Harris Eisenstadt: From Mbalax to Canada Day
AAJ: Could you give us some background on how you got to Gambia and how these things developed?
HE: I owe two people a lot for this: Adam Rudolph, a drummer whom I've known since the late 1990s, and Foday Musa Suso, a kora player. They were both in the Mandingo Griot Society back in the 1970s and '80s. Suso has lived in the States since 1977, though he's Gambian and spends a lot of time there too. Adam connected me with him and I stayed with Suso and his family, and he organized traditional drumming teachers for me. I showed up at the airport in Gambia in the middle of December 2002, and the next day I was taken to the drummers' compound and every day for the next two months I studied traditional Mandinka drumming. I went to all the traditional events that they played forweddings, baby naming, life cycle changes, manhood and womanhood training, and things like that. Senegal was my second time in Africa and to compare it to the first time, well, the first time was like your first kiss in high school.
AAJ: In these cultures that you're spending time in, music is such a basic part of life and one uses instruments to communicate whether ceremonially or something much simpler; music is woven into the basic fabric of existence. As an improviser, have you had a resulting change in how you approach playing on a day-to-day basis?
HE: That's a tough question. Even though the roots of Jazz and improvised music are in large part African, the literal day-to-day involvement between African musicians and the jazz community these days seems pretty few and far between. I play Sabar drums for Senegalese dance classes in New York, and the lead drummer has played with [drummer] Joe Chambers and [trombonist] Craig Harris and a bunch of other jazz musicians, but this seems like the exception rather than the norm. He has an awareness of jazz but in general, he seems much more interested in morphing traditional Senegalese drumming and dance into a tightly-choreographed stage show. Music is part of the social fabric for them, and it was often perplexing to folks in Senegal and Gambia that I was interested in their traditional music"What do you care, you live in America and you're a tubab [white person/foreigner]."
They're flattered and they think it's cool, but I gave a copy of Guewel to the lead drummer of this Sabar group, who is a really fantastic, Art Blakey kind of drummer, Cheikh Mbaye. He's a big, strong guy who has a band called Sing Sing Rhythms and is an incredible, thunderous lead drummer, choreographing long patterns for musicians and dancers and so forth, and he never said a word about it. I wasn't surprised, but wanted to him to have it anyways. I do feel that, coming from my background, it's not the most logical or easy connection to make between the two musics, but it's always moved me.
AAJ: It's funny, you have the Dialogues of the Drums that Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille and Rashied Ali were doing in the 1970s and '80sa sort of community-building effort through Free Jazz, and it seems like they were trying to do something in which art music could be woven into the greater cultural fabric.
HE: Right, and it's a beautiful idea, not disingenuous at all. But if you have a concert of improvised music, with four rumbling free jazz drummers in an African audience who are used to dancing, they're going to be confused and will ask where the beat is. It's a bit of a stretch, and the ideals of music in cultureit's not that they don't translate, it's just elusive to find the right metaphor to make it work.
AAJ: How did you get onto this musical path and become a drummer?
Guewel (l:r): Nate Wooly, Taylor Ho Bynum, Mark Taylor
Harris Eisenstadt, Josh Sinton
HE: My dad was an amateur drummer who played in a rock band in college, the Checkmates. As a five-year-old listening to my dad playing along to Rolling Stones and CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival] cassettes in the basement, it just seemed cool. Loving the drums came from loving my dad and wanting to be around him. I started with snare drum and then drum set, and I played in concert band in junior high and high school. I actually quit for most of high school, and came back to it in college and got serious again. I went to college in Maine to play hockey and baseball at Colby College, quit that the first year and played in a rock band doing gigs on campus and around New England. That's what I did throughout my entire undergrad until 1998, and after hearing Tony Williams and Elvin Jones I began distancing myself from rock music. It just went from there.
AAJ: That took you to CalArts, then?
HE: Yeah, in a roundabout way. After undergrad, I moved to New York in 1998-1999 and was working for the Knitting Factory Records label and doing some stage-managing for their Bell Atlantic and Texaco jazz festivals. I had formatively inspiring experiences there, seeing as many drummers as I could, and that's where I met Adam Rudolph, when he was playing with [multi-instrumentalist/composer] Yusef Lateef. He told me that Wadada Leo Smith had set up a program at CalArts, and as it was in its infancy, Leo was able to set up scholarship money and I ended up getting a two-year tuition waiver. I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and I ended up staying in LA for five years until moving back to New York in 2006.