I make no bones about the fact that Hamid Drake is a personal favorite of mine. But my argument is a substantial one. No other drummer has worked with as many heavy hitters as Hamid (a list that includes Peter Brotzmann, Fred Anderson, George Lewis, Don Cherry, Misha Mengelberg, Pharoah Sanders, Jemeel Moondoc, William Parker, Roy Campbell, Mats Gustafsson, Ken Vandermark). And no drummer works as much as Hamid. Han Bennink, Paal Nilssen-Love, and Tony Oxley are killing, but my money is on Hamid. Check out both volumes of Die Like a Dog's Little Birds Have Fast Hearts or Fred Anderson's Missing Link Classic, or the out of print, but too good to not search the ends of the Earth, For Don Cherry with Mats Gustafsson, or the DKV live sessions Live in Wels & Chicago, 1998. Hamid is the poo. So it is truly an honor to present to you, Hamid Drake, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Hamid Drake: I would say that it was being around the family, being at home because there was a lot of music in the home and also, my father and Fred Anderson were really good friends. I think just from being around the music itself, interest developed and also, when I was young, I wanted to be in the stage band at school, in grade school. So that was the first time that I actually started playing within the stage band. I was in the fourth grade. So it was a combination of that, the stage band situation and just being around the music, hearing music a lot. Both of my parents played a lot of records and stuff. It wasn't to any particular type of music per say, it was just that I wanted to play an instrument.
FJ: Serendipitous that you now play with Fred Anderson.
HD: They were very good friends. Yeah, I have known Fred, mostly all my life (laughing). I have mentioned this before, but I actually wanted to play trombone. That's the instrument that I actually wanted to play in the stage band, but when I was in grade school, the instruments were allotted out to the kids and so, unfortunately, there weren't any trombones left. I wanted to be in the stage band and I had to play the only thing was left to play which was snare drum and the big orchestral bass drum. There was another guy and we used to switch off. Sometimes he would play bass drum and I would play snare drum. Sometimes I would play bass drum and he would play snare drum.
FJ: If only the music program had more funding.
HD: (Laughing) Right, yeah. Yeah, I would be playing trombone. I guess it was destiny that it worked out that way. There was a drum teacher in the school and at the same time, I started studying with him. That was how it worked out. It was something that was, at first, can be viewed as a mistake, turned into a lifetime pursuit.
FJ: How did your progression develop from drum studies to a devoted learning of African drums?
HD: Well, actually, it was through a good friend of mine, Adam Rudolph. We met each other in a drum shop that used to be in Chicago called Frank's Drum Shop. We met there and he is a hand percussionist and he had been studying congas and so he asked me if I had any interest in congas and I said, "No." But I thought it might be a good idea to study and he told me about a guy that he was studying with who taught in the drum shop two doors down from Frank's Drum Shop and so I started studying with him, with this guy that Adam had been studying with. From the interest in the hand drums and the congas, I started to develop an interest in other forms of hand drumming, which naturally took me to start to investigate and appreciate the different styles of music from Africa, first starting with hand drums. Fortunately, at that time, there was a very good record shop also in downtown Chicago called Rose's Records and they sold music from everywhere. At that time, it was albums of course. I started going to Rose's Records and just looking in the record bins, first for music from Cuba and South America. Since I was playing congas, that would be a good place to start. I began buying records of people like Mongo Santamaria. From there, my interest started to drift across the Atlantic to the continent itself, to the origin of congas and various types of conga derivative type hand drums. From there, the interest in African music developed more and more until in 1977, Adam Rudolph, along with myself and a kora player from the Gambia named Foday Musa Suso, we started this group called the Mandingo Griot Society. Suso, he was a Griot and kora player from the Gambia. From that experience, the interest developed even more and it became more of a lived experience because now I was actually playing in situations where there was someone from the continent who also played a very important instrument from West Africa.
FJ: Most people couldn't tell the difference between a tenor saxophone and an alto saxophone, how do you explain kora music?