World Beat:
Alumna discovers 'music's heart' in percussion

By Jana Eisenberg

 

Percussionist Tiffany Nicely (’96 BA) found her niche—world music—inhigh school, when a music teacher askedher to take up the marimba. “I really, reallyliked it,” says Nicely, who grew up an “Armybrat” and lived in New Mexico for most ofher school-aged years.

As opposed to classical music, where percussion is often “peripheral or a sound effect,” world music held a unique appeal. I’m drawn to cultures where percussion is the music’s heart,” she says.

That attraction led her to major in percussion performance at UNM. “Dr. Chris Shultis, now retired, had a strong program,” she says.

Now 43, Nicely is a lecturer at State University of New York at Fredonia and Buffalo State College, where she founded and directs performing ensembles and leads study-abroad trips. She’s also a performing musician, a composer and a doctoral student. She was recently recruited to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program’s national screening committee.

Her instruments and musical styles include marimba (southern Mexico/Central American style); balafon, djembe and dunduns (all West African styles); bloco afro percussion (Brazil) and bata drumming (Cuba).

With Ringo Brill, her musical and life partner of 17 years, Nicely’s study trips take serious music students to encounter traditional music at the source.

“To actually hear an original music style, you have to be there,” she says. “There’s hours of stuff happening. You feel the heat, smell the diesel fumes.”

Nicely has traveled to Brazil, Mexico, Guinea and Ghana to study with master percussionists. Men generally outnumber women in the field of percussion and in some of the rural areas where Nicely travels, female percussionists are unheard of. Some male master musicians simply won’t teach her. But the more open-minded ones will, especially if they understand she can help spread knowledge of their music.

While she is a performer and a student, teaching gives Nicely a more fully integrated experience, closer to what other cultures achieve with their music. “An audience, no matter how enthusiastic or open, never connects the way students will,” she says. “That natural connection is what drew me to world culture. The performer and the audience aren’t necessarily separated. It’s part of life.”

Nicely’s happiness comes from making music. “You are literally collaborating without words—politics are removed,” she said. “By caring about world music, I put myself in contact with others who also care about it. People who support this kind of music care about the world, about maintaining diversity.”