Recycled Sounds: Omaha Street Percussion Marches to Their Own BeatJun 25, 2021 04:44PM ● By Kara Schweiss
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Percussionists Jeff Babcock and Justin Fisher once busked at an Old Market intersection to help bring a little boy from Korea into the Babcock family.
“We were doing this to help get some extra tip money that would go towards Jeff and his wife’s overseas adoption process,” Fisher explained.
That was summer 2012. Instead of playing traditional percussion instruments, the two men repurposed household items such as plastic buckets and metal trash cans. The medium attracted the attention of bystanders and the professional quality of the music kept them listening. The concept was so well-received by the community that Fisher began asking other colleagues to join the pair. Soon the casual ensemble was receiving their first requests to perform and teach workshops.
“That’s when things kind of took off,” Fisher said. “It happened organically. There wasn’t a business plan or a specific goal or objective; it kind of just manifested.”
The handful of percussionists became Omaha Street Percussion in 2013. Today Omaha Street Percussion’s seven members—Fisher, Babcock, Dakarai White, Chris Sikkema, Tony Lever, and Henry Fernandez—have performed hundreds of shows around Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri from festivals and corporate events to school assemblies. OSP also works with dozens of schools to present educational programs and workshops, host an annual summer drum camp, and offer private drum lessons.
“We didn’t know OSP was going to be what it turned out to be. We always wanted to play music and continue it the rest of our lives. Most of the guys were into hardcore marching percussion, competitive percussion, but that pretty much stops at a certain age,” Babcock said. “I never stopped drumming. I played in church, and that’s where I met Justin.”
Thanks to the universality of music, OSP’s performances aren’t targeted toward any particular demographic, Fisher said.
“We have a wide range of audiences, anywhere from preschool-age to retired adults. We’ve had days where we’ve performed at a preschool in the morning and performed at a retirement community in the evening,” Fisher said. “I think it’s a cool, all-ages type of experience.”
“We’ve met some incredible people along the way. We’ve been in pretty much every concert venue and have been able to play with some fun acts,” Babcock said, adding that one highlight was opening for a Lincoln performance of “Stomp,” a U.K.-based group with a theme similar to OSP’s of using everyday objects as percussion instruments.
OSP is certainly not the only street percussion group in the country, but they’re unique to the region, Fisher said.
“I think one of the reasons we’ve been able to be so successful is that we offer something out of the norm. It’s a mix of different percussive art forms. There’s nobody else like this around,” he said. “We made it into a real workable art form that’s rehearsed and polished and presented at a professional level. Eight years later we’re still playing, and people are still discovering us.”
OSP has more than 100 shows booked for the second half of 2021. “It’s really exciting to have it bounce back like that,” Fisher said.
The organization’s members made the decision early on that their focus would be the street percussion/repurposed-materials-as-instruments concept.
“We thought it would be a way to carve our own niche. We didn’t want to be a drumline because, although most of us came from that background, we wanted it to be something different,” Fisher said.
“We are all professionally trained drummers, and we teach lessons and play on real drum kits,” Babcock added. “But there have been times when I’ve gone a long time without being able to play on a real drum set because I’ve been banging on buckets and trash cans and pots and pans.”
Spectator reactions to OSP’s novel instruments range from amused to intrigued to “kind of surprised,” Fisher said.
“When you see our setup with the recycled items, you assume something cool is going to happen,” he said.
“Since we’re high-energy, we usually get a high-energy response back: dancing, singing along, claps, cheers; what we do encourages all of that,” Babcock said. “We get people who are blown away that we can take pots and pans and buckets and make music out of it.”
Professional percussion instruments and drum kits are a considerable investment, Fisher said, and the cost of musical instruments can be prohibitive for aspiring musicians.
“We wanted to do the recycled item concept because we wanted to show that music is accessible,” he said. “You can get creative and still have a good experience with certain items that are available to you on a daily basis.”
It’s advantageous for OSP, too. Not only is overhead low, the improvised instruments are easy to replace, Fisher said. And they’re flexible in a fun way, he added.
“The percussion instruments we choose give us that opportunity because there are so many different sounds, and we’re discovering different sounds,” he said. “Some of the items we play with have been given to us, and we’re not even sure what to do with it and if we’re going to keep it around. But then we discover it has a unique sound and it becomes a big part of our show.”
OSP has cultivated remarkable longevity with zero turnover. Fisher serves as the organization’s full-time director and the other six members have part-time commitments, but all seven work other jobs as they continue with OSP.
“We’ve never faced a situation where we felt like we’ve had to change our lineup or add, we haven’t had anybody want to leave or move,” Fisher said. “Everybody is friends, and we hang out when we’re not playing.”
Babcock was the only member who was married with children when OSP started; now his slightly younger colleagues have followed suit. OSP is rooted in family, after all. The group was on hand to greet Babcock’s son Ari when he arrived at Eppley Airfield from South Korea, and they still give a performance benefiting adoption charities every year.
“We became a family as it started, and Ari immediately became part of the OSP family,” Babcock said. “They were part of the journey, and it’s part of the foundation of Omaha Street Percussion.”
Visit omahastreetpercussion.org for more information.