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2003 07 01:
The Source:

As reprinted from the Tempo section of theSource, July 3 - July 10, 2003.

Felly Smith


Standing in his woodworking shop near Sunriver, Felly Smith carefully pulled board after board from a stack along the wall, pointing out rich, red hues in a piece of flame cherry, glinting golden stripes in tiger maple and the cool, deep maroon of purpleheart.

In his quest for wood, he searches through scrap bins, gets news of boards in someone’s barn through word of mouth, and orders his wood. He looks for striking grains, gorgeous colors, one-of-a-kind patterns.

“I really dig small, unique pieces of wood,” he said, holding up another board only a few feet long with a detailed grain that twists and swirls.

Smith, officially known as Alexander Felton K. Smith, then transforms the wood from a mere plank into elegantly crafted furniture and a type of African drum called an Ashiko.

His coffee tables, cabinets, and shelves sell for thousands of dollars and are displayed in town at the Blue Spruce Gallery & Studio. But by the way his voice slows, the way he picks each word carefully when he talks about the drums, you can tell that’s where his true passion lies.

“It makes a sound,” he said. “It’s an instrument that people can use to express themselves and that goes way beyond woodworking. A good drummer puts his emotion into it.”

He stood up form the computer in his living room and walked across the sun-dappled room, weaving his way through snoring dogs and cats to a couch, and gently rested a hand on the coffee table in front of it.

“You can’t do that with a table,” he said grinning. “I’m not going to put down my coffee emotionally.” Perhaps the sound of the drums means so much to him because Smith himself is a musician. In one corner of the room is a piano, along the wall hang guitars, and a banjo and drums are tucked into corners and also take up large part of the middle of the room.

Smith, 33, grew up in Florida. When he was 11, he said, his parents laid down the law and told him he had to play an instrument. “Pick one,” they told him. His first choice was the drums, but they overruled that, so he decided on the guitar.

“They really should have just given me some drums because I was constantly getting into trouble for tapping on things,” he said. Robert Sorrenti of Tallahassee, FL has known Smith since he was 15.

“He was always into music,” Sorrenti said. “He was taking lessons from a guy who was studying under one of the best guitar teachers in the world. So he was in a good family tree of guitar, you see. And when you see him pick up a guitar, it’s just a part of him and he’s a part of it. It’s a natural extension.”

Smith continued studying guitar, starting out with folk and Americana, moving into rock and then into blues. He studied filmmaking at Northwestern University for a few years before returning to the University of Florida, where he received his degree in anthropology in 1992. After he graduated, he started working in a cabinet shop in Gainesville, FL.

“It was just boring production crap but I learned a lot about tools and efficiency,” he said. “I’ve never been too keen on having a job, working for someone else. I knew I could do it on my own if I had the tools.”

According to Smith, African drumming is big in Gainesville and his roommate got into the scene and had an ashiko drum.

“I looked at it and decided to make one,” he said.So each day after work at the cabinet shop, he began cutting and shaping staves, the long pieces of wood that form the conical body of the drum. The finished product came out “pretty well” and Smith continued to work on refining the shape and size of the drum.

More than a decade later he feels he’s got it perfect.

“Over time, I developed a size and construction that offers the best of all worlds,” he said, pulling out a drum and demonstrating the high and low tones on it. “Crisp highs, good bass with sustain. I’m trying to make a drum that’s as nice as a nice guitar or mandolin.”

A few years ago he changed the way he puts the skin on the drum, improving the tension and tightness creating a more even sound.

“Felly is really laid back and funny,” said Tyler Mason, who plays bass in the Felton K. Smith Band, Smith’s latest gig. “But when he deals with his drums and his work, he’s serious. He’s always working on new ways to get his drums out there. He’s all business when it’s business, but if you know him socially, he’s always goofing off and cracking jokes.”

That focus is one of Smith’s many traits that Sorrenti said he most respects.

“He has a vision and he just works toward it,” Sorrenti said. “He makes a plan, sticks to it and is very patient about it.”

Peter Heitoff owns Bend Instrument Repair and occasionally joins Smith onstage in some of his local shows. When someone comes into his shop needing a drum reheaded, Heitoff sends it to Smith, knowing he’ll do a good job.

“You can just tell that he’s an excellent craftsman,” Heitoff said. “You see how some people have hurried movements, the way they’ll pick up a drum or a piece of wood. But he’s very deliberate and thoughtful, graceful, unhurried. Any time you see someone taking their time you know they’re careful and don’t make stupid mistakes. It’s a sign of really high quality.”

The care and precision Smith puts into his work is starting to pay off. Last month, he shipped off a drum to Cougar Estrada, one of America’s premiere Latin percussionists. Estrada has played with Tito Puente, Rickie Lee Jones, Los Lobos, String Cheese Incident and many more big names.

Estrada had Smith’s drum for just a day when he e-mailed Smith to tell him he planned to use it on both the albums he’s in the process of recording, one with the Estrada Brothers and the other with Los Lobos.

“It sounds really good,” Estrada wrote. Smith said he also recently shipped off three of his drums to Modern Drummer magazine and now he’s anxiously awaiting a product review.

“I think they’ll give me a good review,” he said. “A lot of people make beautiful one-of-a-kind drums and a lot of people make cheap, production drums. I hope they understand what I’m trying to do, which is to make high-end production drums.”

For more information about Smith’s company, HandMade Rhythm, and ashiko drums, log on to or call Smith at 541-593-6119.

Catch the Felton K. Smith Band at O’Healy’s in Bend on July 19 and the Sisters Arts and Crafts Fair on July 27.

You can also hear Smith play solo each Wednesday night at O’Healy’s.

You can also hear Smith play solo each Wednesday night at O’Healy’s.

Printed in the Tempo section of theSource, July 3 - July 10, 2003.