Mike Rivard: Entranced By The Music

Paul Naser By

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As globalization blends cultures and markets more and more everyday, it is only natural that artistic traditions and the artists that study them do the same. Mike Rivard is a leader in this regard, pioneering some of the most unique blends of musical styles and sounds today. Talking to him about his band Club d'Elf and his new project, Grand Fatilla, revealed a number of diverse influences that shed some light on the roots of the one of a kind voice he and his many collaborators have been developing.

All About Jazz: Where did you go to school?

Mike Rivard: I went to high school in Minnesota, and came out to Boston to go to Berklee after that. While I was at Berklee I took Ken Pullig's class on the music of Charles Mingus, and there met Russ Gershon who was forming a band called the Either/Orchestra. He asked me to play bass in the group and that's kind of what got me started gigging in Boston. One thing usually leads to another, and through that association I met and began long relationships with John Medeski and Mark Sandman. Mark had a group called Hypnosonics that he asked me to join, and I ended up doing some recording with Morphine, too. Through those connections I hooked up with other musicians, and like a fractal it just kept spiraling.

I drew on all of those relationships when I eventually formed Club d'Elf, starting with just getting my friends involved, as an excuse to play instrumental music with some of my favorite musicians in an open setting without any singers to get in the way! It grew from there; people would recommend other people, and I would met other cats and invite them in. In the 16 years the band has been around I think there's been upwards of 100 people who have come in and out, with about 20 of whom are frequent offenders.

It's a rotating cast, with the constants being myself and the drummer. Dean Johnston has been the drummer for the last eight years, and Erik Kerr was the drummer for eight years before that. Other drummers have come in and out, including Kenwood Dennard, Adam Deitch & Eric Kalb, but for the most part its been Dean and Erik.

AAJ: From the way you describe it, it sounds like Club d'Elf is just you and a bunch of your friends playing, but the band has a very recognizable sound.

MR: I guess the people I hang out with tend to wear a lot of different hats stylistically. As with most bands, the sound comes about through all of the influences we absorb, and there have been many along the way. While at Berklee I got involved in West African music through Joe Galeota, who was teaching Ghanaian drumming while I was there, and that was really influential. I met Jere Faison and Jerry Leake through that connection, who became part of the early D'Elf. Through Jerry I ended up joining another band called Natraj, led by Phil Scarff. That band was mixing North Indian classical music with West African Dagomba and Ewe music in a jazz style. Through them I got to work with Ghanaian master drummers Godwin Agbele and Dolsi-naa Abubakari Lunna. Eventually Dolsi-naa did some recording with Club d'Elf. He's on a couple of tracks on Electirc Moroccoland/So Below: Trance Meeting and As Above, playing the talking drum. He was a heavy cat and it was a great honor having him play with us, even if he called it "Nonsense Music"!

So I had been into West African music and Indian music and then I started gravitating more towards North African music, through listening to records Bill Laswell was putting out like Night Spirit Masters, which was Gnawa, and Apocalypse Across the Sky, which was the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Mark Sandman turned me on to a CD by Hassan Hakmoun called Gift Of The Gnawa which really piqued my interest in the sintir and I became determined to get one and learn to play it. I had met a Moroccan musician named Brahim Fribgane in New York on a gig at The Cooler in '99, and he eventually moved to Boston and joined Club d'Elf. That pushed the band in a really strong North African direction, and through Brahim's connection I got a sintir and threw myself into learning that and incorporating it into the band. That was a really significant step, meeting Brahim and learning to play the sintir and adding that element to the sound.

AAJ: What exactly is a Sintir?

MR: It's also called a guimbri, and its from Morocco. It's a three string bass lute with a camel skin top. It's kind of a drum and a bass all in one instrument—in fact it sounds like a tuned drum. Hassan calls it the "1000 year old bass," and it really is ancient. It has a sound unlike anything else, and when I first heard it it spoke to me in a way that was really powerful, like few things in my life. It's very percussive, very rhythmic sounding, which isn't surprising given that its part drum. Besides Hassan I was listening to people like Maâlem Mustapha Baqbou, Mahmoud Guinia, Hamida Boussou, Abderrahim Paco from Nass El Ghiwane, and tried to emulate what I heard them do. You couldn't find videos of them playing like you can now on Youtube, so I was left to my own devices and the tips that Brahim and Hassan gave me along the way.

The sintir is a pretty special instrument, and it's used by the Gnawa people in healing ceremonies. That's another thing that has attracted to me to it, this connection with healing and spirits. I frequently go into trance when I play it, and have come to find an energy flowing through it when I play that is not about me, you know? I take it very seriously and say a little prayer when I pick it up, because its serious business. In Gnawa music it's the only featured instrument, usually with just singing and these metallic castanets called karakab. From a bass point of view it's pretty easy to get hooked into that music, because it's a bass instrument that dominates the sound. The sound of that instrument and the setting in which its used really spoke to me, and that's been my passion for the last 15 years or so: learning that instrument and incorporating it into the band's sound.

You asked previously what our influences are, and if you had to limit it to say seven albums you could pretty much come up with the basis for what we do by listening to these: Panthalassa, which is the Bill Laswell remix of electric Miles Davis; Gift Of The Gnawa; Hallucination Engine by Material; DJ Shadow's Endtroducing; Square Root of -1 by We��; Liminal Lounge's Pre-Set; and Incursions In Illbient. The electric bands that Miles had in the late 60's/early 70's was certainly a really strong framework for what we do, where there's a lot of improvisation coming back to and starting from set themes. Also I was listening to a lot of Squarepusher. Combining that with the Gnawa music, Moroccan Berber music and different other influences like Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Weather Report, the usual stuff. For me as a bassist, I would say Dave Holland, Michael Henderson—the Miles connection; Willie Weeks, Tony Levin, John Wetton, James Jamerson, Mick Karn, and the Gnawa guys.
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