Cheryl Prashker studied classical percussion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where she was born and raised. She has toured Canada, U.S. Europe and Russia. She spent many years in NY City where she honed her skills of playing anything from Rock and Roll, Klezmer, to Celtic as well as Middle Eastern music. She now uses her special style of percussion to enhance the music of such artists as Eric Andersen, Jonathan Edwards, Pat Wictor, Tracy Grammer, Full Frontal Folk and her own Celtic Roots Music group RUNA. Cheryl currently serves on the NERFA (Northeast Regional Folk Allaince) Board
In the beginning
Some people travel by boat, some by air. I've clocked more miles by drum than Keith Moon broke sticks. People ask me: "When did you start playing drums?" That's easy: three years old banging along with hair brushes to my parents' records. Dad was an Elvis man. My mother wanted me to play piano. Didn't happen. I can't remember a time when I wasn't drumming. Of course, the whole concept of drumming in front of people didn't occur to me until Mrs. Stern, the High School Band conductor, shoved me out in front of the band for a wood block solo. She'd never heard of a shy drummer. I got over it fast.
In Montreal, where I grew up, they have a thing called CEGEP. It's sort of a "Pre-University", where you're supposed to decide what you want to be when you grow up. I knew exactly what I wanted to be (behind a kit), but the path started with the classical percussion section of the music department. The first teacher who believed in me was Ron Page, a seasoned session man who had played in pop bands for Lena Horne and in big bands for just about everybody. According to him, you had to learn the classics to learn anything. He pushed me harder than anyone I ever knew. I studied under his whip for three years and that prepared me to move on to the audition for McGill University where I was accepted and became a performance major in classical percussion.
So there I was, doing Beethoven by day and smashing out bar band rockabilly by night with my first rock and roll band, Pete Pneumonia and The Chronic Disease (that early Elvis training came in handy). In my spare time I sat in with the guys in the jazz department, which is where I got my feel for the brushes.
Somewhere during my pre-college years, I got caught up with the Yiddish Theatre of Montreal, my introduction to the centuries old traditions of Klezmer music and the roots of my own Jewish heritage. On and off for the next ten years, I played for the musicals they put on, locally, in the US, and all across Europe (France, Belgium, Switzerland). Most memorable was the trip we made to Russia, as the first Yiddish troupe to be allowed to perform after the cold war ended (the trip was the basis for a Canadian Public Television Documentary). When I wasn't doing that, I was striking it up with John Phillip Sousa and friends with the Lakeshore Concert Band, with whom I got to see England, Scotland and Norway.
Moving on to New York City
At age 26, with University and a lot of miles behind me, I decided to make the move to New York City. I gravitated to Greenwich Village where I joined an up and coming folk rock band called Earth Radio. I played with them on the New York club scene for the next three years. Our album Filling the Void was my introduction to the thrill and the discipline of studio recording. This was also the first time I heard one of my own songs on a record. Never content to do just one thing, I also got involved in the world of Middle Eastern music. I had my first lessons on the dumbek, the hand drum most associated with the complex rhythms of this ancient and exotic music, from Souren Baronian, a legendary performer and gifted teacher. For two years, I played alongside Scott Wilson, son of famous belly dancer, Serena, playing all styles of Middle Eastern belly dance music: Turkish, Arabic, Armenain, and Greek. 9/8 anyone?
Of all the people I met in New York during this time, the one who had the biggest influence on the direction I was to go next was Manny Krevat. Manny got me involved in two things: first, he had a recording studio in his house and took the time to teach me how to engineer, mix and produce. Second, he got me involved in the folk scene, both in New York and Philadelphia. This opened up a whole new world of expression for me and before I knew it, I was writing more and more of my own songs, eventually recording my own CD, The Ocean's Doorway. I sang, played most of the instruments (yes, I play guitar too), engineered and mixed it. The desire to get up and do my songs in front of people led me to start hanging out at the weekly open mic at the legendary Fast Folk Café. Even after many years of playing on stage, it was exciting (and a little terrifying) to be out from behind the drums telling my own story. That's when two more big things happened.
First, I found that with a little adaption, the techniques I had learned on the dumbek worked really well for accompanying the other performers at the open mike, underscoring and enhancing what they were playing with their guitars. Over the next several months, I got plenty of practice playing for dozens of different songwriters. Before long, I started getting asked to play for their paying gigs. Just like that, I had a whole new career. The second thing that happened was that I met my future co-writer, traveling companion, and, eventually, husband, Charles Nolan. But more of that later.
The story starts getting crowded just about now. Over a series of trips to Philadelphia with Manny Krevat, I started jamming with a hot local group who specialized in rowdy, floor-stomping Celtic music. Next thing you know, I was learning the bodhran and playing with So's Your Mom every chance I got. At the same time, three friends I had met at the open mike and I started accompanying each other with instruments and harmony when we did our own songs. A few rehearsals and some very exciting chemistry later, CC Railroad was born. For the next four years, Ryder Daniels, Rich Boniface, Carolann Solebello and I became the living proof of the old line about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. CC Railroad went on to play all over New York and up and down the East Coast, record two CDs and, yes, add a whole lot of miles to my total.
As if that wasn't enough, my day gig during my last year in New York was working as a sound engineer at Euphoria Studios in Manhattan. I was setting up and doing sound for the likes of Herbie Hancock, Felicia Collins from The David Letterman Band, Suzanne Vega and Dar Williams. It was there that I met a band called Whiskey Run, a bunch of Brooklyn boys doing good ol' down and dirty Texas rock. I sat in a few times when their drummer couldn't make it and the next thing I knew, I was asked to be a full member of the band (yes, for those keeping score, I was working with three bands at once). We had a good run until the untimely death of our beloved leader, Bruce Lazear.
Next stop: Philadelphia
In late 2003, Charles, with whom I had co-written many of the songs I did with CC Railroad, took a new job in Philadelphia. Just about that time, the now legendary Full Frontal Folk was picking up steam. In no time at all, I was drafted as their full time drummer and spent the next two years helping them show the world that folk music could be fun and even (should we say it? we should!)...sexy.
And that brings us up to the present. There have been some real stand-out moments for me: the Moscow trip, for sure, accompanying Tracy Grammer on the main stage at Falcon Ridge, jamming with Peter Yarrow at Folk Alliance Conference, the first time CC Railroad played the Bitter End (something I'd promised myself when I was six). But the best part of it all is getting to do what I love to do, and playing with other musicians who love it just as much as I do.