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"It's the challenge of every artisan to find the treasure around them"

Instrument-maker Robin Shackleton on building a local livelihood

by Robin Shackleton

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Robin Shackleton - Sylvan Temple Drums (Podcast)




My name's Robin Shackleton, I'm a drum-maker. I live on Vancouver Island. Ya, being an instrument maker is really cool. I do make other instruments, because it's been a long time I've been making drums now, but I started making drums when I was maybe 21 or 22, I hadn't really played them, they just looked really cool. A friend of mine had a djembe, and I come from a musical tradition, and so it was really neat to make an instrument that was played. So, I made one. Of course, you know, it was kind of funny, but you know I really liked that feeling, so I made more. 


The thing about drums is that once you have a drum, it's like okay, so that's that drum, I wonder what other drums sound like. So I found I could just keep making new drums and new sounds and getting into that, so that happened for a few years, and I was in university at the time, studying English, and making drums on my deck and kind of just following both paths at the same time, and after university, I just kind of found myself making a lot of drums and making nice drums and giving them away, and I just realized I should see if I should sell a few of them, and I found that that was actually not very difficult, and I could make some good money. 


So, it was a good process. When I started to make the drums and decide I was going to make a business, I bought a really big lathe, because I live on Vancouver Island, people burn so much wood for firewood here, and I guess it's kind of funny these days that we do burn wood. When I built the house I researched all the different ways of fuel and heating and oil and propane and electricity, and I decided that if you do have electric heat, at least with a wood stove you kind of have your own local sources and you know propane, oil and the world markets, I just don't want to be involved in that as much as I can so. There's a lot of waste on Vancouver Island, that's what I tap into with my business as well as for heating my house. 


Sometime I turn maybe 70 drums a year, and that's actually a fraction of what some people burn in their house just to heat their house but I get my whole income off that, about 70 drums, not all of them are rounds of wood. And so I did think a little bit about the ethics of using a whole round of wood, that is two feet long to make a drum, when my old method was making it out barrel staves. Out of that same piece of wood you could probably get three drums or four drums, but there's a lot of energy invested in milling up boards and stuff. So, anyways, I bought the lathe and turned them out of solid wood. It kind of suits me, just working in a raw manner like that. You start really heavy and raw and then the shell dries over a few months, and you can get really fine and really sophisticated if you want as soon as the wood dries. I do a lot of steam bending for rings and stuff like that, and so that's a really important part of the process. 


I gather Yew for that, there's a lot of Yew trees that are tragically cut down through the process of clear-cutting. Those are gorgeous trees for milling up. It's the challenge of every artisan to find the treasure around them instead of importing treasure from other places that they don't know the impact of what their art has caused. There's some amazing woods around the world. Sure, I'll take an amazing big black walnut log and make a bunch of drums out of it, but we don't have that here, so that's not for me. I get into the woods that we have. 


So, it's progressing year after year, the biggest thing about being an artist is to never lose your vision. You sit there in your shop or in your studio or whatever, and if you're plagued by doubt or don't know what to do, that's a real problem for someone who needs to be creative and make things. You just gotta keep innovating and that's how my business has increased. The joy is big. I love music and I love playing music and playing drums, and there's so many different kinds of drums. So getting good at making these different kinds of drums is really important to the process of making good ones, because each drum has such a different set of circumstances, and then you play them all so differently. Little minor differences in the kinds of skins and the kinds of woods and shapes and stuff make a really big difference, in the playability and all that stuff.  


So, I gather all of the woods from the local forests after clear cuts have occurred and there is burnt piles, and you get a firewood permit. That's just the process, I've looked into trying to get a more official way of gathering the wood, but they're cool with it. They don't want it to get too complicated. You know: Get your firewood permit and shut up, and that's cool with me. Then of course, lots of trees get cut down by people with houses that want this or that, or more sun or whatever. Ya, if I can make something beautiful out of that then that's great. 


I have a family, and acreage here that I bought with some people, and it's a good life. I like not having to get up and drive somewhere, and put a bunch of hours in for something that I don't really know about, and then come home. I get to just go downstairs into my workshop and make something cool and know that eventually the right person will come and buy it. 


How did your culturally unique focus on instruments from diverse cultures emerge? 


Even when I was young if I saw lots of people doing one thing I would want to do something else, and so this whole like wanting to be individual and all that stuff. It's very ego-driven, but I had those roots in my searching. I don't want to make, for example, another guitar. There's so many guitar makers around, and so I make Ouds because there's no one making Ouds. The music I like influences it a lot as well. 


I like rock and Western music, but I'm more attracted to music that I don't understand as much, it's more mystical. It has the capacity to take you a little bit further away than that good old music you just know so well and grew up around, and so, therefore the instruments that make that more exotic music, which really isn't, I mean once you get a grasp on basic music then it's just how it's put together. That's kind of why I make - I mean I make a lot of djembes, that's what a lot of people like to play. I love African music, but it's not really my favourite. I shouldn't put it like that - every genre of music has absolutely amazing artists. 


 In the beginning, there was a lot of djembes around, and a lot of people playing djembes and that was my sign. Okay, well what else is there. There's a lot of djembe makers, and what else is there. And I realized, I could make a really good darbuka out of wood, and I'd never really seen them. They're just metal. And so I gave that a shot and that's been quite a long process, but now my darbukas are pretty pretty good. You know they're a little more mellow than the metal ones, but you know, you do want different accounts for all different occasions. I shouldn't say they're mellow at all, but they're a different quality of sound. So that's taken a big process.     


So, and there's just so many different kinds of drums. I got into frame drums, North African, Middle Eastern frame drums that you play with your hands, with thin skins, and jingles and rings and all sorts of stuff and that's amazing. That fit into my steam-bending - all the skills I've developed for steam-bending rings, and I just have an appetite for creativity, for innovating new systems. The tuning systems for drums are fascinating, how to make a good tuning system that is streamlined, that looks good - that works super well and that is efficient to make is a really good challenge and I like a good challenge. 


Ethnic drums are awesome, if you can play a drum that people are like woah, what's that, and they're like really surprised at how you play it and how it sounds, that's really cool, those people will go home having seen something new that's totally not new in the other places of the world and on the same token, I'll be playing a frame drum or some other instrument and a person from the country it comes from will come by and be really excited, and pick it up and play it. That will have made their day more beautiful, feeling like their culture is being appreciated and even spread by me or other artist from other cultures. So that's really cool, so just really spreading newness and you know, people know and have seen things before, some people don't want to deal with new things, if they have to and it's there, their acceptance grows. I think it just makes for a better culture. 


How is making one's livelihood from local resources important and meaningful?


I would say it's important everywhere. For me it's a few reasons. The biggest reason is knowing the impact of your own activities. So, that's huge. There's so many people, doing so many things and if you don't know where and how you got your materials, it really, especially with art, an instrument, it has to feel good and it has to have a good energy about it, and some wood should not be cut anymore, a lot of wood. I don't think wood should be shipped so far all over the place. People need to build with the things around them and they did in the old days, you know, you would go to Iceland and everything would be made out of stone, you know a lot of England used to be wood and then they ran out of the trees, they went to stone. 


Now, I think that they're bringing wood back because they can with their big ships. So, anyway that's one thing. I know the harm that my business has caused. You're deluded if you think that whatever your business is not causing any harm. Every time you take a resource from somewhere and use it, you know, there's been a negative consequence. So, knowing that and being cool with it is really important. So, that's the first reason, the second reason is just a respect for other places. Like, I live here, but I don't want to take my own resources, or mine aren't good enough so I'm going to take someone else's, to build with. You try not to pass too many judgments but for me personally, I think that can be insulting to that place. I know a lot of cultures and a lot of countries really want to sell resources, that's a different issue, that's a totally different issue. 


It's up to the artist, or the builder, to build with products that they think are not harmful or have the least amount of impact. And so, there's that, just building with the things around you is really the way that we'll be able to live on this planet for a long time. The old way, it just can't work anymore. A little story I'll tell you, I was in Turkey, the first time I showed one of my darbukas to musicians in the music store was terrible, because there was an Oud maker who was really an older Oud maker who had really traditional values and in his mind there was only certain woods you could use for certain things. And so, he saw the drum, and he couldn't see the drum for what it was. He just saw the kind of wood it was made out of, which was chestnut. So, beautiful wood, but it's not a recognized tonewood that you would make Ouds out of. 


So, he spent the whole time pointing out the negative properties of this wood, and telling me that the proper wood to be using, he mentioned a whole bunch of African hard woods, which is just, you know, I have no interest whatsoever in buying African hard woods to make my drums in Canada. It makes no sense to me, and I don't care if the drum will be a little bit better, it's not about that, it's about making the best instrument or best piece of art you can with what's around you. So the irony is, while he spent the whole time talking about woods, all the darbuka players in the store - sorry, well there was just one. Anyway, he played that drum for like half an hour, and was totally stoked, but towed the line because of his boss or whatever, you know, nodded all the time, but was meanwhile, blissing out playing this drum. So, you know, it was a double vibe happening there. 


I left the store feeling a little bit deflated for a little while and told my idea and my own visions kicked back and rebalanced me. I just can't build like that, I just can't justify going to a fine woods store, buying lumber to make my drums. If I was making one or two, sure, but as a business, you need to consider the long-term impacts. Anyway, so that was the first experience, all the other times I took my drums, showed my drums to Turkish musicians, they were really really excited, and that was awesome. The old world way of building needs to fade out, and it is. That's just a natural thing, as it gets harder to get things, you just need to look around you and pick it up, put it in your pocket and I'm sure you'll be able to use it. 


What are your impressions of Calgary, the culture and the life, as someone from Vancouver Island?


Calgary felt like a very driven city, by that I mean busy in terms of just heavy with activity. Building things, lots of go go go go. Almost as if it was the responsibility of that city to do that, to provide for, in the energy sector, and it is, and could easily be seen by members of that sector as their responsibility to provide energy for us. But also, I don't know what it is. I was thinking about the weather in Calgary and how it's kind of crazy weather, and how it might have that effect on the city as the harder the city works and the faster the city grows the more it will kind of buffer itself against the unreliable weather. I don't know if that's just a recent thing or not. All the times I've visited Calgary, I visited Calgary Folk Fest to sell my drums. 


So, I've mostly been talking to a certain segment of the populous, and meeting them, and so you know, I'm very in touch with the hip side of Calgary I guess you could call it, or the artistic side of people who love world music and go to festivals. There's a whole other side to Calgary that I don't know about, which would be unfair of me to talk about too much, but I do get the idea that Calgary, like every city, has many faces right, and you know, very different faces. From hardcore oil workers and oil businessmen to a really strong arts community. There was a lot of different world cultures. It's not a cowboy town as much as you would think. I know it is a lot but that identity that Calgary kind of sets itself out as kind of like a cowboy vibe, I think is probably less true than - it's probably a more diverse city than you actually think it is.  


I don't really know much about it I mean it definitely seems like a city that's really driven to be important. I forgot to mention how close it is to the mountains, and people think of Calgary as like Alberta kind of flat and everything. Anyone who loves to be in the mountains and loves nature - Calgary would be a fine city to be in. You know, as long you're okay driving for an hour or so there's some beautiful natural surroundings. So that also diversifies the population that much more - it kind of goes with what I was saying before, it's just got so many faces, the city's really cool. 


Being in Canada is a great place to do what I do anyway because there's lots of wood. You know, when the logging industry decides it's time, or engages in the process of more efficient, that will change how I get my wood, unlike a little scavenger ant, going around and making sure that what they've cut down can be not burnt and used properly, or honoured for the services it gave us for all of those years. So, as the logging industry changes so will I and so that's beautiful. 


I was a tree planter for eleven years, through after high school, through university and fusing into my career now as a drum maker, as an instrument maker. That kind of really made a big impact on me on how much I love forests and how much better they could be managed. Of course we need wood, but you need to consider other things than just how to get it out as cheaply as possible. So, anyway, I plant hundreds of trees every year on my own land and around. Part of the reason why I bought this land is because it has four really big beautiful mature white oak trees and they make hundreds of acorns every year, so it's going to be interesting as I get older, watching all of the oak trees and the walnuts and butternuts, the cypresses that I've planted grow up. The big about the vision of my business is I give to the forests for their beauty. 


If I were to have a mythological, be of a mythological race, I would be an elf, or a forest elf. You know, it's just one of those things. It's good. If I were to rename my company or start a band, I would name the band something like Empire Yevana, or Empire Sylvannia, Empire of the Trees, who wouldn't want to be part of that empire. The planet would be so healthy. Forest Empires would never die and the planet would go on forever. It would be an empire where everyone really cherishes the forest and thinks very hard before they do any activity in it. So, that's a big motivation for me is to get people to think about the forests and the wood they use comes the forest. 


To even, just to care to recognize, okay, so what does that tree look like - I've been using this wood all my life - piece of fir, or piece of oak. Can I even recognize that tree? And that goes a long way to taking a step into honouring the tree and if people start thinking about the living thing that they're using then they can be more considerate about how they use it and how they get it. How they get it is a big one. 


If something like the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline went through, and there was an oil spill, how would that impact the forests of Vancouver Island? 


There's no question it would be, as everyone says, it would be awful. The tankers and the pipeline are partners, one means the other, you create the pipeline and you now have created a big argument for tankers, and of course tankers will come once the pipeline is there. Tankers - I love the coast and the ocean and I love surfing and I have no problem seeing it purely selfishly. I don't want oil on the beaches that I love. It's a totally selfish reason but no other animal would want oil on the beaches either. If everyone just acted according to selfish reasons in this regard, they want the environment to stay beautiful, it would really be hard for them to do that. 


But I know one thing, if they decided to start on the pipeline, I and a lot of other people would probably be able to leave our lives for a little while and go up and stand where they would be making it. Because, it's absurd. There's so much money and the momentum is so big for that kind of thing that the can't see how far that money would go if it was invested into researching other things and creating alternatives. We're still putting gas in our cars for a reason. They have created that. They have stifled an innovation, because that's not where they get their money from. By they, I'm talking the big players who control a lot of the world's oil reserves. So, they need to provide alternatives, not just put all of their money into creating more of the same. I mean, at this point, it's so silly, that it's such a dirty and toxic place. 


That's the dark side of Calgary right there. It's a hard one, because they also see themselves as that responsible role I was telling you about, well someone's gotta provide it, somebody's gotta keep the economy going. We need oil for that and so stop whining and let us do our job. Well that's a valid perspective, but that's the situation we've found ourselves in now after years and years of stifling innovations. So the pipeline, if we said no to the pipeline, the Tar Sands could keep going at the same rate without increasing and then all the money for all of that pipeline infrastructure and whatever other oil expansion project should be put into other sources. I've been waiting for this pneumatic car for ages. It's just one of those things I have to do myself I guess. 


How can people find you and your craftsmanship? 


I mean, next summer I'll be touring music festivals, I'll probably stick to Vancouver Island. I might go to the mainland of BC, other than that I'm a pretty simple man and I have a pretty simple life. I have a family. There's nothing wrong with having a simple life, it's a good thing. 


I don't have a website that's like, put it in your cart kind of thing, but on my website there's examples of all the drums I make, and you email me and we talk about what you like and I can send you pictures of the drums I have. So it's a little bit more involved than just going to a store, or to a website store or anything like that. I may get there, and I thought of having a page where I take pictures of drums I have and you go there and see the drums right there and it's all open like that. I might do that but part of me resists making things so easy. I should make it easy but it's kind of like sex, you don't want it all over and easy quickly right. You know, people, I don't know it's an interesting process. I might do that, but we'll see. I don't want to become like a little quickie store, who knows, I might have to go that way.




NOTE: This podcast was produced in partnership with and the Arusha Centre with the Calgary Working Group initiative to establish a new local of The Media Co-op in Calgary
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