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Ted Sirota: Drummer with the Soul of a Rebel

By Published: April 12, 2004

I think that what I strive for is my band is to do something different. I don't want the band sound like any other band. I don't want people to listen to it and say, 'They sound just like so-and-so.' I want the sound of the band, the voices and the vibe of the music, to be able to tie anything together.

Ted Sirota out of Chicago is a thinker. He’s politically astute and socially conscious. He’s also a musician, drummer and composer by trade. He sees struggle in all realms — political, social and art — but he rolls with the punches and moves with the times. And he’s combined a sound statement on the political and social scene with some outstanding music on his latest CD.

Breeding Resistance by Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls, the band’s first release on Delmark, is a recording marked by different musical influences. It’s improvisational, and mostly jazzy, but reggae and other influences can be heard. The band is tight and the musicians — whether in ensemble or solo — are doin’ it.

It’s deliberately done as a statement, and on both a musical and social level it’s an exceptional achievement. The music pulls you in and the titles, and other elements, like the “power to the people” chants on “Chairman Fred” (written for Black Panther Party leader Fred Hopkins who was killed by Chicago police in 1969) get the message across.

“I think this is a crucial time,” says Sirota, with turmoil around the globe and political posturing in the US that is unpopular among activists.

“I don’t think art and music alone is going to fundamentally change anything. But everything that exists in the superstructure of a society is more like a battle for ideas. I think that’s really important because I think that has an impact on who controls society and how long they are going to control it. So whether it’s music or the debate on evolution — there’s a large segment of the people in the US today who are fighting to ban the teaching of evolution in school — to me, that’s part of the battle for ideas and I believe music exists within that battle as well.”

Sirota, who turns 35 in May, has been politically conscious since his teen years. It didn’t come from his parents, he says. But they didn’t discourage him. He could be found taking a bus to Washington D.C. or downtown Chicago to protest things that weren’t going right in South Africa or Central America. That’s important to the drummer, as is his music. Even though the name of the band, Rebel Souls, is indicative, as are the names of his previous albums on the Naim label — Propaganda , ...vs. The Forces of Evil and Rebel Roots , he says this CD was his first true opportunity to make his political and social statement, while at the same time creating damn good music. (Good music is the hallmark of all the Naim discs).

“I was wondering and debating and studying these kind of questions for a long time, like 20 years now,” he says. “But as a musician or artist, I’m not always free to put that out there the way that I want to. I can put that out on my own, but if I want to use a record label or CD as a medium to present some questions and ideas, there’s a lot of restrictions there, generally. And in the past, I’ve faced a lot of restrictions as far as what I was allowed to say and what I wasn’t allowed to say. So this is really the first time I felt relatively free to express myself.”

Sirota only had a few months to put together the music, once the deal was struck with Delmark. “When I looked at the current situation in the world, and when we would be recording, and seeing what was going on around me, especially in the US, but globally, I had to ask myself: Do I just want to put out a record about my pets or a summer home or the yacht I want to get? Or do I want to try and have an impact on a situation. I just felt like the timing of putting the record out was important for me to make a statement and get this line out into the debate while I had a chance.”

He put together tunes like “This is a Takeover,” “Huntsville, TX” (where 310 people have been executed under death penalty law since 1976), “Breeding Resistance,” and “Saro-Wiwa” (the last name of a Nigerian rights activist hung with eight others in 1995). And bandmates brought in songs as well.

“The reaction so far has been really positive. A couple of people have said, ‘nah, I don’t like it too much.’ But you’re not going to please everybody. I knew that by staking my ground politically, there’s always a chance you’re going to alienate some people who are just turned off by that or disagree with it. But overall, I’m happy with the way the record came out, especially considering the circumstances.”

Sirota has an education from the Berklee School of Music in Boston and cut his teeth with contemporaries there, as well as stalwarts of the Chicago scene. Jazz, blues, reggae, ska, rock, funk are all part of his bag. And it shows on his albums. Breeding Resistance is no different. The musicians — Jeff Parker on guitar, Geof Bradfield on sax, Clark Sommers on bass and Jeb Bishop on trombone — pull it off beautifully, never lost or weak in delivering each flavor. The horns particularly are brash, searching and expressive; the guitar constantly creative, whether understated or bold.

The beat of “Saro-Wiwa” is infectious, assisted by the horns before a funky sax solo and charging, twisting ’bone. (Bishop is something to behold on trombone). “Chairman Fred” and “Martyrs” are freer, the solos skipping through and over a mountain of Sirota polyrhythms. “Elegy” provides a luscious ballad moment. “This is a Takeover” shows the drummer’s love of reggae and is a superb mix of creative jazz horn lines over Bob-Marley-with-a-twist beats. The music is different than a lot of what’s being put out. But it’s par for the course for Sirota. His Naim discs have tunes by Ornette Coleman and Monk, and the originals, whether by Sirota or bandmates, show influences of sources from Mingus to Marley and from straight jazz to hip-hop. High-caliber stuff.

Sirota let the band know what the theme of the new CD would be, and it did not all come in under a rebellious premise, “but I like all the music that people brought in and that was the determining factor and not how radical the message was. I figured I’d bring enough of that myself to tie the record together, hopefully. I also felt like I don’t need to beat people over the head with it so much. So I’m running a band and I don’t want to be a dictator. I want people in the group to be able to express themselves freely as well.”

“I think that what I strive for in my band is to do something different. I don’t want the band sound like any other band. I don’t want people to listen to it and say, ‘They sound just like so-and-so.’ I want the sound of the band, the voices and the vibe of the music, to be able to tie anything together. So if we want to play some Indonesian music like we did on one of the records, and then something that’s influenced by reggae, then we can do it and it will sound cohesive because of the approach and the sound of the voices and stuff,” says the drummer.

“I feel like I have a pretty open mind in general. To me, it’s such a cliché, but music is just music. I’d much rather play with a good salsa band or reggae band or any kind of band than some mediocre jazz band playing standards with no arrangements and the same solo order on every tune,” Sirota says. “As I was learning the music, that really right away started to turn me off a lot: how people take these structures that had been embedded in the music just because, and were not really challenging that or questioning that. That kind of stuff gets under my skin. But I don’t really have any problem with a band that does just one thing, as long as they do it really well. When I have been criticized, it’s when people say I’m trying to do too much, or it’s not focused or whatnot. But to me, music is just music. I’m not the one putting the label on it. They are.”

Sirota’s influences come from the music he heard growing up outside of Chicago on the 1970s and 1980s. He dug classic rock. He played drums from the age of 10 and took both private and school lessons. As a teenager, he played in a basement band that did covers of B-52s, Cars and Sex Pistols songs. In junior high, it was “The Clash and Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, the English beat. Stuff like that. And then from starting to hear some of these British second-wave ska bands, like The Specials and that kind of stuff, I discovered Bob Marley and then I got really into reggae music for a long time.”

Jazz was more gradual, spawned not by anything he heard, in particular, but his desire for more musical challenges. “I started when I was 10, so the physical nature and the challenge of the coordination of independence of playing the drums is what really led me to jazz. There was a point where my teacher, she felt like she couldn’t teach me any more. I was at her level. And then it just sort of led naturally to playing jazz on the drums because it involves another level of independence and coordination. I was intrigued by that challenge. Then I started to check out the music because of that. It wasn’t like I just discovered Charlie Parker and never looked back. The instrument sort of led me to the music.”

He discovered the Jazz Showcase in Chicago and would go there after his drum lesson. “That’s where I heard Max Roach and Roy Haynes and Billy Higgins, along with Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson, Tony Williams, Art Farmer, Benny Golson. I heard all these people. So seeing the music and hearing it at the same time, then I really started to get into it pretty heavily,” he says. The proliferation of classic jazz records reissued in CD format in the 1980s also helped his appreciation of the music and he spent time investigating it all. “Obviously, I didn’t grow up with that [jazz] era. I grew up where a lot of us were listening to rock and roll and punk rock and all this stuff. I feel like it’s somewhat reflected in my music with this band and it’s just a natural thing with me. It’s who I am. These are my influences. I try not to filter them out too much.”

After high school, Sirota knew he wanted to be a musician, but was skeptical of college. “I had an idea of bourgeois education and what they are trying to teach me to do, and I didn’t want to have any part of it. But I went and part of that was to appease my parents. But there was so many great musicians there when I was there. I knew they were great at the time, but I didn’t know at the time it was going to be sort of a Who’s Who of mid-30s jazz musicians.” Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart, Kurt Rosenwinkle, Chris Cheek and more were at the famed school at the time. Sirota studied with Allan Dawson and Joe Hunt. There were also other good musicians in Boston and the drummer made lifelong friends and contacts.

It was about five years later that Sirota returned to Chicago and hook up with Parker and others he knew from Berklee. “As soon as I got to town, I was trying to get gigs so I could make rent. I pretty immediately started playing with a tenor player by the name of Lin Halliday. He was kind of a local legend. My name started getting around a little bit. People, I guess, would say I could play time so I started getting calls. Through Jeff (Parker), I met Rob Mazurek right away and George Fludas and so many good musicians here. It wasn’t like a big break in Chicago. It’s kind of like a working city. You just sort of get worked into the scene. There’s only a handful of national touring acts. It’s different from New York in that way.”

He got chances to play with Chicago greats like Von Freeman, Jody Christian and Fred Hopkins. He’s played blues with Pinetop Perkins and Eddie Kirkland. And for about a decade, he plays a Saturday night gig with Sabertooth at the Green Mill, band he says combines straight ahead jazz with covers of Grateful Dead or Allman Brothers tunes.

As one would imagine, from listening to his music, Sirota does not see himself as a “jazz guy.” To the drummer, it’s more of a search and desire for new challenges. “In a way I look back and I feel like the things that I’ve been most known for and most known to other musicians for aren’t even really quite represented on my records. At times, I’ve been sort of typecast as a bebop drummer. And I haven’t really played any bebop, any real just straight ahead swinging music on my records. It’s not that I don’t like it. I guess it gets back to just trying to stake some different ground. There’s so many people doing it. There’s a lot of people that that’s all they do. A drummer like Kenny Washington or Joe Farnsworth or, here, George Fludas. Those guys play that style just so strong and so well. But that’s kind of all they do on record,” he says.

“I guess I’m trying to put forward myself. I think I’m a unique person and I think everybody’s unique. But I have confidence if I just put forward who I am, in whole, then it will come off as sounding somewhat unique. But I guess I’m always trying to surprise myself too.”

He admits it may not always work. And on some gigs, he gets tired of sounding the same, quipping that he thinks some nights “if I have to hear myself play one more set I’m going to vomit.” But he works on, knowing that out there lies “the challenge of surprising yourself, reaching out and not being afraid to fall on your face and take the risk to approach the unknown and surprise yourself as far as how you sound.”

“When you can, and when you can play in the language of bebop, you can get categorized as just playing that. I feel that I’m pretty good at playing straight ahead jazz,” Sirota says. “I don’t think of myself as a just straight ahead jazz guy, but a large part of my influence comes from that.”

As far as Rebel Souls, things are moving slow, despite the critical success of their CDs. A lot of it has to do with the music scene in general. Some of it has to do with the fact that each member is also busy in other bands and getting other work.

“At times we’ve had steady gigs here in Chicago, like a weekly gig here and there. We just did a little bit more high-profile gigs here in town, sort of centered around the record. But we don’t play that often, unfortunately, right now. But I’m hanging onto the group and trying to just keep it going to get myself in that place strategically where we will be able to,” he says.

“A trio of us, Geof Bradfield and Clark Sommers, we went to Germany last spring for about a month. Germany and Austria. Hopefully we’ll be going back there in October or November. So there’s more interest developing in the band around the world and I think those three weeks is going to help a little bit with that. It’s hard financially to make it all work.”

Sirota does freelance in Chicago and has a studio for recording and giving lessons. studio. “I do play with other great musicians around here as well. So I’m always busy. But I have a family. I have two kids so I always have to make sure I’m putting food on the table. So I can’t take too much risk. That’s sort of why the band hasn’t gone out in the US too much outside of the Midwest, because it’s too hard for me to negotiate being able to leave and not make money for a week or two weeks or a month. I could never really afford that. But I’m getting to the position where I have to start doing that, going out for jaunts and at least trying to break even. But it’s rough out there.”

Many musicians are discouraged with the music scene as it exists today, with gigs and recording dates harder to come by. But Sirota holds his head up. “I have faith in the people. I get discouraged. I get dark and depressed when I think of the situation as well. It kind of fits into what I’m talking about on the record, that oppression breeds resistance. I’m not going to get into what I think the solution is. That’s a whole other subject. But we live in a society where everything is judged and valued by its quote-unquote profitability. Whether it’s going to make a buck. Whether it’s religion or pre-school or education or art, everything single thing is stamped with that brand — whether it’s going to make a profit. This music is just not going to make that much of a profit in this environment. So it’s destined to be shunned and shoved off the table.

“Even the stars of the music. They might have nice homes and they’re living pretty comfortably, but compared to stars of other kinds of music, it’s small potatoes. So I’m not optimistic that the system is just going to change on its own. But I’m optimistic when I see how many people are dissatisfied and disenfranchised by the system, even within the music world.”

Resistance just might be breeding, waiting for the offspring of change.

“Everyone thinks they’re the only one. That’s the problem now. Everyone thinks it’s them against the system and nobody else thinks like they do. But I do think that now, in this environment, people are starting to realize that they’re not the only one. And the more that people can realize it and then start organizing, I think there is a potential for sure to start turning things around. Put the power back into our own hands. That can translate to the music industry as well,” he says. “So I do have some hope, but it’s very hard to make a living here as a working musician. It’s definitely a challenge and the decks are stacked against you.

“There was an article in the Chicago Tribune this week by Howard Reich, talking to Herbie Hancock. Herbie was like, ‘It’s bleak.” And he was saying how much things have changed so much since he was a youngster coming up. And say, if people like that are getting knocked down a notch in a certain way, what does that mean for someone like myself?

“But we do it because we love it. We feel like it’s right and it’s the right thing to do, so we have to keep doing it.”

Hopefully, Sirota and other creative musicians can stand up one day and declare, “This is a takeover!”


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