Behind the Beat: An Interview with Zozobra’s Time Keeper

"It’s the largest pagan ritual in America outside Mardi Gras and Burning Man. A community event with 30,000 people – that’s like a rock concert"

Date August 28, 2012 at 11:42 AM

Author Polly Summar

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Community Culture Entertainment & Nightlife Family Festivals

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If you could think of a perfect gig at Zozobra – and you were too old to be a gloomie and not lithe enough to be the fire dancer – then the next best thing might be … the timpani player, right? Those masterful rolls revving up the crowd, getting the excitement started, the very heartbeat of the crowd dependent on your masterful grip!

So how did a kid from Dundee, Illinois, get that job for the past seven years?

Just lucky, Jeff Sussmann figures. Ever since his third-grade teacher, Mrs. Welch, made him sit on his hands in class, Sussmann has been drumming on everything in sight, including the table top during this interview at his house in the barrio. His home unit – with 30 cymbals, nine drums, and some bells and whistles – sits close by but it’s practically unseen because there are actually drums everywhere you look. 

And Sussmann, 55, says humbly that’s why he got the Zozobra gig, because he had the drums. “Ray (Valdez, aka `Mr. Zozobra,’ the event coordinator) remembered that there were timpani at Zozobra when he was growing up, so when he found out I had a set, he asked me if I would bring them and play.”

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Sussmann says he’s just one of a number of musicians who will be improvising that night. Improvising? At Zozobra? One of the most carefully orchestrated events in town?

“Structured improvisation,” says Sussmann, and not that unusual for Santa Fe. “A lot of the best music in town happens in living rooms,” he says. And during Zozobra, that living room gets brought to you courtesy of the generosity of a small cadre of local musicians: No pay involved for them.

“It’s one of my favorite gigs,” Sussmann says. “There’s nothing like it. It’s the largest pagan ritual in America outside Mardi Gras and Burning Man. A community event with 30,000 people – that’s like a rock concert.”

This year’s musicians are scheduled to include Al Faaet on the drum set and Sussmann on timpani and Latin drums, and usually an electric bass player, keyboardist, and one or two guitar players. So far, musicians Justin Bransford and Andrew Primm have confirmed, and Mel Richkind usually plays the djembe.

Even though it’s improvisation, the musicians definitely rehearse together before Zozobra. “Everybody puts in a bunch of time,” says Sussmann. And interestingly, that spirit of dedication and improvisation is not far from how Zozobra got started, back in 1924. Artist Will Shuster, who had moved from Philadelphia to the Southwest to better cope with his tuberculosis in Santa Fe’s dry climate, got together with friends to create an 18-foot effigy to burn off the gloom, and one of them found the Spanish word, Zozobra, to dub it Old Man Gloom. It was fun, it was community, and it sparked a ritual that continued throughout the years, with Zozobra eventually growing to some 50 feet tall.

Elements of Zozobra mostly stay the same, but sometimes they morph, like Zozobra’s growth spurt. But it’s a funny thing. Unless you go every single year (and hey, some of us do), you start thinking the last time you went is the way it always is. For example, some years ago, the band started up with the theme song to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and those powerful opening timpani refrains – so you might think that’s what the band has been doing every year since the song was written.

Nope. “That was a one-time experience,” says Sussmann. And since videos of the event are now sold, it’s important to pay attention to music copyright laws. “Really, the most you will hear the timpani is maybe 10 seconds, 20 seconds at most, before the band starts.” Still, he admits there’s something magic about the timpani beginning – it lets the crowd know the magic is getting closer.

The band’s only instruction is that “Ray likes it dark,” says Sussman. Dark? You know, ominous, foreboding, as if something unknown is about to happen. 

Sussmann brings his set of copper timpani drums, but the earplugs he wears are not for the drums or the band. “It’s mainly for the fireworks,” he says. “It’s an awesome display though … better than the 4th of July, I think.”

OK, so this answers why the kid from Dundee is gigging Zozobra, but how did he make his way to Santa Fe? No tuberculosis, so what gives? Sussmann says he was passing this way en route to Mexico, to visit a girlfriend in Santa Fe, and moved here in 1981.

You might think it would be tough to make a living as a drummer in Santa Fe, and Sussmann agrees: “Professionally, it’s ludicrous to live here.” But still, he has managed to play and record with a range of artists including Michael Stearns, ThaMuseMeant, Krishna Dass, Ottmar Liebert and Tulku. He also studied with Paul Wertico and Christopher Shultis at the University of New Mexico. And there were other draws: the snow (he taught skiing for eight years) and the girlfriend (they finally married recently).

From the mid- to late-90s, Sussman did a lot of road time with ThaMuseMeant, playing Americana and gypsy jazz. When he left the group in 2000, he says it coincided with his starting to put together and sell drum sets to his students, as well as developing an interest in buying and selling vintage drums on eBay. Sussmann and Faaet have co-produced The Drum is the Voice of the Trees, an ongoing series of drumming and percussion concerts since 1992.

“I’m diversified,” Sussman says. “I teach, sell, play. I don’t have to take things I don’t really want to do.” And most of his some dozen students, ranging from 8 to 65 … do they aspire to play the timpani at Zozobra?

Well, he said, “Mostly, kids want to play rock ‘n roll drums.”

The 2012 Zozobra is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 6, at Fort Marcy Park, from 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 at the door for adults; $10 for children under 42” tall. Discounted adult tickets for $15 are available at State Employees Credit Union and at Guadalupe Credit Union through August 31. The event is a fundraiser for Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe and its charitable projects. No pets (assistance dogs OK), drugs, alcohol, glass containers or open containers, ladders, baby strollers or lawn chairs allowed (small folding plastic camping chairs OK – no metal). For more information, check out www.zozobra.com.

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