Filipina-American Percussionist Susie Ibarra

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Susie Ibarra

“ Everything has rhythm, everything dances.”
Maya Angelou

                                                                                                Interview by Todd Lee

Filipina-American composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra is an accomplished musician whose music is not easily defined.  Her musical history has included becoming one of the best jazz drummers in the world; studying and playing the kulintang, a traditional multi-gong Filipino instrument somewhat similar to a marimba, and gamelan, a traditional Indonesian ensemble music;  writing the music to an opera;  writing and performing music that helps kids learn rhythm and music; and performing with her husband, Cuban percussionist and composer Roberto Rodriguez, in the duo Electric Kulintang, which she has described as “Filipino trance music” or “Filipino triphop”.  Susie has performed with jazz artists such as John Zorn and Dave Douglas and she was nominated "Best Drummer" in the Village Voice, Downbeat, and Jazziz.  Susie was recently interviewed by the Azine, on a wide range of topics – fitting for someone whose music is not easily categorized.

Azine: Your musical background and work is very eclectic.  Your husband has been quoted as saying your music is not easy to define – he calls it “Susie Ibarra music”.  Yet, with the diversity of your music, are there any themes or threads that run through it all?

 Susie Ibarra: Thank you, Todd, for your interest in my music.  I guess if I had to ask if there are any themes or threads that run through it all, I would say its all coming from a common language.  A musical language that I have been slowly developing over the years from influences, interests and experiences.

Azine: I read in an interview that you have a love for improvisation – it’s what made you fall in love with jazz.  When you played in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I noticed that your work on the two kulintangs seemed very improvisatory.  Is that how it’s played traditionally, or is that an element you added? 

Susie Ibarra: Kulintang music, is an oral tradition, like jazz, and was later transcribed into cipher notation or number notation through ethnomusicology. It has a linear approach, having 8 rowed gongs, but it also has syncopation in the ensemble playing. Improvisation and embellishments on the melodies bring out the individuality of each musician.  And then, when I play it, I bring probably a more modern improvisational approach to the traditional pieces.

Azine: Even before I heard the phrase “Filipino trance music”, your Electric Kulintang performance in Boston felt very hypnotic – the music seemed to lend itself to religious trance or a hypnotic state.  Is that characteristic of traditional kulintang music?  If so, it seems like a natural, if unexpected, marriage with the electronic music called “trance”. 

Susie Ibarra: I think it’s both from tradition and contemporary influence.  I have a fascination to develop what I call contemporary folkloric and contemporary trance music language.

Roberto is a big part of bringing the modern hypnotic grooves and beats to Electric Kulintang as well as the electronic edge.   I think he has a natural ease and talent with this coming from Cuban culture and being a drummer and percussionist. It really helps to drive the music and is a great wedding of dance cultures Cuban- Filipino. Then also, the nature of the instrument, the kulintang gongs, and its resonances lend itself to this hypnotic nature.  And also, the traditional pieces where it originally is derived from the music and dance of Moro and Muslim culture in Mindanao, has its trance elements in the nature and indigenous life influenced pieces.

Azine: How did you get interested in the kulintang, and how did the idea for Electric Kulintang come about?

Susie Ibarra: I was invited by a friend to play in a Philippine Maguindanaon style kulintang ensemble when I was a teenager in NYC.  I had seen kulintang in my family’s homes, but I never played it.  At that time I was also playing in a Javanese and Balinese Gamelan groups. 

Electric Kulintang began in 2002.  I was invited to the Concert of Colors Festival in Detroit Michigan.  It is predominantly a World Music and Jazz Music Festival.  At that time I had been forming some new groups and trying out different ideas that I had.   I wanted to do something special for this concert, and so I brought this new ensemble there Electric Kulintang and wrote 6 new pieces for it.   It was quartet at the time.  We opened for Ray Charles. Then afterwards, we really liked it, and Roberto became a collaborator with me on it and it became duo.  He brought the Electric into the Kulintang, encouraging me to not just play with electronic musicians, but also to play the kulintang both acoustic and electric.  In 2004/2005 we traveled to the Philippines and during this time, conducted several field recordings of both Maguindanaon Kulintang music and also various random field recordings through out several of the islands.  These became a part of our language and in our recording of EK, Dialects.  You can hear the Kalanduyan Family , my kulintang teacher’s family , in Mindanao, on some of the gong loop samples in the CD as well.  Our record we just released last year Dec 2006 on Plastic Records.

Azine: You’ve worked your way to becoming considered one of the finest young jazz drummers in the world.  As a woman, which is rare among jazz drummers, and a Filipina, which is even rarer, was it hard to break into the jazz world?  Did you face discrimination or daunting expectations?

Susie Ibarra: I think I would have to answer both yes and no to these questions.  I have been fortunate to be supported by some wonderful people, and also have faced discrimination, to be expected as a minority.  It’s not easy for anyone to choose the life of an artist/ musician,  there are obstacles and dues to pay, but also there are beautiful rewards and blessings.  I think it’s definitely a love and a gift which outweighs the obstacles.

Azine: Some of your pieces like “Lakbay” and “Bangka” (evocative of Filipino immigrants to the U.S. and the boats people use to go from island to island in the Philippines), and the sound clips of everyday sounds from the Philippines woven into the music seem very evocative of Filipino life.   How does your Filipino background impact your music?

Susie Ibarra: My personal life experiences have had a profound impact on my life.  And culturally who I am, also being Filipina- American is a part of who I am , and is expressed.  I also enjoy as I said earlier developing , mixing and creating contemporary music folk language . Also I have had an interest in many of my compositions to include various types of field recordings.  I like cinematic sound, and the blend of visual and audio experience.

Azine: Is your music popular in the Philippines, or do you feel you are more accepted in the U.S. or other countries?

Susie Ibarra: I do receive emails from young artists in the Philippines. Distribution is not so great over there, I guess that’s something I’ll have to look into next time I’m there.  Over here, in NYC and in the US , I have a following of Filipino and Filipino- American audience.

Azine: I understand the project “Mundo Ninos” which you and Roberto have been doing has been very well received by educators in New York City and elsewhere.  Could you talk about how the project came about and how it helps children embrace music? 

Susie Ibarra: Mundo Niños was created by Roberto back in the very end of the nineties.  He then was invited to bring an ensemble for workshop and a concert at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and broadcasted by NY1  in 2001.  I joined him in the concert.  It teaches children through songs to sing and dance and count rhythms in English and Spanish.  Mundo Niños has been very well received in schools, libraries, children’s outdoor festival/ programs, and so forth.  We will be bringing it to Holland in the beginning of 2008 to workshop with children and perform a concert with them also on percussion and voice.

Azine: “Shangri-La”, the opera you’re collaborating on with Yusef Komunakaa has very contemporary and socially relevant content – American and European sex tours in Southeast Asia.  Do your choices of music often have a socially conscious or political bent to them? 

Susie Ibarra: I don’t choose music based  on politics.  But I am not opposed to and often like to collaborate on multi-media current and socially relevant topics.  I enjoy very much collaborating with poets, especially with Yusef.  We are working on the re-writes and will be publishing Shangri-La into a Songbook.  As well , we have a new work in progress, that we are researching an historical musical theater piece based on the Philippine – American War.

Azine: What are some of the Asian folk music elements you have incorporated in your music?  Do aspects of that music blend well or contrast well with some of your other musical influences?

Susie Ibarra: Some of these Filipino folk music elements can be heard in my composing and playing in Cds, Folkloriko and Dialects as well as an earlier record Flower after Flower.   Also, I have a new solo record, Drum Sketches, that will release this fall in October 2007 on Innova Records which incorporates some traditional kulintang and sarunay music with my drumming and has field recordings on some of the pieces.

In Shangri-La,  I have incorporated Thai classical and folk elements into compositional phrasing.

EK has also been doing collaborations with Korean Traditional Drumming and Dance.  It went very well here in Flushing Town Hall, and we have been receiving interest to bring this collaboration to the communities in UK and Korea.  Its very interesting the Shamanistic, Indigenous and Classical elements that are compatible to both languages Filipino and Korean, as well as our contemporary style.

Right now I’m in the middle of finishing a commission , a drum concerto for American Composers Orchestra, which I’ll play in and world premiere at Zankel Carnegie Hall in October 2007.  I have invited visual artist and painter, Japanese American , Makoto Fujimura to do the visual film for the piece.  It is an homage to the indigenous people of the Philippines and Japan, and a bridge of cultures.  Mako and I have been collaborating for a while with live drumming performance and live painting as well.  There is an ongoing documentary by Plywood Pictures which is documenting our concerts and development process together.

Azine: Do you relate to other Asian American musicians that are combining Asian traditional music with the traditions of jazz, such as Jon Jang and Francis Wong?  Do you have any thoughts on the direction of Asian American jazz?

Susie Ibarra: I have met both Jon Jang and Francis Wong, but I have not seen them in a while. I hope they are doing well!   And also here on the East coast are a lot of wonderful Asian and Asian American artists.  Many are doing multi-media projects such as :  Ikue Mori, Miya Masaoka , Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Manthappa, Jen Shu, Okkyung Lee from more of the jazz and improv scene, there are many more especially in the new music /contemporary scene that is booming in NYC.  It’s exciting I think in this day to see the integration of peoples roots into modern music here in America not just Asian.  Also immigrant influences / world music influences into modern music.  I think it’s only appropriate in this time of globalization, and I’m very excited about it!

Azine: What other projects do you have in the works?

At the moment, I am working on/ composing Pintados Dream / The Painted’s Dream , drum concerto for Orchestra with visual art by Makoto Fujimura to premiere Oct 19th , 2007 at Zankel Carnegie Hall with American Composers Orchestra.

I just finished a solo commission and recording, Drum Sketches, for Innova Records which will also release Oct 16 2007 ( street release) in stores and online this fall.

And I’ll continue this fall with concerts for Electric Kulintang , Mephista and solo workshops and concerts.  Along with several new compositions that I’ll premiere next year, is one for 4 pianists, titled     Kit: Music for 4 Pianists  ( an 8 hand piano piece) ,   I’m excited about.

Coming in the fall, we’ll have a new website: and we'll have a new children's lullaby cd out available at the website.

And I’ll be on research fellowship next year in the Philippines through the Asian Arts Council to research several new projects. One being the new musical theatre piece in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize Poet Yusef Komunyakaa and also a film Roberto and I are creating and musically producing, Song of the Bird King, which will be a a feature documentary on indigenous and native music of the Philippines.

For more information on Susie Ibarra and her music, visit  Electric Kulintang’s CD, “Dialects” is on Plastic Records and is available at and selected retail outlets.