If there’s one thing that Leonard “Doc” Gibbs and Shawn Hennessey have in common, it’s their love of the drum. If it’s two, the second is their respective spots on this Wednesday’s opening night of PW’s 23rd annual Concerts in the Park series in Rittenhouse Square. They also share a mutual love of Philadelphia. Hennessey’s a child of the northeast and has made it his mission to bring worldly-flavored music back to his hometown, and Gibbs has called Philly his home for decades after being educated at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. But Gibbs and Hennessey are two very different musicians.
There’s something ineffable about a percussionist’s connection to their instrument, and perhaps no one knows the cosmic kinship of hand to drum than the legendary Gibbs. He’s also firmly traditional, yet isn’t so sure that adherence to tradition’s in vogue. “It’s important that the few percussionists working today have the knowledge of technique and history of the drum, how to make certain percussion instruments do what they are supposed to do,” Gibbs recently told PW. “I don’t see enough young folks playing in bands with that knowledge. If you play hand drums with sticks, and your hand never touches the drum, then you are missing out on the most important aspect of playing the drum: skin on skin!”
Gibbs has been building his career since the ‘60s, across many disciplines and genres. Technique and mastery of the instrument has always been important, but he’s also excelled at collaborating with all kinds of musicians while maintaining a reverence for history and preservation. It started with the training he received here in town from master drummer Baba Crowder and has lasted decades. Crowder, Gibbs says, “taught me technique, exercise, culture and respect for the drum. Baba was the great grandfather of the drum in Philadelphia. It’s because of him that we have such a rich history of the hand drum in Philadelphia, which dates back to the 1940s. Baba taught me the importance of being able to pass the information on to those who were worthy. We used to talk for hours about the beauty of drumming and life—and how we, as drummers, fit into this life.”
Hennessey’s voyage to the drum may have been a little more winding and self-directed. While his two current groups, Leana Song and Hennessey Bonfire, employ Afro-Cuban rhythms and international flavors, he, like lots of other boys in Northeast Philly, started off with big, radical dreams. “I was a punk rocker first, actually,” he recalls. “I grew up in the Brookhaven section of Northeast Philly until I was 15, then we moved to Germantown. My friend Joe played guitar; he had a Les Paul, with a Marshall full stack (at 13). He was kind enough to give me his old Sears brand acoustic guitar. I was writing songs from the first day I had that guitar at home, and I studied Nirvana Unplugged on VHS until my parents bought me a black Ibanez electric guitar.”
During his time in Boston, Hennessey caught the international bug, studying percussion at Berklee and DJing and studying recording at Emerson. It was DJing that precipitated his turn toward his current musical creativity.
PW's Music Issue 2014