The word matra means "steady beat" in the Hindi language of India. The percussion ensemble Matra defines itself as "four people who hit things." These "things" are the vibraphone, marimba, tabla, and drum set. With Indian and Peruvian drums, Latin and rock rhythms, Japanese folk melody, and jazz improvisation, Matra makes this veritable mish-mash into a unique world/jazz fusion sound.
The vibraphone and marimba are related to each other in that they both have pitched bars that mimic the keys on a piano. These two "keyboard" instruments provide the melody for Matra. They also both use yarn mallets to play the instrument, however the respective sound is quite different. The vibraphone has metal bars, so the sound has the potential to ring out for a long time, and it also has a foot pedal that can change the length of the ring. Because the bars are metal the vibes have a stronger tone than the wood bars of the marimba. In contrast the marimba's bars do not resonate as much and there is no pedal to manipulate the sound. In addition, the marimba beats the vibraphone in length — its range is five octaves to the three-octave vibes range. Both Andres Crovetti on vibes and Jenny Klukken on marimba use two mallets in each hand so that they can play separate notes more quickly as well as play chords. According to them, two mallets in each hand is a bit like eating with chopsticks, but one gets used to it.
Though the marimba and the vibraphone are clearly related, the drums of the rhythm section in which Krissy Bergmark and Mat Solace play couldn't be more different. Bergmark just returned from India having spent a couple months there studying the nuances of tabla playing. Tabla players sit on the ground or a platform with the small drums in front of them, always removing their shoes out of respect for the instrument. The drumheads are made of goatskin; depending on where the head is hit (middle vs. the edge) and how it is hit with the fingers or hands, the sound will be higher or lower. The player keeps their hands from getting sweaty with baby powder.
Instead of sheet music, there are corresponding names for the tabla sounds. For instance, "ta" denotes a high sound and "guh" is a low sound. "Ta" plus " guh" equals "da" and a mid-range sound is "teh-teh." These can be combined in several ways that translate to different rhythmic phrases. The sound has a wet tone to it; in fact the low sounds are not unlike the glug of water in a water cooler, while the higher sounds have a tangy, sharper tone. It lends an exoticism to the music that Matra plays.
Solace plays a drum kit that would be familiar to almost any person in the western world. It's a collection of drums with plastic heads and cymbals made out of metal, plus any add-ons that the drummer might choose to add; like tambourine, woodblock or cowbell. The drummer utilizes more limbs than any other member of the ensemble since both hands as well as both feet are needed all once. The drum kit provides a sort of genre identification for the group, laying down the rhythms ranging from jazz to rock to latin.
Matra performs completely memorized, but not all the notes they play originally come from a written page. Matra incorporates the jazz technique of improvisation and trading (taking turns improvising) into most of the pieces, giving each member a chance to show off their instrument. When one member is improvising, the rest of the group helps out by keeping a steady beat and playing the chord changes. One particular instance of trading is highlighted in a performance of Latin piece in which Bergmark replaces the tabla with the cajón, a Peruvian box drum that the player sits on top of whilst beating the lower part of the "box" with their hands. Bergmark and Solace trade improvisation in an exciting section in the middle of the piece. Needless to say using improvisation renders unique each performance of each piece.
Speaking of unique, since Matra has a unique instrumentation, they often have to write their own arrangements of existing pieces as well as compose specifically for the group. One of their arrangements is of a Japanese folk song called Zousan A zousan is a baby elephant and the original lyrics are sweet and childlike: "elephant, elephant, you have a very long nose/Yes, my mama's nose is very long too." Matra doesn't make these arrangements easy on themselves; the hemiola rhythms in Zousan that pit the instruments against each other are extremely difficult to maintain and easy to mess up if each player is not concentrating very carefully. Another example of tricky counting is Stitching Time; the time signature is 15/8! Listen to the audio above and try to maintain counting to 15 over and over.
One of the original compositions, Life in a Day, is by Bergmark. It starts out rather gently, the bubbly sounds of the tabla mixed with the wood of the marimba underneath a vibes melody. The drum set doesn't even come in until over a minute in, and when it finally does, it's pretty light. The melody and chord progression repeat over and over growing each time in intensity as each instrument adds more texture. Vibes, marimba, and tabla all have a chance to improvise. Overall, it's a very soothing composition that showcases the unique instrumentation of Matra.
Matra came about when four talented friends wanted to make music together on their respective favorite instruments. It's a perfect example of how interesting music can be produced by non-traditional combinations of instruments. The result is a unique interpretation of an eclectic mix of repertoire stretching across musical genres and global continents.