Distant drums

Man with a drumset
Percussionist Ian Molinaro-Thompson, a 2014 Mt. Lebanon grad based in New Orleans, is working on his debut album, The Bonds That Make Us, music inspired by traditional Ghanaian drumming.

A taste of west African music set one Mt. Lebanon musician on a path that led to a trip to Ghana and an inspiration for an album.

Ian Molinaro-Thompson is recording his debut album, “The Bonds That Make Us,” inspired by the traditional drums of Ghana.

Molinaro-Thompson, who grew up on Hoodridge Drive, graduated from Mt. Lebanon in 2014 and attended Berklee College of Music, where he majored in music performance for drum set. He plays drums with both the Grammy Award-winning Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience and Funk Griot, a New Orleans-based collective of young musicians which he co-founded.

His experience in the Mt. Lebanon Percussion Ensemble’s West African Ensemble led him to visit Ghana in 2015. There he met Jerome Balsab, a Ghanaian musician who teaches non-Africans his traditional music at the Dagara Music Center, which he co-founded, and whom Molinaro-Thompson described as “one of the best musicians in the world.” Molinaro-Thompson said that Balsab has provided great mentorship to him, and will appear on the upcoming album.

Molinaro-Thompson is working with friends, mentors and fellow musicians from both Ghana and his current home of New Orleans to create an album that integrates Ghanaian cultural music into the contemporary music landscape.

“The concept of the album is to show the connection between traditional and modern music, especially contemporary music in New Orleans, because those connections are so strong,” he said.

Ian on drums with pianist Shea Pierre in New Orleans.

He started taking drum lessons at the now-closed Drum World on Castle Shannon Boulevard when he was in first grade and got involved with Mt. Lebanon’s percussion program early in his life.

“I had been begging my parents to let me start [playing],” Molinaro-Thompson said. “My parents are big music fans and would always have albums playing, everybody from Parliament Funkadelic to Elton John to Miles Davis, the Beatles were big. I would set up pots and pans in the kitchen and beat on those and run around the house singing Hard Day’s Night.”

Ghanaian traditional drumming has a rich cultural history. According to African Music Safari, it uses polyrhythms to simulate conversation between the drums.

Molinaro-Thompson said that he loves Ghanaian drumming because of its cultural significance and its danceability.

“I just love the sound,” he said. “It just does something to me, and I think to people who hear it, it just makes you want to move, and when you dig into it, the complexities, the polyrhythms and then being around Jerome who performs it and has lived in the culture that it comes from.”

Molinaro-Thompson said that he sees himself as “more of a producer” on this album than anything because he’s bringing in a wide variety of musicians together to create a very collaborative final product. He uses music’s “inherently collaborative” qualities and his experience with improvisational music to inspire the way he composes for this album.

Ian in his Junior year with the Mt. Lebanon percussion West African Drum and Dance Ensemble.

“I don’t like to have a song where I say, ‘OK, this is what it is, everyone has to play it like that,’” Molinaro-Thompson said. “To me, that’s counterintuitive. Part of the joy of making music is how other people interpret things, and then bringing all those voices together in this big melting pot and seeing what comes out, and hopefully it’s good.”

Molinaro-Thompson’s goal for this album is to highlight traditional Ghanaian drumming by blending it with contemporary music because he said he feels traditional Ghanaian drumming is under-appreciated. He features natives of Ghana, like Balsab, who have experienced the culture firsthand to keep the music as authentic as possible.

Balsab said that he appreciates Molinaro-Thompson putting him and his culture forward.

“I’m not doing [this album] just for me, I’m doing it for the entire Ghana, because if anything happens, they’ll say ‘Oh, this guy’s from Ghana,’” Balsab said. “Whatever comes, it’s Ghana’s name first before my name … I think all of my people I need behind me, the country of Ghana behind me, all of my friends behind me, the music center behind me. I think I’m very happy to be doing this with Ian, and I will pray for a long life.”

The album’s release date is to be determined. For more on Molinaro-Thompson and his upcoming release, visit his Instagram at @ianmtmusic.