Hamid Drake's Time:
An interview by Ken Vandermark with percussionist, Hamid Drake
Part One conducted June 12, 1997

(This interview originally appeared on the now defunct
Chicago Improvisors Coalition website.)

I find it really interesting that you've had long standing
relationships with people that, to me, are significant "fore-
fathers" for the music that we're playing now: Fred Anderson,
Don Cherry, and Peter Brotzmann. They're all really different
players, and I was just wondering if you felt that there was
some kind of connection between them in your mind, or was it
just a coincidental thing that you've played with the three
of them. Because part of what's interesting is that Fred has
devoted his life to doing stuff in Chicago, he's done some
concerts outside of it, but he's really spent most of his time
here playing, running clubs, and things. Don Cherry seemed very
devoted to traveling and incorporating music from all over the
world into his playing. Peter Brotzmann has done a lot of
traveling and has a very distinctive personality that he's
brought to other places, incorporating other kinds of musicians
like the stuff you've done with Maqmud. So I was just wondering
if you thought that there was anything that you found to be
tying these people together, or if there were any other thoughts
you had about it.

The thing about Fred, as far as him staying in Chicago, I know
a lot of it had to do with raising his three sons. The family and
the house and stuff like that, that was one of the main reasons
I'm pretty sure that he stayed. Also, I think Fred felt like he
had a sense of purpose, in his own way, to keep stuff alive here.
Fred has always been like a school or institution in a sense. A
lot of musicians would always pass through his various bands and
it would be kind of like a training ground to get a deeper under-
standing of improvised music. I know that Fred was one of the
first people that I played with that I started to get that sense
and that understanding.

Don's very interesting because he's almost the opposite, his
family traveled with him when he would go on the road. His wife
Moki, and Nana Cherry, and Eagle Eye would travel with him to
different places because he felt that the music shouldn't be dis-
associated from family life. He made special efforts so that they
could go on a lot of his tours. Sometimes Moki would even play
with the various groups that Don had, she played tambora or maybe
percussion. He had a strong family sense too, just like Fred,
except it was the opposite: the family traveled with him.

Peter's stuff has been pretty independent, although I don't know
that much about his early years as far as his family was involved
with the music. But I think the thing that ties them all together
is their sense of dedication to playing this sort of music and
their really not putting a lot of concepts on the music. To me,
all three of them seem to be very open as far as what elements
might come into the music. I would say Don was probably the most,
for lack of a better way of putting it, "form based" in a sense,
where we were playing a lot of the traditional style that we call
Jazz. Don probably exemplified that a little bit more as far as
"changes" and all that stuff go, but at the same time he took the
music very far "out" too. Another thing that ties all three of
them together for me is that they all gave me ample opportunities
to explore various concepts of rhythm.

How would you differentiate the three because they're all very
different players? How would you describe playing with each in
terms of the difference in rhythmic approach?

Well, with Don's groups we would do a whole assortment of things.
Sometimes with him we might do reggae compositions, or we might
do compositions that were very African based. Because he was very
much into this instrument from Mali, the doussn' gouni. With the
doussn' gouni, when I would work with Don, I would also use the
tablas. That was a really great introduction for me, other than
Mandingo Griot Society, to implement the tablas and rhythmic
structures of the tablas onto that type of music. We might play
a Thelonious Monk composition, and of course a lot of Don's
compositions and a lot of Ornette's pieces. Don's compositions
always had the ability to go in a lot of different directions.
Whereas with Peter, for instance, we're doing spontaneous
composition in a sense. After going through that training with
Don and with Fred I felt like I was able to add those same
rhythmic elements, whether it's reggae or funk or just playing
more open, with Peter. And since it's just the two of us there's
really no constraints. With Fred, when I first started working
with him, my understanding of improvised music was very minimal.
So I would ask him, "Well, what should I do?" (laughs) And he'd
say, "Just do what you feel." At the time, when I first joined
Fred's group, one of his sons, Eugene, was playing drums too.
So I would kind of check him out and I saw that he was playing
very open.

What do you mean by open?

No definite time constraints, or time structures. No necessarily
steady pulse. And that's how I would approach it until Fred
introduced me to Ed Blackwell. In Fred's group we would always
do a piece where we'd play a head and the music could go in
whatever direction. It's very interesting, I've never heard
Blackwell play any sort of music where he wasn't playing a pulse,
but the lesson I got from him was that I could try to play the
melodic structure on the drums the same way that the horn players
were doing it. So I would try and phrase the head how they were
phrasing it, and then go in whatever direction myself and the
bass player would try and go. That was an incredible lesson in
rhythm that Ed really taught me. Though he didn't actually say I
should do this, this is what I got from him. That was a good
training ground for me to start understanding rhythm from another
perspective. Now with Fred or Peter I just play what I want to
play, in a sense. Fred doesn't really put any constraints on me.
After we play a head, if I feel that I want to play some swing or
something like that then I do it. And if I feel that maybe this
is more of a "Latin-ish" kind of thing I do that. Or if it's more
open or there's no definite pulse, then I'll do that. And he's
open enough to say, "Okay, that's the direction we're going to go
in." With Peter it's more of a self-generating kind of thing with
everything being built from the ground up. It's very organic in
that sense.

You mentioned Ed Blackwell as being a big influence. I definitely
hear some of his playing in your playing, like the use of the
cowbell in a really beautiful way. I've also noticed when we've
talked at other times that you mentioned Jo Jones, and there's
that thing that you've been working on with the hi-hat. They're
definitely coming from very different time periods and places as
players. What it is it about them, or other drummers, that's
inspired you to come up with your own very individual approach
to the drums? I think that when people hear you that's one of the
strongest elements of your playing: it's distinctively you.
Clearly you've had these influences, but you've adapted them and
taken from them things that you find inspiring. What about them
has been particularly interesting?

Well, those drummers have definitely been inspiring to me. But
I think what's been the most inspiring is the people that I work
with, and people that I've had the opportunity to work with,
because that's a real, live situation. I would listen to
Blackwell, and listen to Jo and Philly Joe and drummers like
that and they would give me the impetus to really want to
practice more. And then of course I would listen to their ideas
and I would think, "Wow, maybe I could use that in some sort of
setting." I think they were very unique rhythmic stylists in
their own way: Blackwell, with his studying of the Ghanaian and
Moroccan rhythms and incorporating it into this very strict
form. Because I think of him as primarily a swing-like drummer,
and that's a very strict form, in a sense. His ability to find
a way to incorporate those elements on top of that was very
inspiring and made me attempt to do that too. And Jo Jones,
I mean he was just so smooth, very rhythmic, but he had this
type of smoothness to him. He also had an understanding of all
the drumming styles that came before him. So that concept
inspired me to investigate other forms of drumming because
he had checked out the things that had come before him.

A lot of the inspiration has come from the people that I work
with because each person brings something different to the
music and because of that I want to be in a space where I can
respond to that and not be stuck in simply my own thing and
just say, "Well, this is how I'm going to play all the time."
Responding differently to each person that I perform with is
the thing that continually teaches me. But also, my influences
have been drummers from other traditions too.

I was actually going to ask you about that because a huge part
of your playing is with the hand drums. You mentioned a while
ago, I was asking about the tabla, and you talked about the
different people that you had studied with. One thing that you
said was that the traditional or classical players on that
instrument aren't very open to letting go of the traditional
structures or forms. Many times when I hear hand drums in an
"improvised context" they seem grafted on or they feel kind of
artificial in a way. With your hand drum playing it seems like
you've taken these traditional ideas and techniques and you're
just as open with those things as you would be on the trap set,
it's just a different instrument that you're working with.
Do you look at it that way?

I feel that it's very natural for those drummers, to a certain
extent, not to be that open. Part of it is just exposure, maybe
they just haven't had the quality of exposure that we've had
living here. Also, I think a lot of it has to do with language
and if a person has the inspiration to increase their vocabulary
they will. Those particular drummers from those other traditions
that might not be that open, perhaps they haven't had the
inspiration to increase their vocabulary through other means
outside of their tradition. I think that's kind of natural
because, with the study of tabla for instance, it can be so all
consuming that you spend a lifetime doing that and not doing
anything else. Because there's so many different schools of
tabla playing and there's so much to learn on that instrument.
For myself, I had to stop listening to Indian music for a little
while because it was just consuming me too much, it was closing
me in almost. Their system of rhythm is very strict you always
have to be so conscious of "time" all the time. From my
experience there is no, what we might call "(free) improvised
playing" in Indian music. Even when a tabla player might do a
solo, he's soloing within a certain time structure. If it's 16
beats he has to make sure that everything he plays always comes
back to the "one". If it's 8 beats or 13 or 15 or 7, whatever
it might be, it always has to work out that way. He just can't
free float over the rhythm and maybe sometimes come back to the
"one" or sometimes not. It always has to be that way and
supposedly the mark of excellence of a really good tabla player
in that tradition is how well a person can do that. So that
music is so huge in and of its own self, I can see how a lot of
these musicians would somewhat develop a sense of arrogance
about their music as compared to other forms because they're
conditioned to hearing a certain thing and when they don't hear
that in other forms of music it just doesn't make sense to them.
Unless they've been fortunate enough to be opened up to some
other things, like Zakir Hussein for instance, a great tabla
player. He spent a great portion of his life in America and in
the Bay Area. I think his father, Alla Rakha, brought him here
when he was sixteen. Being young at the time and also being
exposed in that environment to all these different things,
I think he found it to be really incredible. Now his father,
for instance, was like the opposite. I also find that sometimes
with some of the African drummers too, there's a willingness on
their part for you to come over to "their side", but there's
not always a willingness for them to come over to "your side".
It's partly the attitude they have about their music and their
culture and the type of training that they went through.

I try not to have any sort of bias towards any form because
I want to be able to utilize each one to whatever degree that
I can. Because I believe that all form arises from the same
place anyway. The Buddists call it "Emptiness", this "Open
Space", or "Essence". People tap into the Essence and then
they filter it through their own process, and because our
processes might be various we come up with systems known as
Jazz, or systems known as Blues, or Rock 'n Roll or Indian
music, whatever it might be. I look at all those forms coming
from one place, one central Essence which is an Open Space,
and we just have to tap into that. Depending on our cond-
itioning, what's going to come through us is a particular
style. I feel that once we understand that it's coming from
the Essence then we can go into any style or be style-less,
in a sense, and just be open to whatever the moment might
present to us musically. So I'll take the Indian patterns
and the North African patterns and the African patterns and
I won't try and graft them on top of a form that we might do
with DKV, but just see how the principles of that music merge
with the principles with what we're dealing with. So if we're
playing something very open, I'm not going try and play some
type of Dogomba rhythm or Mandingo rhythm on top of that,
but I'll take the technique that I learned from that style
of drumming and utilize it in such a way where it flows with
what we're doing. We're products of a very unique time. We're
saturated with a lot of stuff and a lot of information, and I
think it's up to us to go through the process of refinement
and just to see how well we can use the information that
we've been given.

That's something that to me is consistent with the way
musicians have worked before us too. It's just that now it
seems like there's so much stuff, but if you were in New York
when Ellington was playing the Cotton Club there were all
these different immigrant musicians. For the first time people
were hearing Latin music and Klezmer, all these things- Boom!
in the city at one time. Recordings weren't as big a deal,
live music was a more vibrant, regular experience at that
time. I think that musicians were dealing with similar things.
When I listen to Duke Ellington's music and go through the
years, I hear someone who was extremely open to all different
kinds of influences. You talk about tapping into a common,
fundamental "Space". I think that all kinds of music, or any
kind of creative expression really, they all come from that
Space. Because I know that I can hear a great Blues tune or
I can hear something by Beethoven and they will get me to a
similar space, in a very different way. I don't listen to
Beethoven expecting to hear Hound Dog Taylor, but there's
that ecstasy or that power of communication.

They're all tapped into that creative process.

Yeah. So I think there is a real commonality between all
different kinds of expression, and I think Jazz musicians
are as guilty of a closed minded attitude as anybody.

To me, the real tradition is just what you said. People like
Duke Ellington and other great composers, whatever form
they're coming from, have had the ability to continue to move
and not stay stuck in just a particular stylistic class-
ification. And to me that's what the great tradition of Jazz
or any music really is. It's the continuum, it's motion, it's
always moving. And maybe there are some people that need to be
there to quote-unquote "preserve a particular style", but I
don't think that that's what those that we've classified as
innovators did. They didn't just stand still, they kept moving.

Going back to the individuals we started talking about, look
at Fred. He's almost 70 now, and it's amazing to me how open
he is. He's one of the most open minded people I've ever met.
His music is still changing and growing, and he's still going
further. As a younger player it's totally exciting to see that
because it really makes you realize that it is a life long
pursuit. I think there's something different about people from
sort of our "ballpark" generation because there's a huge range
of sources now to take from, or to utilize or explore. It makes
it kind of overwhelming at times, but when you feel like there's
no reason to not pursue that when you have as long as you're
given here to deal with it, and you don't have to stop and
decide, "Well, okay I'm 40 now, this is how I'm going to play."
Which seems to happen. So it's inspiring to see people like
Fred on a regular basis and realize that it doesn't need to be
that way and there's all this other stuff going on.

You've been involved in a lot of other kinds of playing, aside
from the improvised stuff. I have been too, actually almost all
the musicians I play with have done serious work with other
kinds of music for various reasons. How do you feel that stuff
ties to your playing in general and how it affects your more
improvised kind of playing? What kinds of music do you find
exciting to play that aren't considered to be "typical"
improvised music, or Jazz music?

It's interesting, because that's a question that I'm always
attempting to answer for myself. Sometimes I don't even know
(laughs). But I think, in general, each thing you've spent a
lot of time with kind of becomes a part of you. Like with the
Reggae for instance. I spent a long time on the path of Reggae,
and there was a period of time where I was doing it almost
nightly. So you kind of get into that mind space. And then with
Blues, as far as just drum set goes, playing standards and
stuff... I think what happens, for me, is that there's just like
a pool or a well with a lot of different information there. When
the inspiration or idea comes I'll just utilize it. I'm still
really trying to discover how this all fits together (laughter).
As far as being in the process of creative playing because I
never say, "Okay, now I'm going to do this Reggae thing." It
never happens like that. Like with the group DKV for instance,
if I hear Kent going in a certain direction and then if the
inspiration or the idea comes then okay [Hamid snaps], it's like
that. It's not a thought out process. "This might work, he's
going in that direction, so let me try this. Let me try this
Ska think or this Funk thing." Or if I hear a certain sound
coming from you or certain rhythmic patterns that might move me
to go in that direction. So, I don't know. In all honesty I
don't have an answer to that question yet.

Yeah, it's like doing something that moves you, you don't
always know why you're attracted to something, or to a person.
You know what I mean? There's a lot of mystery there.

Those forms of music, I know why I'm attracted to them, but as
far as why they might emerge if I'm playing one thing that may
be considered a certain style of music and then this other
style emerges within that... it goes back to language again.
We can draw on different musical languages while we're
performing, while we're playing, while we're in the creative
process. But each of those forms, you know they really touch
me in a very deep way, independently and together. I don't
have a lot to say on the initial question (laughter).

You've had a fair amount of recordings done. You've played
with lots and lots of different people, a huge range of
different kinds of musicians. Are there any recordings in
particular that are available that you think are represent-
ative of your playing? It doesn't matter what kind of music,
just things that you think are strong representations of your
playing in certain contexts, or certain styles.

Well, I think for where I am right now, the recent DKV stuff
is a strong representation of where I'm at. Also, the duet CD
with Peter, Dried Rat Dog. I think some of the stuff we did
with Mandingo Griot Society, especially the first recording.
For me, when I listen to that, I get hints of the direction
that I was starting to look into with the African music. I
think the group was very open because two traditions were
kind of coming together: the traditional Mandingo music with
traditions from America, the Blues, Funk, and Jazz. I feel
that the most recent stuff, the stuff that just came out, the
stuff with Mats (Gustafsson), and DKV, and the stuff with Fred
(Anderson), on a certain level I think it shows what I'm
thinking about from a stylistic perspective of what I'm
trying to do.

It's always the most recent stuff it seems, for us (laughter).
Sometimes I get frustrated on the occasions when I've been
interviewed because there always seems to be things that I
never get to express or comment on, or it seems that they'll
ask me questions and then when it gets published important
things to me are left out or edited out. Is there anything
that you've thought about that's musically related, or
improvisationally related, or percussion related, things that
are important to you as far as the process that you've gone
through to get to where you are now, that you think has been
overlooked or that you really haven't had a chance to discuss
at all? Because I know with Kent (Kessler), in off handed
times I've talked to him, he's mentioned how it's very rare
to get someone to talk to a bass player and a drummer about
how they deal with "time".

That's never talked about.

Is there anything like that kind of subject that you think
has been overlooked?

I think, for instance, how percussionists might relate to
each other. I've had a partner in crime ever since age 14,
it's been my friend Adam Rudolph. We've been playing together
since then and working on a lot of different concepts for all
these years. I've never really seen anything in print about
how percussionists or drummers might relate to each other on
an artistic level: Us talking about Our language, in a sense.
You always see a lot of things about guitar players and horn
players and things like that, but the drum, I think in our
culture, has always been like a secondary sort of instrument.
We've been put in the position really of being "timekeepers"
until recently. There's been a few people, drummers who have
led their own groups, like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Buddy Rich,
and Shelly Manne, he had his own group for a little while,
and of course Elvin, he's always had his own groups after
Trane. They've been able to explore their ideas, but they've
been kind of unique beings in a way. Still, that discussion
doesn't seem to take the same sort of prominence as the
relationships with other instruments. I think that it would
be interesting to be hear how drummers or percussionists
relate to each other because we've also been put in this
position where we've been kind of pitted against each other.
Other than things like Latin music, for instance, where you
have maybe a guy playing drum set and a guy playing congas or
something and they each have a distinct role and they know
how to function together within that. In the Jazz setting it
hasn't been that well developed because you'll always hear
drummers saying that the percussionist was kind of in my way
or something like that. Or the percussionist has been
relegated to just "colors": bells, triangles, and all that
kind of stuff. I think very seldom do the other musicians
move over to the rhythmic language of the percussionists.
We're always moving to their language.

It's interesting that you mention that because in trying
to deal with your playing and all of the things that are
going on in it, I've had to listen to a lot of African
hand drum music. That's the thing that, for me, is
actually the most interesting element of music: the
rhythmic aspect. Because what it comes down to is rhythmic
expression. You hear this in all the great players and the
phrasing that they have whether they're horn players or
drummers , piano players, whatever. They'll play sounds or
pitches, even the "classic" straight ahead players like
Hawkins or Charlie Parker, that are just flat out "out".
But the way that they integrate that into a phrase, the
way they stop on a note, or extend it and all of those
things: it works and that's rhythm. It's also the shape
and the direction of the sounds and pitches, but it totally
comes out of rhythm for me. It's been very interesting to
listen to hand drum music because sometimes it's easier to
identify rhythmic phrasing when it's on one drum since it's
reduced. I've always been fond of drummers that are very
interested in the snare, on trap set, as being kind of the
core of the kit. Listening to hand drum stuff has also made
me listen to a lot of African vocal music which is something
that has, because of my own lack of understanding and my
ignorance really, showed me how rich that music is. Because
the way they integrate these very complex rhythms with
singing, and the phrasing in the singing, has really opened
up a lot of ideas for me just in how to deal with that one
aspect of some of the stuff that we do. Maybe I'm wrong
because I don't know, I haven't studied it really directly,
but a lot of the rhythmic phrasing of the vocal lines is
coming, to me, out of the percussion. It is being built up
out of these sounds and the qualities of the sounds that
they're using, and the overlapping, playing back and forth
of patterns against each other really seem very tied to
the percussive work that happens.

Because everybody plays the drums.

Drummers in the "Jazz" tradition have built up much of
their phrasing from horn players, but it hasn't gone the
other way that much. My favorite players tend to be people
like Sonny Rollins who are rhythmically unbelievable
players, or Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman... The
rhythmic phrasing is so tied to what the drummers are doing.
It's not the drummer being the Time Keeper. Listening to
music that is really very rhythmically based you find there
is a whole set of vocabulary and language and stylistic
qualities that come out of things that are suited to the
drum, that aren't necessarily suited to a saxophone, things
that would really build the language of the saxophone.

I think when Charlie Parker was living and he was doing
that music with people like Klook, and the young Roy Haynes,
and then the stuff with Max, that was really revolutionary.
But I think that the tradition that's called "Bop" now is
not like that stuff that they were doing. They were, woo man,
they were pushing way beyond.

One of the breakthroughs was a rhythmic breakthrough.

It was a rhythmic breakthrough, definitely. And there
was this interplay, you're right, always going on I think
with all the musicians, but the drummer wasn't put over
there as a Time Keeper. I think that revolution continued,
but in another way, later on with people like Ornette
opening up the rhythm. Of course people like Sunny Murray
came along, and Albert Ayler, and the whole AACM thing.

Yusef Lateef did something really interesting. He put out
two recordings in the '80's. One was called Yusef Lateef In
Nigeria, then the other is Hikma, which I think is a limited
edition. I think he really made an attempt, because he spent
a couple of years there teaching in Northern Nigeria, to
really study the drums. Then he did these recordings out of
that study and investigation. To hear him play... they'll be
doing these rhythms and he'll play like a blues or something.
It doesn't sound corny or cliched or anything, and then maybe
he'll do these honks and stuff and then go in a whole other
direction. It seems like there was really a communication
happening. He got in there and really understood their
language and it seems like they made an attempt to understand
his language to some degree too, even though they were playing
still a lot of traditional rhythms. He really studied the
language that these guys used and knew where they were coming
from. Then, combined with just his own experience, I think he
came up with something really, for that time, really incredible.