I first started drumming over thirty five years ago. While vacationing as a little boy in Puerto Rico with my parents, I sat by the hotel pool in front of the salsa band, amazed and intrigued. My father had no idea what he was getting me into! I was disappointed at the hotel Christmas party when my friend got the bongos. My gift was a toy car.
After we returned to New Jersey, I bugged my dad, a jazz enthusiast, to get me a Mexican conga drum. In the mid-70’s there were no conga teachers around, so I took drum lessons.
For a time, my father was part-owner of a commercial music magazine, a “trade rag”. Sometimes he brought home free albums. One cover, with its ornately-carved drums and the beaming smile of the artist, intrigued me. It was Olatungi’s classic, “Drums Of Passion”, which has subsequently sold in the millions.
Listening to Olatunji and Santana, I practiced day and night on Indian clay bongos. In high school I joined a jazz fusion band.
During the summer, I hung out with my Greek- American friends, aspiring musicians. Underage and hungry for live music, we snuck into a local club at the beach. The conga player, amused by our enthusiasm, let us play his drums during the breaks. Despite being underage, we were never thrown out.
At Rhode Island School of Design I joined the jazz orchestra, in spite of my lack of training. I was playing in a night club one evening when the sax player’s friend came. Without asking, he set up his three congas in front of the stage, playing on every song and continuing even when the band stopped!
When I asked him why he played so much without being invited, his reply was unforgettable: “If you don’t play with or listen to musicians better than you, you won’t learn or improve.” At this point, I was a “thunder drummer”, banging away with no technique.
Shortly thereafter, I left art school to devote myself to music. It was a major turning point in my life, one that would alienate me from my family. In Boston I studied drums and macrobiotics.
My childhood friend George gave me my first lesson, teaching me how to correctly slap the drums. He turned me on to his friend and teacher Nuru, an amazing six-foot tall tower of strength of African-American and White parents. She taught me the fundamentals, a necessity in any discipline.
Excited to be in a group, I paid for my lessons a month in advance and applied myself diligently in the classes, often conducted outdoors. We played for dance classes, something I still do thirty years later.
She taught me the language of the drum; that drumming is music, not banging. Furthermore, that traditional rhythms were important in societies, presented at rituals, weddings and public functions. They have names and patterns. There are several parts, with each drummer holding his own rhythm while the lead player solos – talks, you could say – over the steady beat.
Although it was difficult for me in those days because of prejudice, it was even harder for Nuru. Men in the drum community were adamantly against woman encroaching on their turf. Dedicated, we both endured the pressure.
She tuned into a spiritual place and let the music come through her. Beside memorizing rhythms and practicing them, I learned, by observing Neru, the importance of The Circle: being positive, looking at and connecting with the other drummers. Since then, The Circle has been utilized to great effect everywhere from jams on the beach to corporations.
After a stint studying bongos with some Puerto Rican brothers, I ventured south to bohemian Key West, Florida where I busked for months on lively Mallory Sq. Pier at sunset. All the nights I jammed and the variety of drummers I played with were infinitely beneficial.
Once I was confident enough, I teamed with some local Puerto Ricans and a dancer and established our own gig at the other end of the pier. Rumba was our thing. Now professional, I paid my rent with rolls of quarters.
The dancer and I embarked on a journey in a beat-up old van, which miraculously delivered us to the West Coast and the glory of California. Soon I was a fixture on the UC (Berkeley) campus, drumming with musicians I still play with and know.
One of these guys, an innovator and motivator, introduced the djembe, at the time unknown to us. He formed us into ensembles (vocal, too) with lots of hand percussion. Not only that, but he taught us to make “shekeres” (beaded-gourds) and drums from discarded barrels.
I started jamming at the local UC (Berkeley) campus in Sproul Plaza in 1978, and met several drummers who I am still playing and associated with today. My first teacher in California was Simbo. I met Simbo through Jerry who is now deceased, but at the time was a regular out there. Simbo introduced the Bay Area or at least the local drum scene to the djembe which, for all intents and purposes, was not in use yet. He tried to convince the conga drummers to expand their horizons and try different forms of music. He would entice them to parties that had food (they were nearly always broke, hungry, horny and looking to get high). After he got them stoned, he would form them into various groups such as all-vocal units or miscellaneous percussion ensembles, including one with only tuned-bells.
Simbo would experiment with traditional concepts and arrangements, for which he was heavily criticized. Later, the same critics played what he had developed when they heard the Cubans doing them. He was ahead of his time. He orchestrated beautiful African-inspired and Afro-Cuban pieces. An innovator and genius, Simbo was a pioneer in composing such music. He sparked an idea that I materialized, which was to fuse African with Western music. I had the Western instruments play percussive rhythms and blended the traditional chants with Western harmonies , the result being a gentle fusion of East and West.
My next major influence was John Amira, who lived in New York. I studied traditional Afro-Haitian and Afro-Cuban with him in Manhattan. In 1985 I took my first trip to Havana, Cuba to study with the legendary Pello El Afrokan. Ten years later, I returned, it being such fertile ground for learning.
I was traveling to Santa Cruz, California a lot in those days. Marion, the African dance teacher who I was working with, hired me to organize the undisciplined drum scene there.
At drum classes on the hill at Santa Cruz College, I put people in a circle (like Nuru had) so they would have to look at each other, as opposed to having them sit in a straight line. One of my students, Arthur Hull, has achieved positive results and great success with this method, often in the corporate world, where he stresses a ‘teamwork’ concept.
I met Pedro De Jesus in Santa Cruz around this time. Developing an interest in Santeria, I was initiated (‘made saint’) into the religion in 1988. Meanwhile, I studied Afro-Cuban rhythms and culture with a variety of teachers, including Rajinio Jimenez. During this era I contributed percussion on 25 albums spanning the musical spectrum, worked with Mickey Hart on recordings and projects and, while under contract to Narada Records, produced four of my own CD’s.
In 1995 I went to Cuba for a second time and studied bata and rumba; but this time in Matanzas, the cultural hotbed of traditional Afro-Cuban folk music.
Around 1996 I began formal West African djembe and dundun training when a new wave of percussionists, many my students’ students, entered my social sphere. They were friendly, knowledgeable and open-minded, unusual in the highly-competitive, macho drum scene. Initially suspicious of and hesitant toward them, I inevitably embraced them and have recorded, performed and fraternized with them ever since.
In Hawaii from 1999-2001 we created a beautiful little drum and dance community. We were able to invite many illustrious African teachers who remarked that Maui reminded them of home.
In the last ten years I have travelled to Puerto Rico, Brazil, Cuba and West Africa studying, documenting and sharing rhythms, music and songs.
I must conclude, after this ongoing privileged musical journey, that it’s not necessarily how good you play but the spirit you invest in what you do. Your intention and connection to your soul and the joy and enthusiasm you bring to The Circle are essential.