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Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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AAJ: So you'd go on the road for a day or a couple days?

JB: Two days, three days, up and down California.

AAJ: With these Cuban musicians right?

JB: Yeah, with the Cuban cats, Chicanos, Mexicanos. The percussionist was Cuban.

AAJ: Was it a whole group of cats or was it just one band?

JB: One band, one particular band with some guys who I am still friends with.

AAJ: What tunes would you guys play?

JB: All original stuff.

AAJ: All original stuff? Did you have a background in Afro Cuban drumming at the time?

JB: No, that band was my background. That was where I grabbed all that information. It took me about a year to figure out whatever it is that was about the clave, you know. They'd start it in the middle of the phrase, in the middle of the clave, and I'd have to trick myself you know. I'd say "1-2-1-2-3-4" Mentally turn my "1" around for a long time because sonically, melodically, the "1 sounded in one place and it was really harmonically speaking, two beats later. So it took me a minute but we played a lot and they were so cool, they helped me out quite a bit.

AAJ: Wow. That sounds like a very fortuitous experience for a young drummer to have.

JB: Yeah. You could put that heading over everything. I feel incredibly lucky, you know. All the way through and up till now. What I heard first with [trumpeter] Mel [Lewis] and [Joe] Morello and Ed Thigpen—and also early on this great Brazilian music, super rich and soulful, [singer] Milton Nascimento, [Sergio] Mendes. So I didn't hear so much of a corny side of the music but a soulful side of the music.

AAJ: You heard the real side of it.

JB: Yeah.

AAJ: Were you listening to any Afro Cuban music at the time?

JB: With those guys, yeah. Stuff like Irakere and Los Van Van.

AAJ: So did you get into Changuito's drumming a lot?

JB: Yeah, a bit, but still I didn't have an overview you know, of what this guy had done. Enrique Pla was the drummer with Irakere. That's something I had to get together because the band was playing that kind of music all the time, either on their own or though a boom box, and you know it had to seep in.

AAJ: So growing up and being surrounded by all this music, was it all presented to you in boxes or categories or was it all just music. Were some things presented as "legit" and other things as "street" music?

JB: Right. No it wasn't so defined except concerning the parts to play. With that Afro Cuban band it also had a fusion of rock and funk inside of it too. There was an electric guitarist who was truly wild and a keyboard player. We were trying to play some of that Irakere music, or that flavor of music anyway. The leader wrote his own stuff, he played water pipes, guitar, flute. It was pretty wide open but it still had that distinct Cuban, or Latino flavor of course because there was percussion and the bass player was playing tumbao parts, but they weren't studied cats. They were street cats or self-taught players. They came homemade in a way, homemade and pretty damn open to experimentation in the music.

AAJ: Now do you feel like you're more out of collegiate learning or more just picking things up here and there—like you said a "street cat" who kind of put it together himself; homemade?

JB: I think a lot of it was that and then later on going backwards I analyzed it myself. I took a couple of lessons with one guy who could spell it out a little bit, but really putting it all together is really a homemade brew.

AAJ: That self-developed individualism really stands out.

JB: I think the lead for this that pulled me off in that direction was going after sounds rather than patterns, you know. I was still trying to figure out these patterns and play cascara with one hand and then a conga part with the other hand. But I was more interested in thinking that, "This sound is good, so I am gonna keep this, it sounds like the heel of a dancer's boot; and that sound is good and I am gonna keep that sound because it sounds like a hand clap or the side of a conga drum, and then to use all of them accordingly. So this just evolved into a concept as I was playing them, putting them into context; by playing them as if these sounds were individual players playing their parts freely. At the beginning I think I was blindly digging this and that sound—"Let me use this. So I was very lucky. I think coming from that place that open-ended approach really kept it like a 360 degree potential of putting stuff together.

AAJ: Did you play in rock bands as a kid?

JB: I played in a blues band but not so many rock bands. More blues bands and funk bands. I played in a cover band for a while, you know, where we played top 40 tunes. I had to sing on a couple tunes and play at the same time, you know. I sang some Kool And The Gang, and some Stray Cats.

AAJ: Stray Cats? You sang one of their tunes?

JB: Yeah, I think "I'm Gonna Rock This Town and Kool and the Gang's "Reggae Dancin' and some others. I remember being pretty embarrassed doing that.

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