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Artisans of Michigan: the beat of a different drum

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Eric Sooy of Black Swamp Percussion in Zeeland, Michigan.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A rack of drums to be finished.

Eric Sooy is showing me some of his percussion skills on a snare drum. He made that drum. Sooy is the president and founder of Black Swamp Percussion in Zeeland, Michigan. His company makes percussion instruments that have made it to symphony concert halls, rock and roll stages, and recording studios.

But it all started pretty simply.

ES: I started when I was in high school, actually, with percussion specifically because I was very poor, and I didn’t have money to buy some of the instruments. Like, my first drum set was an old beater kit that my dad and I found used. And so we tore it all apart, repainted it, refinished it, and I would also make my own cymbal stands out of metal. I’d buy metal, bend it, braze it, bolt it together, that type of thing.

LG: You make a lot of different instruments. What did you start with?

ES: Well, I started in grad school making bamboo handled tympani mallets. The bamboo handles give a very different response than a maple handle would. A lot of professionals would use bamboo, but they would always craft them themselves. So, I started making them not with the idea of doing anything but- I had to make something. I always had to be making something. And then, some of my friends started buying them and then I started making more. And I thought, maybe I can make a little business out of this. It just grew from there. It all started in my basement. I think tambourines were the next product category that I delved into because there were not a whole lot of people making professional-grade concert tambourines.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The first tambourine Eric Sooy made. He's advanced his craft since then.

LG: I don’t think people think of tambourines as low-quality or high-quality.

ES:  These are definitely- if I would play for a cheap tambourine and one of these, even you would be able to tell the difference.

LG: What makes it different from a cheap one?

ES: Okay, the difference between this and a cheap tambourine is you have a much bigger, broader sound. And this is a very high quality calfskin head that comes from Germany. And the shell, the quality of the shell, and also the metals used. A lot of the cost of the materials is the metal in a tambourine. And, we make tambourines with five different types of metal, different mixtures to give different sounds: high pitch, low pitch, dry – by dry I mean ones that don’t ring as long, wet means ones that ring longer. This one has a phosphor bronze, and a chromium 25, which is our own little heat-treated type of tambourine.

LG: How many different things do you make here?

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Stacks of tambourine frames.

ES: How many different products? Oh, boy. Well, we make drums, tambourines, triangles, castanets, wood blocks, temple blocks, bass drums, tom toms.

LG: Drums alone, I mean, I’ve seen probably two dozen different sizes, or shapes, or kinds of drums here so far.

ES: Yes, we make your typical snare drum. We also make what’s called a field drum which is a deeper type of snare drum that’s got a more robust sound to it. And, we also make concert toms. And our own kind of unique bass drum, which is right here and we call a multi-bass. And it’s a bass drum that’s actually laying flat.

LG: When you’re making a drum, you still have to steam that wood, bend it, make it a circle, put it in a mold, you have to put a finish on it. I mean, that’s a pretty involved process.

ES: Yes. The steam bending project was probably the most challenging thing I have done because wood has a mind of its own. And, as far as cracking, deciding if it’s going to stay in round, and whittling down the process of how do you make this board that was straight into a round object that’s going to stay round, not going to turn into an egg (shape) because that will ruin the sound of a drum was a very big challenge. And, I have solved most of the problems that have presented themselves to me. There are still a few things that still crop up that I’m still trying to find a better way of doing it. It’s always a surprise. It’s always a surprise.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A finished drum.

Sooy says not only does he design the instruments, but he designs the processes to make the instruments. He says he’s a shop rat and cannot stop being one.

Black Swamp Percussion did not happen overnight. Sooy is a professional percussionist and worked for the Grand Rapids Symphony orchestra for 14 years. That allowed him to put every dime that Black Swamp Percussion made back into the company.

“Some people might call it stupidity, but I call it refusal to fail. I knew it could work. I knew it could work. And, when you’re passionate about something and you really enjoy doing something, you kind of look past the pain, I think,” he said.

Eric Sooy of Black Swamp Percussion in Zeeland, is our latest Artisan of Michigan.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Artisans of Michigan is produced in partnership with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum.

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Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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