Don Wherry has had an indelible impact on hundreds of people, especially any musician who has had the pleasure and luck to play, study or experience him. One of the most gentle souls I have ever met, he continues to be an inspiration to me (and many others I am sure).
I met Don over the phone. I had been more seriously thinking about focusing on music and wanted to broaden my experience. All roads pointed to Don so I called him during the summer and told him my situation to which he replied "Put your nose to the grindstone." This in response to my minimal theoretical knowledge and piano skills required to study music at the university level. So I did just that and in the Fall of 1997 enrolled in a few rudimentary theory courses and a couple of ethnomusicology courses at Memorial University of Newfoundland while pursing a B.A. in Social/Cultural Anthropology.
That same Fall I also started studying privately with Don from his basement studio on Circular Road (just down the street from the Molson Brewery). The smell of brewing beer from that plant instantly evokes memories of walking to and from Don's house, either nervous (if going to a lesson) or giddy with my mind expanded (when coming from a lesson). During this time Don saw to include me in different activities of his Scruncheons percussion group which opened me up to something I had never done before...group percussion playing and percussion beyond the drumset. And of course through all this I met many people who I eventually collaborated with.
After that year of school and lessons with Don, a profound change had occurred within me and my playing...more confidence, a wider perspective...and a thirst for more. I had the idea to study jazz and was applying to several universities. Don suggested I apply to a university in Toronto named York which I had never heard of. He figured I would fit in there and be exposed to some people and experiences that I might not get at other schools. His wisdom proved more than true. I put together a quick audition tape, wrote a letter of intent and never thought to hear from them again as I was a bit late with the application and stood less of a chance without a live audition. But they accepted me and I chose that school. Being in Toronto and at York had some other incredible impacts on me, most notably meeting and becoming a student of the incomparable Trichy Sankaran.
So that year of school at MUN and lessons with Don was over and the summer of 1998 approached. I went back to Carbonear to live and work and would make periodic visits to St. John's. Being an even year, the Sound Symposium was going to happen. I only had a peripheral experience and knowledge of this amazing event and now Don was asking me to be a part of it (he created and oversaw the artistic direction of the symposium). He had invited a master drummer/dancer from Ghana (living in Toronto) to come down for 2 weeks, train a choir, dancers and some drummers and then perform a couple of shows during the festival...I became one of those drummers (and dancer too!!) That drummer from Ghana was one Kwasi Dunyo who also become a pivotal mentor on my path.
In the Fall of 1998 I left Newfoundland and Don and went to York University in Toronto to study jazz (primarily), coming back each summer to play music in NL and reconnect with Don, tell him what I had learned, he'd tell me what he had learned and what he had planned. A wonderful relationship developed. In Sound Symposium 2000, Don entrusted me with even greater involvement and introduced me to more great musicians and artists.
Then in 2001, after I had graduated from York and returned to St. John's to live and play, Don invited me to be a part of a procession of musicians to lead hundreds of people carrying homemade lanterns at the lantern festival at Victoria Park in St. John's. It was a magical night, all those lights, excitement in the air and then we started up...a pulsating, slinky rag-tag group of percussionists, horn blowers, dancers and whoever else wanted to join the fray....being followed by a giant chain of lanterns, the lights hazy and muted through the coloured paper-mache. We reached a hill and ascended as the procession was reaching a climax. Don was just ahead of me playing on a bell. I turned to look at the crowd behind us and when I turned back to Don he was on the ground, a grimace on his face. I was confused. Afraid. But oddly calm. People gathered around him, an ambulance came, he was taken away. I wandered around, not sure what to do, feeling numb. Waiting to hear what had happened. I wandered some more and then went home. There I got the call that he had died of a massive heart attack.
I took my drums, went to the top of the highest hill and just played.