When you talk about drums, there are the handmade versions of drums and then there are also mass manufactured drums. Michel Ouellet the owner of MOPERC located in Canada has one of the most outstanding handcrafted drum companies around, making congas, bongos, wooden timbales (tarolas) and soon, once again, batá drums.
Michel is an extremely social individual even though he has a busy shop schedule. He made time to talk with me as did the famed Jay Bereck. Let’s see what Michel has to say about himself and his drum company.
Michel, can you tell me little about your background?
I was born in a “not musician” family but very young I loved and listened to much music. My father was a blacksmith and was very clever with his hands so seeing him working daily, I began very young to make and build different things with my hands, spending my time beside him in his shop.
Michel, when did you first discover the drum, conga, bongo etc?
I moved to Montreal to study Arts at college. There, I began to play bongos with my guitarist room-mates. At the first 80s I began to study Latin percussion with different good players in Montreal as my friends Pierre Cormier and Andre Dupuis who studied in New York and Cuba. I learned rumba at this moment with them. This was my passion. I played hours and hours.
What made you start a drum making company?
At the age of 28 I moved to the country with my little family. I was a carpenter. The first month I arrived here, 27 years ago, I made for myself a djembe with a log with my chain saw! I accompanied African dance class with my first djembe. I made a second one that was better and I did more than 20 instruments in this way. Mostly, djembes and also batás.
During this time I was carpenter, as my career, during this part of my life. In the end of the 80s I began to study the construction of congas made by staves. I found different ways to build them. I saw the LP [Latin Percussion] method, with staves in two or three plies, I saw Skin On Skin who steamed and banded the staves (I went to buy congas at the Jay shop in Brooklyn).
I also saw how Valje (drums) would cut some grooves inside each staves to curve them. And I discovered the Junior Tirado; that Junior would cut each staves in a solid piece of wood. But I began with the steam method myself. Then I changed from cutting the staves to a solid piece of wood. This is the method I’ve used for 20 years and the one which I prefer.
The first congas I made I showed them to the percussionists in Montreal and they began to order some, and then ordered more. Later, I went to Toronto and the results were good, In 1990 I found the proper method officially, after 2 years of research.
The 90s were the years I developed my methods and different instruments. I have made batás, tamboras, congas, bongos, timbales, djembes, sabars, dununs, talking drums and different other little drums. Even a couple of drum sets for friends.
Quickly, I knew that my market would be in the bongos, congas and djembe drum making. Therefore, I have put the others drums on the aside and I just started offering timbales.
What kind of styles of music do you play and where have you traveled to expose your great product? Who have been some of the sponsors of your drums for your MOPERC Company?
In the 2000s. I came back on the scene with different models, salsa and grupo de son. I have Cuban friends Habana Café; with a salsa timba band. They still have a good success here in Canada.
I have played this style of music for 12 years on congas. But 8 years ago I quit the scene for keep my energy for my business.
I traveled to Cuba many times where I have concluded partnerships with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Yoruba Andabo, Afrocuban All Stars, La Charanga Habanera and different musicians such as Panga (Tomas Ramos Ortiz), Rolando Salgado, Pacha Portuondo, el Chino…
In the USA I have held clinics during these last years in different places as PASIC in Nashville, in Los Angeles and once In New York.
Last year, at the age of 55 and after more than 25 years of business I made a move to sell MOPERC Company and retire. But for some technical and human reasons the sale did not work. I think it is because I have not finished with this work. Now I’m very glad to be here as owner and founder for some more years. I have many projects. The sales go very well. I sell much in USA, much in Canada and a little in Europe. Some of my drums go to South and Central America and some to Asia, Africa …
How is the drum production going? Do you plan to start making batá drums again?
I’m working now on a new model of conga made of oak and mahogany. I used to make many congas and bongos with oak and mahogany in the 90s and I loved the sound projection of these woods. That will be more a vintage style model reminiscent of the old Cuban drums used in the rumba before and after the revolution. I like oak for the great projection and volume it offers. I love mahogany for its warm and rich tone. These are very nice looking grains of wood too. During these years I worked with maple, birch, ash, mahogany, cherry, oak, and others.
I’m working now also on batás drums. I have made some set during the years. Yoruba Andabo, Muñequitos de Matanzas and others play my batás around the world now. I have many demands. I’ll come back with these “high class” models of batá’s soon in 2016.
What is in the future for MOPERC, your drum Company?
We just went out with wood timbales (tarolas) recently and we have had great comments and success with them. We produced 2 videos demonstrating the wood timbales with my good friend and great Cuban percussionist based in Toronto: Rosendo Chendy De León.
I’m working on other different videos with my partner Francis Mercier. We are planning to film videos in Montreal, Toronto and also in Cuba this winter.
I do not have retail dealers, my preference it not to. So the best way for my product to be heard is on videos, and certainly producing live clinics with musicians. That is why in 2016, I will be producing several clinics in Montreal, Toronto, New York in and probably in Miami.
I have a small team, 2 employees in my workshop, plus myself and Francis, who helps me to develop and create the marketing utilizing these videos. We only focus on quality and contact with musicians. It had been always my target; “to make them happy and proud of their instruments”. Money and success come only after when this is well done. I think every craftsman and his craftsmanship should be like this.
I say, that it is much more than the profession, it is a passion, a calling!
By Les Moncada & Marco Moncada