What brought you to the drum?
It was definitely smoking pot that inspired me. When I grew up everybody seemed to think that I had no musical abilities whatsoever. In school, on the first day of song class, we were tested. I was told to sing a patriotic song and, without knowing it, I went a half tone up in the middle of the song. The teacher took this as a personal insult, like I had done it on purpose, and I was classified as ‘brummer’ (growler), which meant someone who could not be taught to sing.
There was not much music in my childhood. Morning song in school was about all and I never gave it much attention. When I was twelve we got a record player. My first record was one out of a set of four with the beginning and the end of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. It made me realize that at least I could appreciate music. Later I got into jazz: Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and from there to Charlie Parker, be-bob and so forth. But I was convinced that playing was beyond me. I have told before how I drummed the first time shortly after I started smoked pot.
What was the next step?
Oh, drumming was an obsession among the hippies and I loved to be immersed in the trance of drumming. It was all improv and the problem was that nobody really knew what he was doing, and it would often end in confusion. Thunder-drumming we now call it!
So, when did you begin to study drumming?
In 82 someone at Vajrapani Retreat Center arranged a drum class with Arthur Hull. It was an eye opener and inspiration for me. I mentioned it to Gabriel, my Haitian friend in Berkeley, who had once engaged a Haitian drummer at one of his parties. He is a great arranger of parties and the next time I visited him there was another party in his home Saturday night. I retired while the dancing was still going, and I had just left the shower when Gabriel asked me to come back in, so I went as I was: completely naked. The reason he had called me was that he was giving me a Haitian drum, and it was quite symbolic that I received it in my birth suit.
The drum was carved out of one piece but had split in three pieces. It took me three years before I got it fixed. The first two were very rainy and the situation at Vajrapani didn’t leave me time to work on the drum, but the third year I finally got to it, gluing it together, painting it and putting skin on it.
Now I thought of Arthur Hull and decided to show him the drum. He was enthusiastic and asked me to bring it to his Haitian class, so they could see a genuine Haitian drum. At the class they asked me to play with them and I discovered that I could do most of the parts. I realized that I could learn traditional drumming and Arthur knew how to make it fun. He had a mountain class and I started going once a week.
When did you start to perform?
I kept going to class with Arthur and when the class became his advanced class he wanted us to “graduate” and become a performing group. So we became The Rhythmonauts, the explorers of rhythm-space. Arthur had many contacts to local venues and groups, and he got us gigs as warm-up band and such.
Our most challenging engagement was opening for King Sonny Adé, a real African band. They were so nice and encouraging; as I have found that all Africans are when they see that you are interested in their culture. Always very positive!
Did you do “graduate” studies?
With drumming study never ends. My second teacher was an African-American drummer named Simbo. He said that he would teach if I could get a group together, and that ended up being the Rhythmonauts. Simbo was strong on Afro-Caribbean and Senegalese drumming and for over a year we studied every Saturday afternoon with him. He also had a dance company, Ghost Productions, and we performed with them too.
How did you become a teacher?
It began with Mabiba Beagne who settled down in Santa Cruz to teach dance and drumming. She is Congolese but has studied in Guinea and she started a dunun class. I liked that so much that I concentrated more and more on West Africa, especially Guinea. They play three dununs with djembes.
Sorry! Dununs are barrel drums with cowskin at both ends and they are played horizontal with a stick in the one hand and the other hand plays a bell attached to the drum. They come in three sizes: the small one is called Kenkeni, the middle one is Sangban and the big one Dununba, meaning big dunun. With them plays several djembes. The djembe has a bowl with goatskin connected to a hollow foot and is played with the hands.
So, through Mabiba I met Lamine Dibo Camara who did workshops in Africa and I signed up for that winter. I came back from Africa with a lot of stuff and in order to practise it, I had to teach it to my friends. That was the beginning, but I really like teaching and I mostly do it for free just to spread the good vibe. The more people know the more fun to play.
You are still playing at the age of 82?
Yes, I play, but I don’t play for dance classes much anymore. I tire more easily and you can’t just stop in a dance class. Simbo once said to me: “I should have met you ten years earlier and I would have made you a master drummer.” That was a nice compliment, but it also points out the truth that you have to begin early if you want to reach the highest level. I was about 60 when I started. Many of the young ones who studied with me has now by far surpassed me, but I’m still good at teaching beginners and I have two classes a week that I enjoy very much.