Who’s Playing Tonight…an interview with Garrett Dawson

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By Mike Sales

To say Garrett Dawson is exceptional would be an understatement. His mastery of various styles, combined with his core-level love of music as a form of expression and the ability to perform equally proficient live and in the studio combined with his passion for teaching what he’s learned, place him in a class of his own and find him in demand week after week for the top bands in the area…including his own.

WPT: Where are you from?
Garrett: I’m from a small town in Northern New Jersey, called Ringwood.

WPT: You play all manner of drums and percussion, from kits to Cajon, hand drums, rock drums; when did you first start playing?
Garrett: Actually, there’s a video somewhere of me playing tambourine onstage with my dad’s band…I believe I was three.  My father and four of my uncles were really good musicians, so growing up it was always in my life. I started getting somewhat serious when I was six.

WPT: …like taking lessons, or band class or playing along with records…?
Garrett: …all that stuff…taking lessons, but not super into it, and my neighbor got a guitar and we played together and started a kid band thing. I think what really inspired me was when my dad had introduced me to Babatunde Olatunji, who was primarily responsible for bringing a lot of the Nigerian hand percussion music to the United States in the 1960’s. He played with everybody. I had the chance to study with him at an early age and was so inspired. From that point on I wanted to be a hand percussionist. In my neighborhood, there was a guy named Armen Halburian, who was a close family friend and a serious player. He played with Whitney’s mother, Sissy Houston and he played on a lot of Herbie Mann’s records.

WPT: When was your first paying gig?
Garrett: My first paying gig was at about 10 with my little kid band. We were really good. One of the guys is a doctor in Philadelphia now and the other two are professional musicians who are doing well. It was really a blessing to have those guys in my life. I would also fill in for my dad’s drummer. Those guys would beat me up, but I played just well enough to hang with them.

WPT: How did you make your way to Siesta Key?
Garrett: When I was 19, my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, moved down here with her parents to attend school. I moved down to be with her and we moved in together…the rest is history.

WPT: How’d you get your first gig down here?
Garrett: It’s actually a really funny thing; about a month after I moved down, I was walking down Main Street and stepped into a place that was called “The Monterey”, at the time, I don’t know what its called now, but there was a reggae band playing in there without a drummer…it was ridiculous. (Laughs) I asked them, “What is going on, why don’t you have a drummer?” and they said, “I don’t know, we just don’t have one.” I said, “do you want one?’…And I started playing with them the next day.

WPT: When did you start teaching?
Garrett: I taught my first drum lesson at 14 or 15.

WPT: Tell us about your teaching.
Garrett: I constantly still take lessons and have about 30 students per week, ranging from four years old to over 70. I teach various levels starting with beginners and I have some severely autistic children. It’s really cool because in those types of situations music can achieve more than medicine. I love watching people come to lessons, unable to play, put time into it, get better and better and experience the magic when they complete the development of a technique they were completely unable to do before they earned it. Most music builds confidence and strength, but there’s more to it for me than just technique. The main rule I live by, is; do not kill their love of music. Growing up, I had two teachers, who I mentioned, that really inspired me, but a number of others who left me feeling almost abused as I left the lesson. I’m not saying that being demanding isn’t an effective way to teach music, but I do feel strongly about being there for students who don’t thrive from that kind of approach. When music is treated as the art that it is, it should have no rules. Obviously, you have to develop technique and fundamentals to play and this is what I teach, but if music really is an art, then who am I or anyone to tell someone else they’re playing it wrong?

WPT: Since landing your first gig with the reggae band in 2001, how many other kinds of music have you played with various artists around here?
Garrett: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many talented musicians of all different styles in this town, ranging from the Sarasota orchestra to Dickey Betts.

WPT: I understand you toured with Dickey Betts as well?
Garrett: Yes, I toured with Dickey Betts, and The PsychoTropic Band, one of my original projects and have done “fly dates” with a disco cover band and many other projects. I’ve also had the opportunity to tour with Rolando “Ideal” Castillo, who is a Garifuna artist. Garifunas are descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people. I was one of the first “outsiders” to play with these guys. It was a great experience because they took me out on tour and taught me all of their rhythms. I got to experience a completely different culture.

WPT: How does it work to be out on the road, playing with people who don’t speak English?
Garrett: If you’re being true to yourself, your music will speak for you. Your music is your personality…it’s truly a universal language…a higher form of communication. I’ve played countless times with people who didn’t speak the same language, but we were able to play and communicate through music.

WPT: Who are you playing with on Siesta Key right now?
Garrett: My main gig is “The Bird Tribe”, featuring Matthew Frost on keys and vocals, Rick Almaroden on guitar and vocals, and myself. We play every other Friday at “Eat Here”. The music has many influences, including rock, jazz, funk, Ambient, Folk, and Americana. Here on the Key, we play about 40% covers and the rest original. Our album is almost finished.

WPT: You do a lot of studio work; on about how many albums can you be heard?
Garrett: I was actually recently thinking about that because I get calls to play on peoples’ records as a drummer and a percussionist. There’re even records out there with me just playing tambourine. “The Bird Tribe’s” debut album is almost done and I recently finished a really cool roots-reggae album with a band up in Burlington Vermont, called “The Flyn Arrows”. I just cut a live record with Acoustic Pete at Spirit Ranch and of course the new “Kettle of Fish” record is coming out too, so that’s four currently, but all together, I counted over 20 albums I’ve played on through the years.

WPT: Where do you see your career going forward?
Garrett: Honestly, I just want to be healthy; I want my family to be happy and I want to help any way I can, through music or however. I carry a deep appreciation for all of the musicians who inspired me. That led me to figure out what I wanted to do…I just want to hold onto that and keep passing it along.


Garrett performs weekly at Eat Here located at: 
240 Avenida Madera on Siesta Key – 941-346-7800
He is also one of the certified drum & percussion instructors at Guitar Center located at:
8223 Cooper Creek Blvd in University Park FL – 941-358-6792


Mike Sales is a local singer/songwriter for more info log onto mikesalessings.com

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