A Fireside Chat With Hamid Drake
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?
HD: I would say that first of all, the kora is a harp type instrument that is played in West Africa amongst Mandingo speaking people. Also, the kora is played by a group of people that are known as Griots. Griots are the keepers of the oral history of their various people. Griots are not only amongst Mandingos, but amongst many different tribes in Africa. Traditionally, the kora, amongst the Mandingo people is played by the Griots, those who are the holders of the oral tradition. I would let them know that the kora is a harp sounding type instrument. It is played very much like the harp where there is two sides, the left hand is playing one side and the right hand is playing another side.
FJ: Joe Morris and I had a conversation and he spoke about his interest in kora music.
HD: Yeah, that is true.
FJ: Joe told me that you had one up on him, having had tea in a tent with Alhaji Bai Konte.
HD: He is going way back. Yeah, he is going way back to the Bear Mountain Festival (laughing) in upstate New York. That's correct, yeah. In fact, Alhaji Bai Konte and the kora player, the Griot that we formed Mandingo Griot Society with Foday Musa Suso, they were very good friends. Alhaji Bai Konte was his elder of course, but still they were very good friends. I think the time that Joe was talking about was, this was the early Eighties when we still had some pretty good festivals going on in the States and there was this one particular festival called the Bear Mountain Music Festival, which pretty much centered around various types of folk music throughout the world. It concentrated a lot on American folk music. Mandingo Griot Society, we were on the Flying Fish label at the time, which also concentrated a great deal on American folk music and American bluegrass, but we happened to be on that label. Through that, we played this music festival in Bear Mountain and that particular time that Joe was talking about also was quite a very interesting festival because Mandingo Griot Society, we did the festival with a slew of folk and bluegrass musicians. Also, there was a great oud player from the Sudan by the name of Hamza El-Din and on that particular festival also, the Sun Ra Arkestra played too. It was quite a festival that particular year. We were all hanging out together, Alhaji Bai Konte and his adopted son Malamini Jobarteh, Foday Musa Suso, myself, and Adam Rudolph and the other guys from Mandingo Griot Society.
FJ: As a percussionist who has played with so many other percussionist, I would like to get your opinion on a few. First, Adam Rudolph.
HD: We're old time friends. We have been knowing each other and playing music together since we were both fourteen years old. I think Adam, simply as a percussionist, Adam is one of the greatest percussionists that I know to tell you the truth. What he has developed on the hand drums, I think, conceptually and playing wise is truly phenomenal. Also, Adam is a great composer too. He has composed some very extraordinary music. It is stuff that when you perform it, you really have to think seriously about it because it challenges you on many levels, especially from the rhythmic perspective. Also, Adam is a good friend. Adam and I, we are musical buddies, but we are also life buddies. We spent a lot of time together traveling to different parts of the world, traveling to different parts of this country, playing in various musical situations, very diverse musical situations with different people. I have a very high regard and respect for Adam. He is one of those people that I have learned a lot from and I continually learn from. Whenever we are in a musical situation together, I feel that I always learn something from Adam and I am very appreciative.
FJ: Tragically, Adam rarely gets the recognition he deserves because he plays hand percussion, a lost form in improvised music.
HD:That's right. He is a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire. Yeah.
FJ: And Michael Zerang.
HD: Michael and I have been playing together for about twelve years now in various situations, particularly with Peter Brotzmann, but also in duet situations. For the past twelve years now, we have been doing in Chicago, we have been hosting these Winter Solstice concerts every year. The phenomenal thing is that we have done it twelve years consecutively, like non-stop every winter solstice. For the last twelve years, we have been doing this and over the years, it has really grown and it brings out people of diverse backgrounds and people with their children. The phenomenal thing is that now, for the last several years, we have been only doing early morning performances starting at six in the morning. We still get packed houses at six in the morning of people coming to see this music to see drums and percussions. The nice things about working with Michael is over the years, we have had time to develop a way of communicating with each other and really to develop our own duet style not only from the Winter Solstice concerts that we do, but also from working together with various ensembles, but particularly with Peter Brotzmann and the Chicago Tentet.
FJ: You also are part of the DKV Trio.
HD: Yeah, I think Ken (Vandermark) and I started working together in '92. The first project we did together was a project called Standards Project and it was Ken, he was doing this project with various artists. It just worked out that the project that Ken and I were doing was with Kent Kessler. From doing that project, the Standards Project, it felt like we had a nice connection, the three of us, so DKV, that was actually the starting point of DKV. Then we started doing gigs together at a few places around Chicago and we were doing things on a weekly basis and that kind of formed, those were the situations that helped solidify the musical relationship of the three of us. DKV is a situation that I really love and appreciate a lot because the nature of how we play together allows us to go in any direction. We have the freedom to explore many different stylistic textures and landscapes. It is not just one particular mode of expression, but we express a lot of different things within that group setting. People seem to appreciate it.
FJ: And Fred Anderson.
HD: There is really, oh, I don't have a lot of words to express the relationship with Fred other than it is definitely, it manifests in many ways. Sometimes it is the relationship of teacher/apprentice or master/apprentice type situation and other times, we are, I can't say equals because Fred is my elder, so he has been around way longer than I have and he has experienced and seen more life than I have experienced, so I can't say equal, but I will say, we definitely share a common, we have a shared love for this music. It is great to see when we travel to different places to see these young audiences really being so appreciative of Fred and really digging and understanding what he is doing. It is such a delight to see.
FJ: And Peter Brotzmann, whom you have worked with in both his Tentet and his Die Like a Dog Quartet.
HD: Yeah, Die Like a Dog, we have the quartet, which was with William Parker, Peter Brotzmann, and Toshinori Kondo, a trumpet player from Japan and myself. Right now, we are mostly concentrating on the Die Like a Dog Trio, which is William Parker, Peter, and myself. The quartet is a really great group, but actually, it was too expensive sometimes to always bring Kondo from Japan. He became very busy doing other projects also. Kondo and I, we still work together in different projects with Bill Laswell for instance. In Europe, Peter speaks about how Chicago was a new starting place for him. Also, he speaks about how it is wonderful for him to be a part of, and to see, and to experience this whole new generation of people that are becoming very much into his music. Of course, some people coming to him through knowing of his son, Casper Brotzmann, but also others from strictly Peter himself, listening to his music, knowing his music, and having an appreciation for his music. It is really delightful for him to see also, this whole new group of people, young Americans that are into his music. It is great to see that.
FJ: You are the most in demand drummer I know of, how often do you get to sleep in your own bed?
HD: (Laughing) The last couple of years, Fred, I have been gone more than I have been home, actually. I just returned home from touring with David Murray because I have been working with David now for the past couple of years. I leave tomorrow to do a couple of things with David and then I am off to start a six day tour of Europe with William Parker and Peter Brotzmann. Then I come home and I will be home for a little while after that. Lately, I have been gone more than I have been home.
FJ: You are in the studio enough with others, but only have a handful under your own name.
HD:Well, that is one of my resolutions for this year actually. I am glad that you mentioned that. That is something that I really want to concentrate on this year, doing more of that. It has been good for me to work with a lot of other people and to be in a very supportive role because that has its advantages, but one of my resolutions for this year is to begin the process of putting more things out specifically out under my own name.
FJ: There was Brothers Together (Eremite) with Sabir Mateen .
HD: Yeah, with Sabir. He is great. Sabir, he is a great musician, a great artist. I had heard Sabir play quite often from going to New York and everything, but playing with him was a whole other experience. I think he is great.
FJ: What are the various nuances between drums and frame drums?
HD: First of all, let me say that all drums are primarily string instruments (laughing) because historically, the skins for all drums was made from some animal part, some goat or cow or deer. Also, historically, in the past, all strings were also made from some animal part. So drums really, a drum head is really a large expanded string that is draped over something just as strings in the past were gut or goat skin that was draped over a pole. The frame drum is probably one of the oldest drums in the world. We see it in all the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, old Greek statues of people playing frame drums. It is basically a wooden hoop with a large stretched string or skin draped over it. So basically, it is a string instrument also. The frame drum is a type of, musicologists call it menbranophones. The frame drum is one of the oldest drums in existence. The only difference between frame drums and your modern, standard drum kit is that the modern, standard drum kit is played with the sticks. Traditionally, most frame drums with the exception of a few are played with the hands, skin on skin. There are some cultures that do play frame drums with sticks, primarily the Celtic culture from Britain. Some Native American cultures play the frame drum with a stick or a mallet. Frame drum is just a type of, one of the many varieties of drums that we find in existence today. Another unique quality of the frame drum is usually when people play the frame drum, they sing also. It is the drum that is easy to sing with. It is the same with congas. Very seldom do you see players of the drum set singing as they play. That doesn't seem to be a part of the tradition of drum set playing.
FJ: Art Blakey is not breaking out in song on his Blue Note sessions.
HD: Right. It has always been part of the tradition of frame drumming to sing as one plays and also with other types of hand drums too, the conga and stiff like that.
FJ: Have you reached the mountaintop?
HD: Oh, no. Definitely, I don't think I have reached it and I can't say when that might be. I think we are always experiencing hills and valleys. Definitely, I haven't reached it and I hope I never reach it (laughing). I always want to have room for more growth and development.
FJ: You are certainly on the hill.
HD: Thank you, Fred.