By Malia Durbano –
African drumbeats often echo through a tiny southern Colorado town with melodies from West African stringed instruments. These seem like unlikely sounds to hear in Jaroso (pronounced hu- ROH-soh), a San Luis Valley town of 42 only a few miles from the New Mexico border. But these days they are common sounds, thanks to the skills of the multitalented Schraud family, which is connecting southern Colorado to the world via their artistic talent.
Michael Schraud, the father, made a name for himself in the international music world crafting the West African drums known as ashikos and djembes, as well as the harp-like stringed instrument called a kora. Sarah, wife and mother, crafts beautiful and functional pottery that she sells through galleries, summer craft fairs and online portals. Their sons help in both workshops and play music.
It was a long road from the small town where Michael grew up in upper Austria. But that is where he learned woodworking from his grandfather, who hand-crafted beer barrels for a monastery brewery that is still in operation.
“Wood seems to be in my DNA,” he says. “I come from a long line of woodworkers, many generations of master coopers [barrel makers].” As a teenager, Michael had a summer job working in the cabinet shop on the monastery property, perpetuating his family’s woodworking tradition.
Later, after moving to Vienna, he trained as a wood turner in a traditional master shop. Wood turning began in the Middle Ages when there were guilds for wood turners and ivory carvers.
“Austria holds their craftspeople to very high standards and the level of craftsmanship is exceptional,” he notes. Apprenticing with experienced masters, Michael learned to craft stair balusters; columns; patterns for mold makers; bowls, table legs and bed posts; musical instruments, such as bagpipes, clarinets and violin pegs; and more. Little did he realize how these skills would contribute to his future.
During that time, his wife, Sarah, apprenticed with master potters and then they moved on, from Vienna to Greece and then to Monterey, California. From there they headed to Colorado, where Sarah earned a fine arts degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Michael worked as a building and remodeling contractor, starting Renaissance Builders and setting up his own wood shop. He also pursued his interest in music and percussion.
“I believe at a very deep level that rhythm is the very foundation of music and that music is one of the universally true things that we can access,” Michael says. “People feel it and connect to it. Drumming is part of every indigenous culture and it brings people together.”
He loved African and Indian percussion, but realized he wasn’t a great drummer or guitar player, for that matter. Instead, in about 1997, he combined his love for music with his woodworking skills and started making drums. He changed the name of his company to Renaissance Builders Instruments and RBI Drums was born.
He began marketing the African ashiko and djembe drums in music stores, at craft fairs and drum circles in the area. The drum shells are built using stave construction, or cooperage, the way he
made the barrels in Austria years before. Michael utilizes some of the old methods and incorporates them into his drum building. The shells are hand-turned on a late 1800s industrial lathe that he saved from a Denver scrap yard.
The drums are finished in the traditional West African method with rope, skins, rings and Mali weave, which secures the head of the drum with a rope in an intricate pattern that allows it to be tuned.
As Michael began crafting drums, the African drumming movement was taking off in America. Groups all over the country were gathering to jam in drum circles or to study the West African poly-rhythms traditionally played for weddings, births, deaths and other ceremonies. Drumming also gained credibility as a useful tool in music therapy and for patients with dementia.
As demand for the drums increased, Michael moved to a larger workshop and partnered with a guitar maker. A natural curiosity and constant desire to improve his skills led him to a study of lutherie, which is the making of wooden, stringed musical instruments. Boubakar Diabate, a traveling singer and musician from Senegal, West Africa, living in Boulder, introduced Michael to the kora. Ten years later, Michael felt the time was right to start building koras himself and he needed a place to expand.
It was 2001, “We wanted to start a family,” he says, “We were looking for a place that was tranquil and inexpensive.” The couple decided they wanted to make a living from their crafts and knew initially they might not make lots of money. “We wanted to spend the money we did make on things we valued and needed and not on high rent or a mortgage and high overhead,” he says.
Coincidentally, while searching for where they would settle, they happened to be in Jaroso for the Rio Costilla Studio Tours. “We met all these talented artists and craftspeople who made their homes there and it felt right. We sold our home in Longmont, bought a 100-year-old small farmhouse and have not regretted it since,” Michael says with a smile.
Utilizing his construction skills, Michael built a large shop on the property for building drums, a ceramic studio for Sarah and a music studio. Son Darian was born in 2001, followed by Lukas in 2003. Sarah started Sarah Welch Pottery, and sales of RBI drums continued to grow.
It was time to build another African instrument. It had been 10 years since Michael’s introduction to the kora, and drum sales decreased somewhat. “Building koras is the logical culmination of all my woodworking skills. I feel as though after gaining so much woodworking experience I was literally called to create koras. The griots [musicians] who play them are also called to the profession — it works like that somehow.”
Michael realized his life is pretty much a history of acquiring all the different skills needed to build koras. “Wood turning, construction, building drums, studying lutherie and being involved with African music for over 20 years — all that strikes me as just stations to gather the exact skill set for building koras,” he says.
The kora is a harp-like instrument fashioned from a large gourd and has multiple strings. It is played while the griot (pronounced jali or jeli) composes and sings songs about current events happening in the African villages. The griot is a storyteller who is a descendant of generations of storytellers and historians.
The Schrauds sell their instruments and pottery in the United States at regular festivals like the Oregon County Fair. “We have been going for over 20 years and like seeing our friends,” Michael says. They go to ¡Globalquerque! in Albuquerque and have been regulars for 15 years at the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival. At the festivals, Darian, 16, and Lukas, 14, earn pocket money by “busking” — playing music on an old upright piano they mounted on a cart and passing the hat. Darian also sings and Lukas is learning to play the kora.
Selling African instruments is definitely a small niche market, even with Michael now one of the senior makers of koras worldwide, outside of Africa. But he also found a way to give back to this community he enjoys.
BRIDGING SENEGAL, WEST AFRICA, WITH JAROSO, COLORADO
Currently, Michael is involved in a program sharing his Western woodworking skills with some drum makers in Senegal. Hardwood lumber is being depleted and looting of the tropical rain forests has resulted in a shortage of the lumber typically used to make drums.
“The problem for woodworkers in northern Senegal, West Africa, is that the logs that are available are too small and not of good quality. But the demand is for large, flawless drums,” Michael says.
Michael is working with a nonprofit, AYWA, African Innovation, recycling materials and teaching skills to create a sustainable future for the Senegalese.
“My particular contribution is that I set them up to build drums using stave construction, the way I do it in the U.S.,” he says. “Stave construction uses about one-sixth of the material needed to carve a log drum. The pieces of lumber needed are smaller, so given the situation it makes a lot of sense.”
After the shells are built, they are sent to the workers who carve the outside to decorate and finish the drum. “We are joining the two traditions: the Western cooperage and traditional African carving style,” he says.
The skills the kids are learning in the AYWA woodshop will be valuable for generations. The group is also trying to set up a forest preservation project to protect some sacred forests and chimp
habitats. They are talking with government officials to establish lands that would be sustainably managed with forestry management and reforestation. “Then,” Michael says, “we could control the entire supply chain from tree to final product and we’ll have a ‘fair trade’ brand of drums and other products that would be the first of its kind.”
RBI Drums and AYWA are also working on an exchange program where apprentices from Senegal would come to Michael’s shop in Jaroso for a few months to gain experience. The wood crafting skills as well as exposure to a Western run business would position them well to start a successful business back in Senegal.
“I am honored to be part of this collaborative effort and add another tool to their repertoire. By helping these young men expand their skill set, we are contributing to their future success.” Michael adds, “Plus I get to visit my friends in Africa once a year and combine it with my kora business, so everyone benefits.”
Some days, that music from faraway places doesn’t seem so far away.
Malia Durbano is a freelance writer from Durango. Last year, she moved to Pokhara, Nepal, exchanging her view of the Rockies for one of the Himalayas. A prior interest in African drumming and dance made her the perfect choice to write this article.