When Hamid Drake takes the stage at the Vision Festival on June 16th, the concert will be something of a signpost in the drummer's long career. It won't be, as many have assumed to be the case, the first time Drake has led a band. But it will be the first live appearance of Bindu, the first group he has led on record.
Drake has stepped up as bandleader as far back as the '80s, when he headed a group called Sama in Chicago. But as he became increasingly recognized outside his hometownplaying with Fred Anderson, William Parker, Peter Brötzmann and Ken Vandermarktime for leading his own group became hard to find.
"Over the years you think about a lot of things you want to do, but I'm very busy," he said. "My time has been filled by supporting the projects of others." That changed at the suggestion of the French record label RogueArt, which contacted Drake to lead a group for one of its inaugural set of releases. Drake immediately had a vision for a new band. "I knew that I wanted to work with five different elements and I knew I wanted a feminine presence," he said.
As the project developed in his mind, he grew interested in pulling together a bi-city band, connecting two scenes in which he has found homes but which are often considered quite discrete. "It was a feeling of bringing together musicians from Chicago and New York and bridging this illusory gap," he said. He began to see it as a horn-and-drum group and eventually enlisted New Yorkers Sabir Mateen and Daniel Carter and Chicagoans Ernest Dawkins and Greg Ward. But he was still missing the female voice he wanted, which he made up for by including Chicago flutist Nicole Mitchell on one track. But the long-distance arrangement had its drawbackswhile the group has been offered gigs before, scheduling has made it impossible up until now.
The band will be an ongoing group, but not necessarily with a fixed membership, Drake said. "I want Bindu to be an ever-changing, expanding project," he explained. "It can stay with the four saxophones or I can do something different. The whole concept of Bindu is to be able to adapt."
The name Bindu comes from a Sanskrit word meaning "subtle point" and also refers to a sort of energy that was believed to reside in the body. The name follows Drake's long practice of referencing spiritual systems in his band names and vocal compositions. Sama came from the Arabic word for "to hear" and in Sufi tradition also refers to a gathering of dervishes to listen to music and implies "being able to listen in another sort of way," Drake said. "It requires full-body and full-mind attention." But that system of naming and referencing, he added, isn't just simple cultural appropriation, he explained. "It's things that I actually believe in and practice," he said. "I'm not trying to be cool. It's stuff that I practice in my everyday life. A lot of it's tied to Sufism and Buddhism."
Drake's journeys in spirituality and improvised music date back about 50 years. When he was just two years old his family relocated from Monroe, La. to Chicago and moved in with a friend of his father's, who had also recently moved from Louisiana. The Andersons had a son in his late 20s named Fred and Drake grew up listening to Fred practicing saxophone in the basement and absorbring the South Side's many musical and cultural traditions. "Growing up in Chicago at that time, many of us were exposed to many things. I benefited from the many different fragrant breezes coming through."
He started playing in school bands, but at the same time was developing an interest in rhythm and blues and jazz. "When I first began playing drums, I was in bands at school but the music I was focusing on was R&B and soul," he said. "As I got older I got more involved in jazz rock and then hand percussion."
By the time he was 20, Drake (who was then going by the name his parents gave him, Hank, although the woman with whom he would have two children dubbed him Hamid shortly thereafter) was playing in a band with Anderson, Douglas Ewart, George Lewis and Felix Blackman. "That was when I started delving into the historical aspects of jazz and the great jazz drummers," he said.
But though it has been a thread throughout his career, Drake wasn't focused solely on jazz. He was soon making his living playing with reggae bands, doing shows with Sister Carol, The Heptones and Michael Rose, among others, bringing a bit of the freedom of jazz rhythms into his reggae gigs. When Drake came to international prominence in the '90s, that cross-fertilization and the backbeat and pulse he often brings to the music led to his working with the likes of Bill Laswell and John Zorn. At the same time, his jazz chops were keeping him in demand, working with such players as Marilyn Crispell, Pharoah Sanders and Mats Gustafsson.