Hamid Drake: Percussion Functions
Tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and percussionist Hamid Drake have just brought a capacity Lisbon, Portugal, crowd to its feet after an exhilarating hour-plus exchange at the 2002 Jazz em Agosto festival. The organic flow of materials was frictionless, cresting and ebbing with an ease reflecting their decades-long association. As the set unfolded, Anderson’s trademark crouch, which signifies his entrance into a zone of streaming creativity, became more pronounced, lasting for prolonged stretches that would test the stamina of a man half his age.
Anderson, the septuagenarian co-founder of the AACM, holds out his tenor in an offering gesture, which incites the audience to another wave of cheers. Drake stands next to him, beaming, with one hand on Anderson’s shoulder. They nod to each other and, suddenly, Drake goes to the chair on which his frame drum leans; this suggests another encore, given that the quietly indefatigable Anderson seems constitutionally incapable of quitting if he has one more in him. Instead, Drake picks up the mike, bringing an instant silence to the hall.
“I’d like to dedicate this concert to Fred Anderson,” Drake begins. “Since my parents passed, Fred is the one person I’ve known for as long as I can remember. Without Fred, I wouldn’t be here playing the drums right now.” Even the non-English speakers knew something heavy was said, as the raucousness was conspicuously absent in the applause upon their exit.
What made the homage especially poignant was that it was Hamid Drake’s 47th birthday.
Musicians become ubiquitous by various means. Sometimes it is the result of strategic planning, rotating projects and synchronizing tours and CD releases. Sometimes it’s a fluke, being at the right place at the right time playing the right thing, the proverbial beating of a butterfly’s wings that creates a tidal wave of media and marketing. Hamid Drake, however, has ambled into ubiquity, taking a circuitous route through traditional African and Indian music, R&B, reggae and various stripes of jazz for more than 25 years. Every step along the way, he has pursued a functional approach to percussion that, in placing the music of a Fred Anderson in its brightest possible light, honors the spirit and sense of community connecting jazz to traditional music worldwide. In this regard, Drake’s art has an aspect of duty about it, so it’s no surprise that, at the moment when the drummer himself should be toasted, he praises an elder who has shaped his life.
Still, it is the resurgence of free jazz and improvised music in the U.S. that has precipitated Drake’s current stature.
The reason the improvised-music community has championed Drake is simple: he brings a unique, uplifting energy to the table, whether singing a Sufi devotional song while accompanying himself with a frame drum, or connecting the dots between modern and traditional rhythms on a jazz kit. Subsequently, Drake has been the magneto for some of the most important recordings of what is arguably free music’s Silver Age: Peter Brötzmann’s Die Like a Dog (FMP, 1994); DKV Trio’s Baraka (Okka Disk, 1997); the Fred Anderson Trio’s Live at the Velvet Lounge (Okka Disk, 1999); William Parker Quartet’s O’Neal’s Porch (Centering Music, 2000; reissued by Aum Fidelity, 2002); Jemeel Moondoc Trio’s Live at the Glenn Miller Café, Vol. 1 (Ayler, 2002). Two Drake duo CDs deserve honorable mention, as well: Piercing the Veil (Aum Fidelity, 2001) with Parker; and Brothers Together with Sabir Mateen (Eremite, 2002).
Despite Drake’s somewhat mercurial stage presence—he can fiercely summon the furies to spur on Brötzmann, or serenely create balmlike rhythms in duo with Parker—the drummer is something of an Aesopian tortoise, steadfastly pursuing musical and spiritual discovery—he has delved deep into both Islamic Sufism and Tibetan Buddhism—unperturbed by the ephemera of the jazz game. In that regard, Drake’s like Anderson, who resisted the allure of New York and Europe when many of the best-known AACM musicians quit Chicago in the ’70s. Instead, Anderson stayed and he was crucial in keeping creative music alive in Chicago, especially in his own legendary club, the Velvet Lounge. But Anderson and Drake’s shared nature is not surprising given their shared history.
Anderson and Drake are both from Morn, La., where Drake’s parents first knew Anderson and his wife, Burnoose. For a period of about four years, beginning when Hank Drake was eight—the name change to Hamid occurred in the 1980s—the two families lived together in Anderson’s Evanston, Ill., home. For Drake, it is a fondly remembered time: he had Anderson’s three sons to play with; the four parents were close friends; and there were the great sounds Anderson and cohorts like trumpeter Billy Brimfield were making in the basement.
“There’s this image that I have of Fred that I had then and continue to have until this day, that’s one of discipline,” Drake says, the day after the Lisbon duo concert. “I remember Fred always going down to the basement and practicing. And he practiced quite a bit. That’s something he maintains today. He’ll go down to the Velvet in the mornings when it’s closed and practice. I think discipline is something that’s strong within Fred and I think that’s really shaped his life, even today.
“That early childhood exposure to Fred has had an effect on me. To be somewhat successful on an instrument, it takes work. It also takes commitment in all aspects of your life. I think that’s important when you consider why Fred never left Chicago. He had a wife and three sons, so it was important for him to stay in Chicago. It would have been difficult to move them, and he realized that some people really had to stay behind and maintain the music in Chicago. In his lifestyle and as a human being, Fred is very consistent with what he creates. His music is his word, and his word is his bond. That’s a rare quality these days.”
Anderson’s influence was not obvious when Drake took up drums at 10 by default—the trombones had already been handed out to other kids in the grade school stage band, so he was relegated to the percussion section, where he alternated between the snare drum and the big bass drum. As a teenager, Drake was immersed in R&B and funk, listening to everything on Motown, Stax and Atco he could, and playing in small groups. Drake became seriously interested in jazz when he was 16, but not to the exclusion of funk. By the time he began gigging and recording with Anderson in the late ’70s—a period well documented by the excellent two-CD Dark Day (Atavistic/Unheard Music Series)—Drake was also delving into reggae with bands like the Itals and the Heptones, and exploring traditional West African music in Mandingo Griot Society, led by Foday Musa Suso, with high school friend Adam Rudolph. (The Eastern Delopments label just released Drake and Rudolph’s collaboration under the
Hu Vibrational moniker, Boonghee Music 1, a hypnotic collection of West African-
derived percussion duets.)
Drake says, “It took me a long time to realize that all of these different stylistic worlds have the same source: rhythm. Once I understood that, I no longer saw conflicts between styles, and I understood that I could use any of them as the music required at any given time. Once I understood all of these styles as rhythm, styles became qualities. Now, I don’t even think in those terms. I read articles that say I’m an improviser that likes to play grooves, which, from my worldview, is not a big thing. These articles suggest that when you improvise you have to subtract everything that suggests a groove. Improvising isn’t subtraction; it’s addition.”
From Suso, Drake learned that traditional African drumming is “a communal thing based not so much on improvisation but playing from the place of your function in the group. Within that function, there is a certain freedom. Now, in an improvised setting like the one I have with Fred, there’s a function we each have; it’s not based on patterns, but in the level of communication that we have. It’s about communication, too, in traditional African music, but in a different sense. It’s not so much based on how well you improvise, because if you listen to a lot of traditional music around the world, there’s actually not a lot of improvisation, as we understand it. I remember when I first studied Indian music, they were telling me it was 90-percent improvised. But the more I studied, the more I realized that wasn’t the case. There’s a lot of specialized things that you play within a specialized context, but you can’t interject these things anywhere. The music doesn’t have that kind of freedom, whereas, the way we improvise in the West, a person is able to do that. Because of the nature of the music, you have time to find a way to make it fit, and even if it doesn’t fit, it can be viewed as an attempt. Experiments are allowed.”
For Drake, the challenge in experimental music like Anderson’s is “finding new ways of communication that aren’t based on your function being one particular thing. We do that through listening, sharing the lead roles, which doesn’t occur normally in African music. When you have a group with a kora player, that person will always have the lead function. Those roles have shifted in Western improvised music. Now, the drummer can take the lead role. It’s constantly shifting.” Drake says that when he plays with Anderson, “There’s information that’s being telegraphed back and forth between us. It is very subtle, so sometimes it may seem he’s directing me to do something specific, or that I’m directing him, but it’s actually the opposite. He may do something so minimal that the listener may not perceive it as important, but it can trigger something that’s very sophisticated. It isn’t always immediately clear because there is so much going on.
“I think this improvised music can transmit so much information between musicians because it’s flexible and playful,” Drake says. “So, you can go from student to accomplished musician to student again in one piece. Fred is an accomplished master, but he can take on the role being a student while he’s a master. To me, that’s very significant. That shows a great deal of egolessness. Also, it shows me that when you know a lot, you’re aware of what you don’t know. That’s a very evolved quality. I think Fred would say that what he doesn’t know outweighs what he does know. And he’s lived a long time. But he has the sensitivity and understanding to know that he’s always on the path of discovery.”
When asked about the milestones on his own path of discovery, Drake is quick to cite a 1978 concert with Don Cherry in France. “We were playing a composition of Don’s with a Blackwellian groove, the type of New Orleans thing that’s in traditional musics around the world. There was a phrase that we were supposed to repeat three times and then stop together. I was so happy to be on this gig with Don that I just went out there. I was gone, pure delight. Then I hear Don reciting the phrase way, way, way out there. The band stops, except for me. I’m going. I finally open my eyes and they are looking at me. So, Don starts up the groove again, recites the phrase again, and everybody stops. Afterward, Don in his very cool way says to me, ‘Ah, I see you like to go into trance when you play, which is cool, but you still have to pay attention.’ That was one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had. It taught me so much about drumming and music. Prior to that, I was probably very self-absorbed. Don told me to listen from a holistic perspective, to really hear everything going on around me. That really set me on a path to figuring out my function. Even though a lot of traditional music deals with trance, you have to be awake. I’m probably still asleep, but I’m trying to wake up.”
Drake also praises William Parker for showing him “new dimensions of percussion. William has this ability to play so open, but also so deep in the pocket that it’s locked down. His time is open, so fresh. It was the portal I was looking for in my own playing. I don’t know if William is consciously assisting me in this or if it’s just what he does. Working with him allowed me to find a way of doing that myself, where the whole function of what could be called groove is looseness. This may be very conceptual, but the way I experienced it was that the groove and the openness were the same thing.”
Ultimately, years trekking the path of discovery have taught Drake to discount notions of progress. “I just try to set an example—your personal life is the best example you can set,” he qualifies. “I’m not always sure how to impart something that’s really meaningful to others. You just have to be who you are in the moment, and I’m still exploring that myself. I’m still on the path of listening and hearing, and having a view based on expansion. It’s important to be able to ask yourself at any given moment, ‘Can I receive?’ That’s a moment-by-moment situation. I don’t want to complexify the simplicity of it. It’s doing the best you can.”
In addition to professing a love of everything from the Meters to Javanese music, Drake cites the following titles:
Max Roach Members, Don’t Git Weary (Koch Jazz)
Don Cherry “Mu”: First Part and Second Part (BYG/Actuel)
Old and New Dreams Old and New Dreams (ECM)
Alice Coltrane Journey in Satchidananda (Impulse)
Pharoah Sanders Karma (Impulse)
Hamid Drake alternates between two kits. He plays a late ’60s vintage Slingerland set (22-inch bass; 12- and 13-inch mounted toms; 16-inch floor tom) or a Gretsch kit (c. 1968) (20-inch bass; 13-inch mounted tom; 15-inch floor tom). Drake has snare drums made by Thomas, Remo and Ludwig (the latter, dating from 1962, has a wooden frame). He uses a 22-inch old A Zildjian, a 22-inch Zildjian China splash and, occasionally, a 20-inch old A Zildjian sizzler on the left side. He uses 14-inch Sabian hi-hat cymbals. Though he has a considerable collection of hand drums, Drake travels with a Remo frame drum. He uses Vic Firth sticks and mallets.
Originally published in November 2002