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Billy Cobham: Rhythm Is A Sonic Mirror

Walter Kolosky By

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AAJ: You are working on another new project.

BC: It will be called Fruit from the Loom and put out under my own name. It will include many artists whom I have performed with in the past like Ernie Watts, Dave Samuels, Randy Brecker, Carmelia Ben Nasur, Frank Gambale, Victor Bailey, Jean-Marie Ecay, George Duke, Christophe Cravero, Junior Gill, Stefan Rademacher, Guy Barker, Marco Lobo and others. Much of the music on this project reflects how life for me has changed over the past ten years or so since my last individual project, Focused (Cleopatra, 1999), was released.

[Note: Perhaps it is Cobham's dedicated involvement in the making of the recently released documentary film Sonic Mirror, from respected director Mika Kaurismäki, which will prove to be his most rewarding and important musical experience. Sonic Mirror attempts to show the importance of rhythm as a tool of social and psychic understanding. Billy Cobham's performances are at the core of the movie.

Kaurismäki and Cobham were introduced to each other by Kaurismäki's sister many years ago. The idea for doing a movie about Cobham and his music took root back in 2001. Kaurismäki says, "The idea was first to make a more classic portrayal of Billy Cobham and his career. But then we started to think of other ways of doing it. We finally decided to do a film about Billy and some of his projects and focusing on rhythm and music as communication and universal language.

Cobham and Kaurismäki began looking for sponsors by approaching different cultural organizations. It took about four years of fund-raising, filming and editing before the film was ready in 2007. The film had its premiere in Switzerland this past spring and is slowly making its way through the Scandinavian countries. Its full release schedule is still to be determined.]

BillyBC: As usual, "money and time to complete such a project is always at the heart of this type of thing. We could have used a lot more money, which would have helped us govern the time factor better from many aspects. I found it tough to get into a rhythm of thought around this project. I had to continue to think about everyday aspects of my life; while not letting myself become too optimistic regarding the positive factors surrounding Sonic Mirror. Even now I find myself speaking guardedly, because I am still surprised that the film has been released.

AAJ: The director wanted to make a documentary about how rhythm, your drumming, would affect different social and cultural groups. Did you and Mika choose specific destinations for the filming or were they planned around your extensive touring itinerary?

BC: I remember discussing locations that would be "must have spots with Mika. So, we ended up with a short wish list of possibilities. The list included Nigeria, but that country was thought to be too volatile to work in. We reluctantly backed away and instead brought the musicians to Switzerland for the project involving the autistic community near Bern. Because of his major connections in Brazil and my affinity for the music of that region, Mika and I settled upon including that musical environment in the film; along with Finland, Mika's birthplace. We wanted to choose radically different social environments for the musical presentations so that we could drive home the idea of music being an alternative communication to other social applications and various therapeutic processes. In this way the main point of the movie would be driven home.

AAJ: What is the difference between recording an album and being followed all over the world by a film crew?

BC: One has no time to get into a "rhythm. You take the time and space available to you and do the best you can with it.

[Note: According to Kaurismäki, Cobham was very involved in the cause and the direction of the film. "Billy was part of the creative process from the beginning and he approved our script and concept. It was very much Billy's point, that music is the universal language. I believe that the film proved it. This is especially so of the workshop with the autistic people which made a great impression on him - and on all of us involved.]

AAJ: You played in several different cultural and social contexts to gauge the reaction of the listeners. In one case, you played for people with autism. What do you think the listeners took away from these encounters? What did you take away?

BC: I learned, again, to take life one step at a time. I watched, as the watched became the watchers; where the autistics effectively became the teachers for a brief few minutes. They were deeply touched by their exposure to the music. This confirmed to me that music is the universal language and can be used to help bridge the gap between all who live on this planet. In this way the experience made me a stronger person with a better understanding of how the world turns. I believe that the project really made a strong impact in many areas of the social environment. But it remains to be seen what the future holds for the film's impact should there be any on the world populace.


[Note: Kaurismäki says, "It was clear from the beginning, that Billy would be the focal point of the film. I have the feeling that Billy liked our concept, not only presenting him as a great jazz drummer, but also as an artist, who's constantly looking for new directions, influences and ways to use music—like the use of music as a therapeutic tool. I also believe that it was an important 'journey' for him personally. It was a kind of a 'back to the roots' trip. ]


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