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A Different Drummer, Part 1: Mark Lomax II and Mauricio Takara

Courtesy Yiannis Soulis

Karl Ackermann BY

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By playing the drums, I could progress freely in my own way, and drumming became a place of enjoyment and 'free' space for me.
—Dawda Jobareth, Gambian griot
The drum is an instrument of power and presence. It is the heartbeat of music but with uncertain origins. In Africa, China, and Turkey, archeologists have found evidence to suggest that any of those regions may have been the forebearers of the beat, of the definitive expression of freedom. Data concludes that instrumental music is at least 40 thousand years old, and drumming is possibly much older. Scientists have determined that pre-human descendants have been beating a drum at repeated intervals, making the next beat predictable—a preconceived drumming routine—for millennia.

The Drum in America

The Akan Drum of Ghana, now displayed at the British Museum, is the oldest surviving example of a West African drum from the United States. The drum arrived in Virginia on a slave ship and was made between 1700 and 1745 from two sub-Saharan wood species and a deer skin head. It is about the size of a beer keg. The Akan drum was a "talking drum" that could imitate the tones, punctuation, and inflections of the Akan language. It was also used in celebrations and religious ceremonies. Slaves played drums of many forms and sizes as part of African customs. The drumbeat accompanied chants and dances but was also used to send messages. Fear of slaves communicating through drum patterns led whites in some regions to outlaw slave drumming. Yet through body slaps, foot movements, and the improvised rhythms of fieldwork, the slaves kept percussion alive.

The drums of Native Americans were a way to communicate with the gods. The Iroquois and Yaqui played water drums made of wood or gourds. The Aztec and Hopi used foot drums: hollowed-out logs tapped with a stick. Hand drums continue to be the prevailing drums among Native Americans, the most frequently used being the double-sided hoop drum with rawhide on both sides. The hoop drum dates to the ancient Anasazi Pueblo culture of the Four Corners region of the Southwest. Native American nations primarily use various types of frame drums. With a few notable exceptions like the tambourine by artists such as Don Pullen and Hamid Drake, frame drums have had a limited presence in modern music.

In 1738, the Virginia legislature passed a law requiring Blacks and Native Americans to serve in the militia. Prohibited from carrying arms, the conscripts were assigned as military drummers and fife players on the battlefield. The tradition of martial drumming dates to ancient Egypt, China, and the Mongol army of Genghis Khan. Though poorly documented, thousands of Black Americans composed and played in these military bands and refined their skills throughout the War of 1812. By the late 1800s, military bands begat "brass bands," but the terminology is misleading. Most of these bands included a minimum of three percussionists and sometimes more than a dozen.

The indigenous people of the Caribbean, the Taíno, played numerous percussion instruments. Among them were log drums, barriles made from rum barrels and goatskin heads, maracas, and Cuá and Fuá wooden sticks. The Taíno of Cuba were enslaved and largely wiped out by Spanish colonists in the mid-1500s. Sugarcane production was then supported by chattel slavery of west and central African origin, and the surviving musical cultures blended. African slaves made up half of Cuba's population by the 1840s, and the complex rhythms of their religious rituals became the pulse of Cuban popular music. Unlike many of their counterparts in the US, slaves in Cuba maintained or reproduced some cultural artifacts, including their percussion instruments.

The Birth of the Drum Kit

The snare drums carried in a sling were reduced in size and adapted to a cradle or placed on a chair. The drummer would play the bass drum and snare simultaneously with both hands. A Turkish cymbal was also attached to the bass drum. The invention of the bass drum pedal was a drawn-out process, with prototypes emerging in the late 1890s but not fully developed until the '20s. By then, the drum set's typical composition included bass with pedal and attached cymbal, snare, Chinese and Turkish cymbals, woodblock, cowbell, and a tom-tom. Thanks to the pedal, drummers could use all their limbs with a free hand.

The modern hi-hat didn't appear until the mid '20s. It was originally called the "snowshoe" pedal cymbal and patented by the Ludwig company. Like that hi-hat forerunner, the "foot-sock" cymbal was also close to the floor. Both were replaced by the raised hi-hat in 1927. With this innovation, the hi-hat went from an accent cymbal to an instrument that could be played with sticks for more intricate rhythms.

The instruments that became part of the drum kit or "traps" came from West Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Turkey. "Traps" was short for contraptions: the noisy percussion add-ons used for sound effects in live theater music. All of these pieces likely came together in Cuba. Cuban musicologist Leonardo Acosta writes in Cubano Be, Cubano Bop (Smithsonian Books, 2003) that drummer César Arjona was playing a drum set in jam sessions on Chavez Street in Havana as early as 1910. That predates the documented appearance of sophisticated kits in New Orleans by almost a decade. Edward "Dee Dee" Chandler had popularized a pared-down version of the traps in New Orleans in 1896. He used an overhanging wooden bass drum pedal and snare drum while another musician played the cymbal.

From 1915 to 1940, a ferry service ran twice a day between Havana and New Orleans. In the incubator of early jazz, the confluence of drumming influences met in those two cities. No single country was more influential in the development of jazz percussion than Cuba, but Africa was always the common denominator.

Drummers

In Part 1 of this series, we hear from two drummer/percussionists whose ancestry figures prominently in their music. Columbus, Ohio native Dr. Mark Lomax, II holds a Doctorate in Musical Arts from Ohio State University. The drummer and composer has performed on stages from New Orleans to Prague, played with Bennie Maupin, Billy Harper, and Delfeayo Marsalis, arranged for symphonies and gospel choirs, and composed for string quartet. His groundbreaking digital album 400: An Afrikan Epic (CFG Multimedia, 2019) is rooted in some of the bleakest events in human history, but the music is more often exhilarating. Two of its 12 discs are all percussion. The First Ankhcestor is performed by Lomax and Afrikan percussionists Baba Mehib and Baba Barago. The closing album, Afrika United, is another solo percussion project.

Brazilian composer, drummer/percussionist, and electronic artist Mauricio Takara combines drums, bells, cymbals, gongs, voice, and synthesizer to lend extensive textures to his music. He has recorded with Pharoah Sanders, Yusef Lateef, and Japanese experimental multi-instrumentalist Kawabata Makoto and has released several solo albums. Takara is best known in the US for his work with the progressive math rock band Hurtmold, trumpeter Rob Mazurek's octet São Paulo Underground, and Black Cube SP. He has performed at numerous international jazz festivals including South by Southwest, Saalfelden Jazz, and the Belgrade Jazz Festival.

AAJ: Could you tell me about where you grew up and your earliest musical influences?

Mark Lomax, II: I was born in Blacksburg, Virginia but grew up in Columbus, Ohio. My parents work in the church as a pastor [father] and music minister [mother], so my earliest musical influences are spirituals, lined hymns, and gospel music (traditional, congregational, and contemporary). Both parents also traveled to Africa and brought back music for my brother and me. I wore out those tapes, so the music of west Africa, particularly traditional Senegalese music, is a huge influence as well.

Mauricio Takara: I grew up in São Paulo, and my very first musical influences came from family. I'm the youngest of three musician brothers, and my father was a musician too when he was younger. So music was always in the house. Early on, it was mostly my parents' records, things like classic '70s rock like Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and a lot of popular Brazilian music like Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, and Os Mutantes.

AAJ: What was the first instrument you studied, and when were you introduced to drumming?

ML: I began playing the drums at age two. At that time, I was assessed by a local music teacher and was found to be able to play as well as the 10-year-old whose lesson I immediately started playing as soon as I could get to the drums. From the time I could walk, I always ran to the instrument. My mother said I would tap rhythms on her when she held me.

MT: I started on acoustic guitar (like a lot of the Brazilian musicians) when I was around six or seven. I started playing drums when I was 11 because I wanted to form a band with my friends and no one played the drums. And I always thought that I could do it just by watching drummers play, so I built a four-part kit with paint cans and never stopped playing.

AAJ: What is it about drumming that appeals to you?

ML: Playing the instrument is like breathing. It's all I've ever really known. While I grew up in the midst of a Black American approach to the drum, I've always been more drawn to the African drumming tradition, where the drum has a more intentional and central focus related to communication, ceremony, and ritual. I am most attracted to the spiritual and communicative aspects of the instrument.

MT: I guess drums always fascinated me in many ways. First, because I've always felt like they are the motor of the music, and second because it seemed to me like it was something I could do just by banging on things in the house, which is something I still do all the time. There was something a little special about playing the drums for me because there were not that many drummers around me at that time. São Paulo is a huge city where most people live in small apartments, which makes it hard to play the drums. So there was also something a little magical and mysterious about it.

AAJ: Mark, your album 400: An Afrikan Epic is a recounting, an elegy, and a celebration of that continent and its place in the world. Do you feel a unique kinship with ancestors through your music?

ML: The music is a manifestation of my connection to the Ancestors. My father is one of the world's leading African-centered theologians. Through his work and my own research and engagement with African culture, cosmology, ontology, and spirituality, I've come into a more holistic way of being, which is reflected in my work as a musician, composer, educator, and activist.

AAJ: The legacy of the drum is ancient and historically significant. Do you think about the cultural and social symbolism of the drums?

ML: Always! I think the world would be better served if more drummers played from that perspective, regardless of genre.

MT: I do think about it in many ways nowadays, like the intrinsic power it has in human nature for example and how much humans have used it to communicate and celebrate and protest throughout history. Looking back now , I've always enjoyed all kinds of music, but what made me want to go out and play the drums was punk and hardcore music, which was not something you'd hear on the radio in the mid '90s in Brazil like it may happen now, and I wanted to play as powerfully and as fast as I could to make the music as in your face as possible. I think that was a way to get a lot of the teenage nonconformity vibe that me and my friends had at the time. That pushed me to go practice and get better on my instrument, which made me part of a big community of artists to this day. That's just an example of how playing the drums changed the way I live and see things, but there are many other aspects to it.

AAJ: How would you describe your development as an artist?

ML: My artistic development has been both organic and intentional. The Ancestors have put people in my path at opportune times that have pointed me in a particular direction, affirmed the path I was on, and illuminated possibilities I'd not yet considered. Some have been musicians, but most have not.

MT: It's hard to say. I guess I'm always looking for things that keep me energized, and through these 25 years or so that I've been doing this, I was lucky enough to encounter many great musicians that made me inspired and curious about new ways to make music and look at things. There's always so much more I want to try. So, I'd say my development as an artist is pretty much based on an interest in making and trying new things, which actually might even make my body of work a little unstable, but I don't care so much. I need to keep it exciting for me, and maybe it will also be it to other people.

AAJ: Mauricio, can you explain how the Brazilian Tropicália movement influenced music in that region?

MT: I think that was a very remarkable moment for the music in Brazil because it brought a lot of experimentalism and political ideas to a very popular type of music. That created almost a tradition in Brazil that got carried over to what came after to this day: the idea that popular music can be both experimental, political, and vice versa. I think "post-Tropicalia" is just a name people try to use for things that are influenced by the original Tropicalia, but honestly, I don't think it makes so much sense because it's such a different context now. I don't mind it either. It's just that maybe many other types of music made in Brazil now carry that same vibe of experimenting and being politically confrontational but in a totally new way and with a new sound.

AAJ: Who are your current influences, musical or otherwise?

ML: Kidd Jordan is my only real musical influence at the moment. He's more of a guru than a direct musical influence. My father is still a huge influence. The largest influence on my thinking and my work is the culture of Africa and its diaspora. The more I learn, the more stories there are to tell!

MT: Influences come from everywhere when I'm creating. Normally, it comes a lot from the people I play with. I think right now, because of the isolation, the place I'm living in (a beach town two hours from São Paulo) has been especially determinant. I've been exploring a lot of the house objects played with different types of sticks and figuring out new ways to play and manipulate percussion through electronics, and that has been very inspiring. Musically, it's really varied. I have been taking the time to listen and analyze some of the 20th-century western music like Varèse, Stravinsky, and Morton Feldman. I always listen to a lot of Brazilian music like samba and forró. My girlfriend, Carla Boregas, is also a musician and has also been a big influence in life and music.

AAJ: What are some of the tools and instruments you're using? Do you use any uncommon percussion effects along with a standard drum kit?

ML: Learning to play the drums well is hard enough. Especially in the direction I'm going artistically. My music does not call for any additional components to my kit.

MT: I've always really enjoyed experimenting with different objects and electronics. I think it goes back to when I started playing as a young kid, just messing around with what I had and my father's old delay pedal and tape machine. That said, I also really like playing the drum kit as it is. I think it's such a powerful combination of sounds. I play music most of the time, so I really enjoy alternating between instruments (strings, keys, trumpet, and flutes). That keeps me having new ideas. Sometimes, I'll take something I create on strings to drums and vice versa, for instance.

AAJ: What instruments do you use to develop your ideas for compositions?

ML: My formal training as a composer affords me the luxury of many compositional avenues. Mostly, I'm inspired by a particular narrative. As it develops in my head, I hear music as if it were a film score playing in my head. I start transcribing what I hear when it feels like a concrete idea. Then the composing begins! I only use the piano as necessary.

MT: It really varies a lot, but I do normally have an idea on my mind. It could be a rhythm, a melody, a sound, or sometimes even just a vague feeling of a texture. Then I sit down and try to translate it to an instrument (or an electronic machine) that I think will do it better. Sometimes I write it down on paper, and sometimes I record it on my phone.

AAJ: Over your years of playing, how has your practice routine changed?

ML: I've always practiced more in my head than physically, more because of time constraints than anything else. I went through a period of about 10 years where I practiced more than eight hours a day, as I've always held a "regular" job in addition to performance and composition. My time is limited. As Charles Mingus said, once you know the instrument, the rest is in your head.

MT: Actually, not that much in its essence. Solo music practice has probably always been my strongest connection to music. It's when I feel the most purely in touch with music, with no expectations or goals necessarily, almost like meditating. Of course, I sometimes also practice specific exercises that I feel the need to, and that's what changes the most with time. But I think it goes in cycles a little bit. I feel like I'm always going back to old routines and coming up with new ones at the same time. It's really " half going forward, half going backward" for me. It's all about playing and feeling comfortable and energized with it.

AAJ: What type of techniques do you practice to advance your drumming skills?

ML: Like most musicians, I continuously practice the basics: rudiments, singles and doubles. My concepts are developed mentally and experimented with in live performance contexts.

MT: Two things I'm always doing are [first] to improvise and play free with nothing on my mind—if I can—until it takes me to something I feel I can develop better, and then I'll spend some time with it. The other is hands practice: playing basic left and right rudiments and also trying to create new ones. I use that to compose a lot too.

AAJ: How has the pandemic affected you? Is it more challenging to keep your skills sharp when you're playing in isolation?

ML: As with all musicians, the pandemic cut me off from other musicians. Instead of live performances with my ensembles, I streamed more than 30 episodes of "Drumversations," a solo performance and conversation about various aspects of being from the spiritual to the political. You can check them out here.

MT: [The pandemic] changed things a lot because playing live was a huge part of my music life (and my income too). But at the same time, I had more time and opportunity to work on some things with more focus, not having to practice for a specific concert, etc. I feel good about having had music practice as a constant during this time. I know a lot of musicians that had a hard time keeping it going, but it is a totally strange situation. It feels like you're practicing the most you've had to in a long time for a concert that's never going to happen. It's a pretty Zen thing.

AAJ: The musicality of drummers/percussionists can often be overlooked. Bill Bruford said, "I've always seen the percussion or drum part for the song as being a standalone little work of art that, should all the other instruments be silenced and the percussion soloed alone, would still sound unique and interesting." How do you experience the drummer/percussionist as not being limited to a rhythmic role?

ML: I create the musical contexts that I work in, so this isn't an issue. Prior to my becoming a bandleader, I was usually one of the composers and always knew each tune inside and out. As a teenager, I was often calling out the changes when the bassist didn't know what we were playing! This wasn't always appreciated though.

MT: That realization came to me through jazz. When I was really young and starting to play drums, I'd play along with some of my parents' records, and I remember trying to play with some Art Blakey and Max Roach recordings and being totally intrigued by what they were doing. That was really mind-blowing at the time, and I started trying to take that more melodic and improvisational approach to punk rock. Luckily, the bassist Marcos was (and still is 23 years later) really good, so it opened up a lot of possibilities to me. Later on, I got into contemporary percussion music and that also inspired me a lot to create in new ways. But I think coming from both Brazilian music and punk backgrounds has always been a little bit of a challenge for me, finding that balance between playing more open but keeping the motor going. So I'm always going back to many of the great jazz drummers who are masters at that.

AAJ: What components do you need in the kit to be able to play melodically?

ML: I need a kit that sings and has a spirit. This is why I travel with my own custom RBH Drums USA kit as often as possible. As it relates to my approach, most drums don't meet my musical standards. I tune the drums to an altered pentatonic scale that affords me a maximum rhythmic and melodic flexibility with a limited harmonic capacity (thirds, fourths, fifths, sevenths, and an octave).

MT: I like playing just the toms with nothing else sometimes. That pushes you to naturally be very melodic. But honestly, nowadays I enjoy playing with whatever parts I have. Sometimes I'll strip down my playing to just one or two parts as a creative exercise, and I find that very useful. I don't drive a car, so for a lot of the improv gigs, I'll just take what I can carry by bus and use some objects from the place I'm playing at.

AAJ: All art has some historical context, even if unintended. Max Roach was the first drummer/composer to make a definitive full-length political statement with We Insist! (Concord, 1960). What are your thoughts about the function of music in raising awareness on political or social issues?

ML: Max wasn't the first. His work and that of Mingus and others come in the tradition of the recordings of the spirituals and the blues that preceded them. Recordings of artists like James Reese Europe, Ma Rainey, William Grant Still, and Bessie Smith are all in this tradition. In the American context, Black music has always been an act of resistance—whether subversive or not. Even the ability to sing about having a good time, love, and dance in an oppressive context is a revolutionary act. Any Black artist not creating with a consciousness of that tradition has not tapped into the fullness of their power and that of Black music to elevate and transform humanity.

MT: I personally think that the music itself has no function exactly. It's kind of like a world in itself, and that's what makes it so special. But I do think that once it is presented to other people (through records, concerts, education, etc.) it becomes a very powerful communication tool. Maybe because it is more abstract in material terms, it can be very open to many types of political use. I come from a third world country with endless social and political problems, and I've seen music be a life-changing factor in many people's lives, bringing ideologies, a sense of community, or even a profession to people.

AAJ: What has been the most significant event in your career?

ML: The most significant event in my career to date has been the release and subsequent tour in support of 400: An Afrikan Epic. To have released 12 full albums with seven different ensembles on a single day and take this story around the country proved that Black artists in America can be successful telling our stories, as opposed to the prevailing narrative that "art" has to be culturally, politically, and spiritually empty to be of value in the "market place."

MT: It's hard to say. I guess the very first time I sat down with a band and made a song will always be very significant. But I've been very lucky to have had the opportunity to play with a lot of very important and amazing artists and also be friends with very inspiring people. Having played with Yusef Lateef, Pharoah Sanders, and Nana Vasconcelos were very remarkable moments in my life.

AAJ: What is the best advice you've received about playing?

ML: An elder once told me that the goal is to remove myself in order to allow the Ancestors to play through me. They know better than I what the audience needs to heal.

MT: One time I was a little nervous when I was going to play with the bassist William Parker for the first time. I told him and he said, "music always works if we work as human beings." And I thought that was beautiful and true.

AAJ: Is there a bucket list of projects related to drums/percussion or composition that you plan to undertake in the future?

ML: I'm currently working on a few commissioned pieces: a cello concerto, a piece for string quartet and soprano voice, and a piece inspired by the work of [artist] Aminah Robinson. I plan to compose an oratorio about reconstruction and the nadir, and am working on a recording that will accompany the release of a book I wrote called Toward a Politics of Humanity. I have the next seven projects sketched and planned. Now, I'm saving the money needed to bring them into being!

MT: Normally, I don't make long term plans so much, and right now, even less. But one thing I've always thought about is to write a piece for a larger group of percussionists and other instruments, like 20 people. But I normally just work on things day by day and do what I have to do or feel energized to do at the moment.

Selected Discography

The Ogún Meji Duo: #BLACKLIVESMATTER (CFG Multimedia, 2020)

The Ogún Meji Duo is drummer, composer, and educator Dr. Mark Lomax, II and tenor saxophonist Edwin Bayard. The pair have worked together regularly in duo, trio, and quartet settings and notably on Lomax's groundbreaking 400: An Afrikan Epic (CFG Multimedia, 2019).

#BLACKLIVESMATTER was recorded in 2014 to memorialize the hundreds of unarmed Black Americans who lost their lives to lingering, grotesque systemic racism. The album makes a powerful statement that could have been a response to Emmett Till in 1955 or George Floyd in 2020.

#BLACKLIVESMATTER is a three-part suite running almost 45 minutes. It opens with "Amerikkka" and a fiery sermon/history lesson from Jeremiah Wright, President Obama's former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. About one minute in, the toms slowly rise like an approaching storm, Wright accelerates through a litany of governmental failings, and Lomax quickens his pace. Seven minutes in, Bayard joins with a fiercely reimagined sampling of "America, the Beautiful," breaking it down to rage and discord. "Stop Singin' and Start Swingin'" begins with the words of the late Afrocentrist psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing followed by Malcolm X. When the duo joins in, it is with an extended and incendiary free improvisation that doesn't let up for the next ten minutes.

Civil rights activist and Black Panther Party leader Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael) picks up the narration in the final minutes of the movement. He reminds his audience that "You can only win freedom on reason," urging conscious—rather than unconscious—rebellion. The final section, "Black, Beautiful, and Powerful," is introduced with a segment from the speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the night before he was assassinated in Memphis. Bayard's anguished tenor and Lomax's thundering drums express a visceral sense of desolation. Dr. King finishes the piece by urging black Americans to secure their emancipation.

Lomax and Bayard are wise to have let the spoken narratives interweave with their playing. It appropriately designates the human voices as essential instruments on #BLACKLIVESMATTER. It makes the message inescapable. If that's uncomfortable to some, so be it. The suite runs counter to complacency and does so passionately, effectively, and without reticence.

São Paulo Underground: Cantos Invisíveis (Cuneiform Records, 2017)

In the spring of 2015, Rob Mazurek's São Paulo Underground expanded their touring formation and added "Black Cube SP" to their name for a tour that briefly made stops in the U.S. The enlarged group featured Thomas Rohrer on the rabeca, a Brazilian viola. Rohrer, a Swiss native transplanted to Brazil, was part of Mazurek's sextet on Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost (Cuneiform Records, 2014) but had not yet been fully introduced to US audiences. On Cantos Invisíveis, Rohrer returns in a pivotal multi-instrumental role.

Rohrer is not alone in multitasking on the album. All members of São Paulo Underground manage at least five instruments in the course of the nine original compositions. Mazurek owns or shares the writing credits on seven, and percussionist (primarily) Mauricio Takara contributes two individual pieces.

With the opening, "Estrada Para o Oeste," we hear São Paulo Underground in one of their most enjoyable modes: skewed Brazilian influences filtered through an array of instruments, effects, and voices for a mind-boggling density of sound. Takara's cavaquinho (a small Portuguese guitar) and Rohrer's rabeca add an exotic and shadowy feel to "Cambodian Street Carnival." "Lost Corners Boogie" is the most fusion-oriented piece with its electronics eventually falling into a ruptured rhythm. The repetitive tribal atmosphere of "Olhaluai" flows beautifully into the melodic "Of Golden Summer." The 16-minute closer "Falling Down From the Sky Like Some Damned Ghost" takes its time building, swept up in a flurry of synthesizer effects until Mazurek's ethereal cornet delicately closes the piece.

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