Sunday, December 12, 2010

Toronto musician makes some noise with his wacky toys

As a kid, Sam Ferrara once put his leg through a Slinky and it got stuck.

“I couldn’t get it off,” Ferrara said. “My dad had to wire-snip it.”

Today, Ferrara still plays with the Slinky, but in a different way. He uses it for musical percussion.

To build his Slinky instrument, Ferrara lined three in a row and sandwiched them between two pieces of scrap metal. He welded the Slinkys to the metal and used hockey tape to securely fasten them.

To play them, Ferrara cradles the bottom half of the set in his left hand; then with his right hand, he lifts the top half up and down as the Slinky coils jingle against each other.

Over the last 20 years, Ferrara, a Toronto-based musician, has been experimenting with random objects and giving them a percussive use. He described how his work with his do-it-yourself instruments began.

“I was just roaming around my apartment and trying different stuff,” he said. “I remember my girlfriend walking in and she said, ‘What are you doing with that cheese grater?’”

Resting the cheese grater on his knee, Ferrara sweeps a sheet of 50-grit sandpaper against the cheese grater to create a brushing sound. He puts 10 heavy duty Band-Aids on his knuckles, however, before each show to protect them from getting cut.

Ferrara has a wide range of instruments in his music bag. From spoons and metal files, to a musical saw with a violin bow that creates a sound like that of whales underwater. He's also attached a foot pedal to a hi-hat tambourine and plays it with his heel.

Sam Ferrara and John Borra recently celebrated six years of playing Sunday nights at the Communist's Daughter. Kay Pea was there to shoot some video.

Every Monday night, Ferrara plays his quirky instruments alongside his longtime musical companion, John Borra, at the Dakota Tavern on Ossington Avenue. They perform with three other musicians in the band Rattlesnake Choir.

Dakota Tavern manager Samantha Martin said Rattlesnake Choir has had "one of the most longstanding residencies" at the venue. She explained why she continues to book them.

“Rather than having a full drum kit,” Martin said, “to have more of a junkyard percussion is really fun to watch. It’s something different and it’s not in-your-face drums.”

She described the reaction that Ferrara receives from the audience.

"Whenever Sam picks up the saw and plays it, I notice there's a lot of hoots and clapping," she said. “He does a lot of it all at the same time and he switches between things ... I think that's what makes it fun to watch - just the fact that he can do it.”

Richard Flohil, a prominent music publicist based in Toronto, has seen Ferrara play at the Dakota Tavern several times. He explained what makes his style so intriguing.

“Music appeals to the head, the heart, the groin or the feet,” Flohil said. “And this (music) is fun. It’s relatively easy to play and it has a history.”

Its history dates back to the era of jug music in the 1920s in Memphis, Tenn., as Flohil explained.

“This was very do-it-yourself music historically. They were using jugs and old washboards and beat-up guitars and banjoes,” he said. “It's from an era when an illiterate black population had always used music. Going back to slavery times ... music helped things like picking cotton or lining railroad tracks."

So why does jug music still exist today?

"Inevitably, all music is a continuum," Flohil said. "Anybody doing jug band music now, it's a curious revival ... It was done at the time because it was handy, homemade music."

Ferrara has learned through experience that some homemade instruments are better than others.

He used to play the Zippo lighter - until his hair caught fire while on stage one time. He quickly doused it with his beer, but from that day forward, he never miked the Zippo again.

Ferrara also used to play the plastic bags. He would stuff several crinkly bags into a giant ball and press them in and out like an accordion. But it hurt his chest too much so he stopped.

Luckily for Ferrara’s fans, he has no plans to give up the Slinky.

“They’re my babies,” he said.

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