Scott Amendola: Unlimited Possibilities
Increasingly, Amendola has reached beyond his drum kit in search of additional textures and sounds. A frequent sight in his performances now is an electric mbira an African thumb piano with a pickup attached. "I've taken it to a few workshops and clinics recently, and the hands always go up: what's that? Workshops are a good opportunity to use it because I don't have anyone providing a melody there. So I can make a few melodic loops with the mbira and then play along with it, get into that sonic world, that chromatic space. And then I can take it out, play a little more, put it back in... I've done that with my own band and with the Nels Cline Singers too. And sometimes when I'm playing with CRATER and just improvising I'll try to come up with a couple of lines or something. But then I'll just get totally whacked with the distortion on it and do something really crazy."
Nels Cline (L) and Scott Amendola (R)
"We've played a few gigs, each time with different people, mostly just with bass and guitar. But we've also done 'Big CRATER' with lots of different people. Jeff Parker's played with us, and Nels. It was amazing how there weren't any limitations. It was a real marriage of electronic, acoustic and electric music. And everybody was improvising but it had a real groove concept, and we'd hit a lot of things that seemed like songs. We'll do it again."
Another factor that frequently manifests in Amendola's work is his political viewpoint, which lies at the core of who he is. One look at his song titles "Resistance," "Cesar Chavez," "A Cry for John Brown" or his recent reading list, which includes A People's History of the United States, is enough to gain an inkling of where Amendola is coming from politically. "Definitely from the left," he confirms, adding that if he weren't a musician, he'd probably want to focus on history, perhaps as a teacher or researcher. "When I first moved out to California, I did a lot of political activism work, but that stopped once I started working more. I still sign petitions and stuff, but lately it's coming out more on a creative level."
"Like on Cry it was really timely, with George Bush and the war in Iraq and all that. With that record there was a definite slant towards some pretty heavy feelings. That record's dark. And I chose to cover Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" on it. The record got a lot of attention because of that track. "Masters of War," the way we did it, was about rage and anger and expression, but still beauty. I remember I gave the album to one guy, someone I've toured with, and he told me that he enjoyed the record but when he got to that track he had to turn it off. It was just too heavy."
Believe, released more than a year later, had a different vibe. "There's still some politics in there, but I was leaning towards a more positive side of things. We recorded that record in the summer of 2004, before the election which for me was just a disappointment and I felt that the future was bright. A lot of people were organizing and connecting, and sure there were a lot of things we needed to figure out, and a lot of changes to be made, but I wanted to come out swinging and thinking positive."
This same sense of community organization pervades Amendola's sense of who he is as a musician. When the subject turns to the intersection of music and politics through such efforts as Live 8, his passion is evident.
"I think it's important to raise awareness, and to help people, like after Katrina and things like that. But oftentimes I think that musicians get mistaken for something that they're not. I think that sometimes instead of playing music on behalf of somebody else, we should just let them speak. Like at Live 8, there was this whole struggle with Bob Geldof and a lot of other people over the lack of African bands, when they're the ones who should be speaking and the rest of us should be going to hear what they have to say. Instead the message gets lost. I think that's true for a lot of things."
"I've been reading this book called No Logo by Naomi Klein. It's about branding and how corporations have gotten involved in everything. One of the things they've gotten involved in is concert promotion, and now a lot of times the brand like "Molson Presents" is much bigger and better promoted than the actual music. Sometimes I feel that's what's going on with events like Live 8. It's all, "U2! Green Day!" and where's the message? I'm not sure it's actually helping. It's not exactly hurting, but there needs to be a more selfless attitude about it."
"When I make my records, there's definitely a political angle on it that's my personal position, that's my form of expression and it's a very self-motivated thing. I don't know if it raises awareness or not, and that's okay because it's really just about self-expression. But how could you have a concert about Africa and not let Africans express themselves? People are gonna tune in to see Pink Floyd reunite or whatever and then shut the TV off, and what good does it do? Humanity is losing its focus. We have attention deficit disorder."
African music is dear to Amendola's heart, and his albums often feature an element of Afrobeat, the funky style made famous by the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti of Nigeria. The liner notes to Believe include a shout-out to Fela's longtime drummer, Tony Allen.
"Tony Allen is one of my heroes. He completely changed the concept of funk playing and made it this African thing, he's like Elvin Jones playing funk, and with an African sound. There's an element of dancing on the drums in Afrobeat, a lot of subtle things you can do. I remember when I was in college, playing Afrobeat with some guys, and we could stay on one groove for an hour. But it's so infectious and there's so much happening, it's really deep and profound."
"I once met somebody who spent six months in jail with Fela, and it was amazing just to hang out with this guy and learn about what was going on. Fela's concerts were also political rallies; he was always fighting for the people, and he was a huge voice. I've been attracted to this music for a long time. There's an entrenched sense of community in it, and a real energy."