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Winard Harper: Multicultural Ambassador

By Published: October 30, 2006
WH: I guess a little bit of both. Most good jazz musicians have a love for and a good understanding of history. That's what I've found. When you sit down and talk to them they can tell you about the history, the environment around themselves and around the music that helped shape the music. So I've always had a love for studying that context. The history of Africa, of African Americans, from slavery on up. It helps you have a better understanding of what the music is, what it comes out of, and what it is about. All of those things have helped shape me and what I am trying to do with the band.

AAJ: That's a good bridge to asking you about the Balafon. At performances you always say its too long a story, so now's our chance to find out more about how you got involved with this fascinating instrument.

WH: I have to attribute a lot of that to Billy Higgins. Billy would share with me a lot of the musical things he would hear and he was working on. And it got to the point where he'd show me some things and I'd start messing around and exploring them to and I'd throw things back to him. And we got together one day and he started telling me about the slit drum, which I used on some of my earlier recordings. It's like a box with slits in it and each one has a different tone on it. I started using those, but those are very delicate so they crack easy. And I was going to a lot of shops—African shops, instrument shops—to see what I could add to my sound. One day I was at an African flee market and I found a little, small Balafon and I started taking that on gigs cause it was easier to carry then the slit drums. And I really loved the sound of it. It moved me. It spoke to my soul.

AAJ: It's captivating and totally distinct. Somewhere between a marimba, it has an African quality to it, and sometimes almost an east Asian quality.

WH: I call it like the great-grandfather to the marimba and the xylophone. They came before those. It's all handmade. Animal skin, wood, gourd, and the sound is just so incredible. So I started picking them up wherever I went. And the tuning on all of them is different depending on the tribe or where it comes from.

AAJ: Have you traveled extensively in Africa then?

WH: No. All those things you can find here. I find them and I add them to the music. I gotta say that's also something I got handed down to me from Jackie and Billy. Billy had this knack for picking up instruments and just exploring, seeing what sounds he could get out of them, you know what I mean? And that is what I try to do. Just pick things up and see what I can do with them. Not necessarily play them the way they would in their native country. I take it how can I integrate that sound and the soul of it into what we do.

AAJ: What do you think distinguishes world music from jazz?

WH: I've never really thought about it in those terms. For me we're just playing—like Duke Ellington, there's good music and bad music—when we step out I just want to play good music. Jazz is just the basis for me because that's what I came out of. But we try to add things. Sometimes we have funk grooves, go-go, some Caribbean, some African. It's a little bit of everything mixed in.

AAJ: I want to switch gears again and talk a little bit more about your background because you so clearly bring so much of yourself to the stage. You are very much a family man, if I understand correctly you have eight children, is that correct?

WH: Yes.

AAJ: How do you balance the demands of touring with your family life?

Winard Harper WH: The best I can! And it comes from having a strong and good partner. And making sure to always stay in touch and make sure everything is right and good.

AAJ: Do any of your children play with you like you did with your siblings?

WH: One of my sons is interested in playing the drums. He came and played on one of the recordings. It's not something I force on them. A couple of them are playing in school. We'll see what happens.

AAJ: You're Muslim, is that correct?

WH: Yes.

AAJ: Is that a family tradition?

WH: That depends, when you say family, yes it is a family tradition in my musical family. A lot of the jazz musicians studies or did take that route. Jackie McLean turned Higgins on, and in turn he helped steer me in that direction.

AAJ: So it comes from your study with these musical mentors.

WH: Just being inspired. I'd be out on the road. Maybe Billy was working another theater and he'd come get me after the show and say, "Man, I want you to come somewhere with me and he'd go and take me to the mosque. Introduce me to that wonderful way of life.

AAJ: You're music speaks of a high level of spiritual commitment. Even the names of the songs often incorporate messages of peace. Is that something you are trying to express through the music, an element of your faith?

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