He’s got the beat

At age 20, percussionist and Port High graduate Alex Quade has already played Carnegie Hall twice, but it was in the sweltering heat of Ghana that he found new inspiration for his love of drumming

Alex Quade of Port Washington recently returned from studying drums in Ghana and liked it so much that he bought a set and had it shipped to his home. Photo by Sam Arendt
Mitch Maersch
Ozaukee Press staff

The song “Bang the Drum All Day” perfectly describes Alex Quade.

It’s what he does, and he is already good at it and getting better.

The 20-year-old Port Washington High School alumnus has already played Carnegie Hall in New York City twice with a third performance on tap for next month, and he has spent time on another continent studying percussion.

Quade just returned from three weeks of drumming and dancing in Ghana in West Africa through a program at Lawrence University in Appleton, where he is studying.

“The drumming is just out of this world,” he said.

Quade learned to take his skills to another level with in 90-degree temperatures.

“I’d be breaking a sweat trying to do my part and they would just be doing harder work naturally,” he said.

Quade knew the style of drumming from playing in the Kinkaviwo ensemble at Lawrence, one of three groups he belongs to beyond his studies in percussion performance.

In Ghana, he learned fast. He was the only student of eight teachers, including an 18-year-old who “kicked my butt,” he said.

Quade worked his way through several percussion instruments, from the complementary shaker to rhythmic drums and then the top drum that allowed chances to solo.

Beyond drumming, Quade had to sing and dance to the same music, which helped him develop a deeper understanding of the music.

Learning the songs was kind of like cramming for an exam. He danced for two hours in the morning and drummed for two more in the afternoon. He scrambled to practice in between.

His teachers had a way of correcting him.

“They said ‘That’s not wrong, but this is right,’” he said.

For his final performance, he sang and danced with other African students and then played drums for the same songs.

“I want them to know their knowledge is in good hands, and I won’t alter it on the plane ride back to America,” he said.

Quade made quite an impression.

“They want me to come back tomorrow,” he said.

The feeling is mutual, as Quade is committed to returning. His first time in Ghana, he said, is “not my last.”

Diving deep into Ghana drumming was one of many new experiences for Quade.

Speaking wasn’t a huge issue since English is Ghanaians’ second language.  Their first is Ewe which Quade described as a poetic language in which inflections can change meanings of phrases.

“Their mouths make sounds ours don’t,” he said.

Food was spicy with most meals including various peppers. One of his favorite dishes was a fried rice with vegetables, tomato sauce and meat, which could be chicken, beef or goat. The latter, he said, was a little dry. Another tasty dish was the root plant cassava chopped, dried and formed into dough, mixed with water and made into a ball. It was like a butterfly biscuit, Quade said.

Coffee in Ghana, however, was weak and lacked flavor. Past visitors told Quade to bring his own. Drinking it black was the only option since Ghana doesn’t have milk.

But Quade fell in love with the drumming, so much so that he bought an entire drum set and had it shipped to his house.

His passion for percussion began early in life. Quade’s aunt gave him an electronic drum set when he was 5 or 6. It was love at first beat.

“I would bring it to day care all the time, and the supervisor lady would take it away,” he said.  “There were other musical instruments there, but I only wanted to play the drums.”

Quade took the lure of being a drummer — “I wanted to be the guy in the band who lays it down”— a step further.

He has since learned to play other percussion instruments, including piano. His favorite is the marimba, which is kept downstairs next to his drum set and his new drums from overseas.

“It’s harder than it looks,” he said.

His favorite music is jazz, but nobody would know it from his Spotify preferences. While the music streaming service can usually decipher people’s favorite artists and songs, Quade receives the “unclassified” label.

He has found that keeping his listening options open is important in becoming a better percussionist.

“I don’t try to be picky because you can incorporate elements of other music into what you’re doing,” he said.

With jazz, Quade said, experience with the same musicians is key. Listening closely to what band mates are playing — “keeping your ears and your mind away from what you’re playing”— can allow for additions to complicate or simplify others’ parts, creating a new level of complementary playing.

“I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said.

Quade can identify scales in nearly any song. He learned solfege, a method in which syllables are assigned to notes that allow for sight-singing. He remembers the moment he caught on in class and was so excited he had to leave the room.

Now, “I always hear music in everything. It’s a blessing,” he said.

Quade can turn off the analytical button when he wants, which makes going to a theater more enjoyable.

“I choose to watch the movie,” he said.

Dedication to his skill has already afforded Quade some unique opportunities.

Port Washington High School band director Alan Dust encouraged Quade to audition for the Honors Performance Series, and he was chosen both times, which meant performing at Carnegie Hall.

“It was out of this world,” he said. “The acoustics are perfect.”

Sounds reverberation, he said, can last eight to 10 seconds.

Quade was recently selected again, this time for the young adult series, and will perform Feb. 10.

The college junior would like to go to graduate school and ideally someday perform in an orchestra, “but I’m not unrealistic.”

Quade said one to two percussion positions open each year in the top orchestras across the world.

That’s why he is minoring in innovation and entrepreneurship. He could be an arts manager and help bring in guest artists to perform with orchestras or start his own academy of music.

Regardless, music will be part of his life forever. Quade is leading the Kinkaviwo ensemble this year and hopes it can open people’s ears to new music.

“There’s other music out there as good or better than you’re listening on the radio,” he said.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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