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Mar. 26, 2019 | Tuesday
Local News
Penner MacKay: The rhythm of life
Penner MacKay with wine-barrel drum in his studio. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

The beat of a marching band drum started it all for Penner MacKay more than 60 years ago, setting him on a life-long musical journey, carving out his own path.

MacKay, bright, happy and enthusiastic, has a passion for life. That passion is demonstrated through a love of drumming, the only career he ever considered.

His studio, a small building starting out as a bare-bones structure on the NOTL property purchased with his wife, holds an uncountable number of drums.

The studio allows for sound reverberation unlike any other, attributed in part to the many drums in the small space. There was nothing to the structure when he started out - no floor, no drywall, no windows, no beams. He transformed it into the studio it is today.

“I think we got lucky. I really didn’t think about the acoustics that much when we did all this. You hit one drum and you’re getting a bigger sound. You can throw a blanket over it if you don’t want that kind of reverb.”

The room is lined with photographs of momentous occasions, gifts from his many students over the years and, of course, drums of various sizes, styles and origins.

Stepping out of the cold into the warm studio is like stepping through a gateway to another time, burning incense, dim lighting, dated memorabilia; it tells the story of MacKay’s history.

He says his foray into a drumming career began at the age of five in Cornwall, Ont. His neighbour was in a marching band and brought home his drum for the summer.

“I just thought, that looks like a lot of fun.”

After his neighbour gave him a pair of drum sticks for Christmas he began drumming on every piece of furniture in the house.

He didn’t pursue the hobby further until high school when he signed up for music classes and joined the band. He says it was the lifestyle that inspired him.

“I just got the bug, I really saw what it could be like.”

In high school, his teacher was an old big band trumpet player from England. MacKay says he helped him along his path, knowing he wanted to make a career out of music.

“We had a really good relationship.”

He set MacKay up for a drum lesson. A well-known drummer in Montreal, Spike McKendry, was home visiting family for a week. His music teacher sent him to get a drum lesson from a “real amazing player.”

“It was 1969. I still have the three pages of foolscap that he wrote out - books I should get, (drum beats) I should learn. He said if you ever want to come to Montreal to hear me play, you’re welcome to come and crash on my couch.”

MacKay took the offer to heart.

“Next Friday, who’s out on the 401 with his thumb out? Me.”

MacKay has been playing in bands of various genres ever since. He says he doesn’t have a favourite type of music or a favourite band, it all depends on mood. He’s not simply a rock musician, or a jazz musician, but he is, undoubtedly, a musician through and through.

His love of drums and drumming doesn’t end in performing. He’s been teaching local kids for more than 20 years. Building his own drums is also a passion.

The wine-barrel drums he built were inspired by a book he read while on the road, written about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, called Drumming at the Edge of Magic.

The book referenced a friend of Hart’s who ran a summer camp for kids from rough neighbourhoods. It was suggested Hart bring the drums and put something together for the kids.

“He would grab a barrel and cut it in half, got a hide, made a camp drum. When I got home, I thought, I want to make a barrel drum.”

The wine-barrel drums opened new avenues for MacKay. He was asked to play at the SkyDome, now the Rogers Centre, before some Argonauts games as part of a martial arts demonstration. He says that’s not something he would have had the opportunity to do if the wine-barrel drums were never created.

The SkyDome gig was unpaid, but MacKay says he didn’t mind. He never scoffed at playing gigs for free, especially when it was for a good cause. He’s performed at the Niagara Peninsula Children’s Centre for special-needs kids.

“I don’t need money to do that. I’d bring bands in and pay them myself for god’s sake. You’ve got to give sometime.”

For the SkyDome performances, he says he was able to bring his boys along.

“My kids were young. We’d take the football with us and play until they told us we couldn’t.”

His boys, Andrew and Jesse MacKay, are both drummers themselves. MacKay says it’s really something to be able to play gigs with his sons, “It’s kind of cool that we can share that kind of passion.”

His wife, Susan MacKay, is a writer – a family of creative minds.

Raising a family in his line of work wasn’t easy, driving him to seek out different aspects of drumming. If artists can do a bunch of things in their fields, he says it’s possible to make a living.

Building the wine-barrel drums, teaching aspiring musicians and branching out in his field are some of the ways he ensured to keep the magic alive.

“The fact that I can diversify. That I can go do a theatre gig in the pit, or I can do a movie soundtrack, or I can go play rock and blues every Saturday night at a club in Niagara-on-the-Lake – it keeps it interesting.”

He has no reservations about how lucky he has been. Though, with the time, effort and dedication that went into building up his career, luck has little to do with it.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I just turned 68, and I’ve been doing this for more than 50 years.”

That wasn’t the first time he referred to himself as the luckiest guy in the world. He treasures his life, glowing while talking of past experiences and boasting about still being able to play – it’s clear he’s being genuine.

That’s not to say he hasn’t had his rough patches. Mentioning near-misses with mobsters in clubs when he first started playing gigs and working through broken bones on tour, he’s seen his fair number of obstacles. It’s all in how you react to them. MacKay says they can make you give up or they can be pushed through – he always chose the latter.

Living in NOTL has given him so much creatively and socially, though he wasn’t as enthusiastic when he and his wife first moved to the town more than 30 years ago. He says he didn’t think he could thrive as a musician in this town; Toronto was the hot-spot for musicians.

Over time, he says he came to love it. Lasting friendships have been cultivated, ice-skating and going for beers weekly. He plays every Saturday at the Old Winery Restaurant with a group called The Niagara Rhythm Section.

“The people I play with on a Saturday night, four of us live in this neighbourhood. Our guests come from all over.”

“I used to joke with my wife, ‘If I build it, they will come,’ that line from that movie, Field of Dreams.

“Sure enough, all of a sudden these amazing musicians, some I knew from Toronto, they were moving out here. Eight years ago, Graham Lear, well-known drummer who played with Santana for 10 years, we met in ‘72, ‘75, and now he lives right around the corner. We’re best friends, we go skating a couple times a week.”

A lot of semi-retired musicians still get together and play. MacKay asked, almost to himself, “How do they all get here?”

“We’ve got such a scene, it’s really something.”

What’s next for MacKay? “More of this,” he says. His love for music and creativity isn’t going anywhere. He says while he’s not looking for gigs, he’s open to the possibility when they come around. He talks of plans to make more drums, learn new music, keep as active as he can – he has no desire to stop.

“My father, he worked for the Woolworth company for 45 years, a store manager. He had to retire a little early, in his early 60s. When I look back, he just flipped the switch, like, I don’t have to think anymore.”

MacKay says that’s not the path for him.

“That is the kiss of death, if you don’t have to think anymore. I really believe if you keep the old muscle going, you have a better shot. I mean I’m forgetful, but who isn’t forgetful at 68.”

Every step MacKay has taken and every person he has met along the way led him to this point in his life. Acknowledging that everything kind of falls into place, he says he couldn’t be happier with the outcome so far.

“It’s like the guy when I was five; if that guy doesn’t have a drum next door, maybe none of this happens. It’s funny how the triggers in our life really set us on a path.”

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