Brake drums, tin cans and orchestra?

Percussion Group Cincinnati brings the beat

By Lisa Bennett

Photo: Percussion Group Cincinnati will perform on Oct. 25 at the United Methodist Church in Yellow Springs as guests of Chamber Music Yellow Springs

Decades before Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholass of Brighton, U.K., got together and created the world-famous act “Stomp,” a small percussion group right here in Ohio was creating music with the most unlikely of instruments. From tin cans to car parts found in junk yards, Percussion Group Cincinnati has developed a tantalizing style all its own that has continued to excite and impress music enthusiasts to the present day.

Of the many diverse items they use, including a deck of cards, one instrument stands out as being particularly unconventional: brake drums. The drums from automobiles make for a deliciously eloquent instrument; not surprisingly, the intrepid group adopted them into their repertoire.

“Brake drums have for almost the whole history of American percussion, been kind of a poor-man’s Balinese gong orchestra when they’re combined with tin cans and various other kinds of sound effects,” Allen Otte, a percussionist and member of the Percussion Group Cincinnati explains.

But the group is not all tin cans and car parts.

“We bring a small truck load of our own personal stuff that we’ve collected over the years,” Otte says. “As percussionists, we have instruments from all over the world.”

Some of the myriad of instruments they use include symbols, gongs, marimbas and instruments from as far away as China and Panama. That collection, he points out, is part of what makes their show so unique.

“There’s, of course, a tremendous positive influence from other cultures, and every program is full of music which is in some way influenced by the vernacular music of other cultures.” The broad and diverse spectrum of cultural influence has created an almost universal appeal for the group.

“People in many cultures are still making creative music,” Otte says. “Contemporary music is not exclusively commercial music. New music is not just for films or dancing or for advertising, but it’s a whole tradition that has existed in the world since before the time of Bach. It’s a music that we can play because it draws on beautiful instruments from the history of all different cultures.”

Though there has been a slight decline in support of classically trained musicians overall, percussion, it seems, is on an upward surge. From the resounding base rhythms of rap and hip-hop to the soaring rise of hand-drummers in the U.S., our need to connect with primal beats has never been greater. Nowhere is that more evident that on the smiling faces of the thousands of young children for whom Cincinnati Percussion performs each year.

Their program, “Music from Scratch,” is designed to introduce percussion to young children. Even for the occasional child who isn’t interested in learning music, it’s hard to imagine one who wouldn’t be delighted to see people making incredible music with stuff they might even have in their own back yards.

“It’s fun for us and, quite frankly, probably more interesting for the kids than a woodwind quartet,” Otte quips.

Percussion Group Cincinnati was founded at the University of Cincinnati in 1979. Members James Culley, Russell Burge and Allen Otte are not only an ensemble-in-residence at the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati, but they are also faculty members who have devoted their lives to music and education. When they are not teaching, rehearsing or recording, they are performing for both national and international tours. This year, the group will treat local residents to a special evening performance at Chamber Music Yellow Springs.

“There will be powerful rhythmic drums pieces,” Otte says. “There will be quiet, gentle African rhythms, some piano music and there will be some crazy stuff with tin cans from John Cage from way back in the 1930s.”

Now on their 32nd season, the Chamber is thrilled to have the Cincy group on board. “Percussion is very unusual for us,” says CMYS Publicity Chair Angela Brintlinger. “We’ve never done anything like it. It’ll be fun and exciting because not only are they different, they’re also local.”

CMYS has a long history of excitingly diverse music from various ethnic backgrounds.

“It’s part of the tradition that we have to always bring in something unusual,” Brintlinger says. “Percussion Group Cincinnati certainly fits that bill. Though they are all trained as orchestral percussionists, their ability to create stunning, ethereal music from objects other than traditional percussion instruments has landed them squarely in the annals of excellence.”

Percussion Group Cincinnati will perform 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25 at the United Methodist Church, 202 S. Winter St. in Yellow Springs. For tickets and information, please visit or


Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at

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Lisa Bennett
Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at

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