a great question. The steelpan is definitely tuneable. The interesting thing is that we do it with a hammer — the great calypsonian David Rudder even wrote a song about it. The tuners or pan builders, they do use hammers and strobe tuners or other digital tuners and hammers, and we definitely have the 12 tones that we have on a piano or a guitar. But it’s a little bit different approach to landing in tune.

Does it go out of tune the same way as a piano or guitar, or is it more stable?

Joy Lapps: It definitely can go out of tune if it gets dropped, or hit, or mismanaged. Also, weather impacts the tuning. When my steelpan is out in the sun uncovered, it can change the tuning, and then it comes back into tune when it comes back to the right temperature.

On the album you’ve got Elmer Ferrer, Jeremy Ledbetter, Andrew Stewart and Larnell Lewis. Larnell, is playing on a session with Joy any different than playing on any other session?

Larnell Lewis: It’s the same, but also different. The level of investment is different because seeing Joy create these projects, we have a lot of these conversations where we’re talking about the things that we really want and we’re identifying our values. This past weekend, we celebrated 12 years being married. Over time, all these things that we’ve been dreaming about and talking about, seeing it come to fruition in a recording studio makes it really, really special and very different of an experience than any other. But from the perspective of being a musician playing on the session, it’s the same. I’m giving my all, I’m investing as much as I can, and I’m doing what I can to elevate the ideas and make space for everyone else.

Joy, when you’re in there with these musicians, would you echo that? You’re making a record and that has its own source of value, but it’s also beyond that — it’s about your lives?

Joy Lapps: I 100 per cent agree. Larnell has always been extremely supportive, and he’s one of the big reasons why I felt empowered to write an entire record of original music. He’s always encouraged me to write. He saw that I had it in me. He encouraged me to put it out there, to put pen to paper, and to get it done. He showed me that I had the voice to do it.

Recommended Links

A question about Snarky Puppy: The last album Culcha Vulcha was done in a studio. Prior to that, it was in a live environment. The new album Empire Central was done that same way, with a live audience right there with you. Do you prepare any differently when you’ve got the audience there?

Larnell Lewis: That’s a great question. When you think about the living arts and what performing in a space feels like when you have an audience, it’s such a magical feeling. But it also introduces a level of needed commitment to any idea that you’re executing. You’re now in performance, you’re now in real time — you’ve got to do it live, as they say. The big thing is when you are creating and adding to the composition outside of the parts, you’ve got a choice to make just like any other live situation, and knowing that once it goes to tape, that’s it. It’s definitely a higher tightrope. But like I’ve said since the record that I did with Snarky Puppy which was We Like It Here, it’s that camaraderie and that support and understanding from everyone — we’re all in this together, this is our album, this is our presentation. The process is different from record to record, but we have each other’s backs. We’re protecting and investing in each other’s image.

So, even though it’s at the highest level, you know that there’s no wrong answer because it’s a team and a safe space to express yourself.

Larnell Lewis: Absolutely. It’s going to be an output that we are all thankful for the opportunity to have been able to do.

Let’s talk about Flow Fest. You two are both educators and that’s a big part of what you do. Is there an educational component to this festival as well as a performance component?

Joy Lapps: The festival is intended to include education as we move forward, but this inaugural festival is more of a performance and artistic experience.

What can people expect when they come to see the show?

Joy Lapps: They can expect an immersive artistic experience. They can expect to feel good and feel at home. I think a lot of times in these settings, we think, “We’re going to sit down and watch a performance.” We want people to really think about what drumming means to them. A lot of our practice is meant to be participatory. We want people to expect to come and enjoy music, but also to participate and to have an artistic exchange with us.

There’s something about drums: Anyone can grab something and make some rhythmic expression; you don’t really need to know much about notes or where to put your hands. It seems like drums and percussion is the easiest gateway to having people understand how they can be part of making music and exploring it themselves.

Larnell Lewis: When we think about rhythm, one idea is the cadence or the “flow” of a rhythmic passage. We have a cadence in the way that we speak, we have a cadence in the way that we walk. There’s so much to what we do in general that makes us unique in our own way. Just leaning into that, I think that’s licence enough to know that we are all creative. You can just hit something and tag along. Thinking about music and drumming specifically, it’s communal. The idea of the drum kit is about that community, that party, that idea of “grab something and hit it.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.