Baba Olatunji waved for everyone to stop playing

excerpt “History of the Groove, Drummer’s story” Russell Buddy Helm

© 2013 all rights reserved


Baba Olatunji, the great Nigerian drum prophet waved for everyone to stop playing their djembes in his seminar. He pointed down from the stage at me. “YOU!” He commanded in his deep African accented voice. “…Play over this!….” He started a traditional African pattern and I had no idea what it was called. But I knew it was in a four beat pattern and I could hear where the “one” was if they were counting, and I could hear where he was laying down the pretty cool accents, so I just went for it; no fear. His eyes lit up and he showed some surprise. I wasn’t playing weak copies of his licks. It was fresh for him. He stopped after a  moment, intrigued. “Play over this!!” He said with a higher level of challenge in his rich voice. He took off again, and his seventy year old hands flew like black bird wings and the sound was like a song from heaven. I just jumped in and messed with him. He started to grin. It was a big weathered white, wise smile that radiated the God in the man. After a few minutes of tearing it up he stopped, and he was actually having a good time for a change. Up to that point he had just been putting in his time; just another drumming workshop, this time at the Ashgrove on Santa Monica Pier. He had been letting his student teachers carry most of the teaching load. His hands were in bad shape, I could tell that. He played with mallets on tall Nigerian talking drums, no expression on his face. He might as well have been selling tokens on the IRT. But for some reason, he picked me out of the crowd of about two dozen earnest drum students.

He was perking up a little bit. “PLAY OVER THIS!!!” He said with that macho challenge I have seen in so many drummers. But with him there was also love there; he was not just a hustler, sexist drummer with an attitude, he was a teacher and the original prophet of the drum. This time the groove was in 6 beats; my favorite. We took off while everybody else just sat on their thumbs and listened. We were both laughing now. The club reverberated with the hot soothing flashes of djembe licks both traditional and unorthodox. I was throwing in some Philly sissy strut, Motown, Macon, New Orleans second line, Memphis, Chicago Shuffle. It had been a long time since I had been able to play with a real great player. We chewed the place up for a few minutes, broke a sweat. Then he realized he was supposed to be teaching so we stopped and grinned at each other. I could see that he could not see very well. But he knew what he heard and he liked it. Suddenly a women interrupted the moment. “Can we play something slower now?” she pleaded.

That offended Baba slightly. “THAT was NOT fast!.” He admonished her. “…THIS is fast…” He grined, gave me the nod and we took off on a two beat pattern. He set the tempo at about a hundred forty beats a minute. He flew, his hands spread wide, arms raised high in the traditional African style, hitting hard, despite the pain I could see it was registering in his arms and hands. I threw it back at him; staying close to the drumhead, jazz style, less muscle but getting just as much tone, not speeding up, putting on the Afro Cuban touch that I usually saved for the encore with Tim Buckley. He got very interested. He threw fours at me and I responded with a four, then back and forth again, trading fours faster than anyone could count. We were both laughing. This was what it was all about. Finally he backed off, and we stopped. The rest of my classmates were still sitting, watching, wondering what had just happened. He rose up, Aiyo, his LA Yoruba priest/student teacher standing by, not knowing what the master was up to. Baba came down off the stage and moved toward me. I stood up to bow, but he grabbed me by the shoulders and put his sweating black forehead against mine. “Where have you been?” I decided right then and there to distinguish myself from the cult of African wannabe’s. I whispered into Baba’s ear while he still embraced me. “My first drum teacher was a woman..” He stepped back, almost shocked, and threw his hands up in the air in a gesture of exasperation, even disgust, and yelled a bit too loudly, “I don’t want to hear it!” He walked away from me and climbed back onto the stage and proceeded with his workshop. I had done it again. I had said the most potently damaging thing I could have said. I eventually came to call it my ‘Psychic Asburger’s syndrome’.

He had large charts on an easel showing the words he had coined for the different notes on the djembe. It was very scholarly. Very intellectual. But as soon as the group started to play the part, they would start to speed up til it would turn into a train wreck. Then Baba would stop it and move on to the next drum pattern. He would sing the part, they would play it a few times then it would speed up and disintegrate into chaos. In my own workshops I had been using a tambourine on my foot to keep things steady. The high steady ‘chink, chink’ was understandable to our culture. I saw that he could not use that because he was teaching a very traditional method. I saw that for us, things had to be different; we needed some steady pulse to follow, otherwise our fears would drive us into a frenzy of speed drumming. We needed to relearn how to be constant in our hearts. The trance that would heal us needed to be steady, simple and relaxed. That was different than what Baba was teaching.

During the break, he sat with me and commiserated about the music business. “I made NO money off the albums I have done…”

“Not even, “Drums of Passion”? I asked. That was the first great introduction that America had to African drumming back in nineteen sixty four.

“No, nothing.” He said with some rancor. “…and Mickey…”Planet Drum”…nothing. He did not even thank me when he got a Grammy. And I SANG on it. He did not invite me to the awards….” He shook his head. Such a common story among so many talented, inspired musicians who changed the world with their songs. Only here was a holy man with his drum selling his own video cassettes of how to play like Baba Olatunji, the greatest African drummer in the world.  I decided that I would not be like this. I would find some other way to play and inspire and survive and thrive. I would not be a victim of the pernicious music business. I would have to create something different. I did not know what it was, but there must be something better. This was a great man’s story. They amputated one of his fingers several years later and he still kept playing because he had to.

I would have to be clever if I were to survive; I was not African so I would have to find a different way to play the Djembe.  First thing I would NOT do was play as hard as the African’s. I would play the djembe softly, with more subtle tones.  My fingers might survive that way.  I would not compete with anger or aggressiveness. I recalled my martial arts training back in Clearwater during my high school rock band days; ‘Those Five’ were a target; I was a longhaired musician. I was a bad example for the local draft board. Richard, the waterboy, told me to come to his dojo after I had a lunch time altercation with the defensive line.  “They have instructions to kill you.” He stated matter of factly. “Come to my dojo. Learn how to defend yourself.”

“What’s a dojo?” I asked him. “Karate School”. He taught me to be quiet inside, and fast, powerful and flexible on the outside. I would be more like….Bruce Lee.  I would not compete. I would play the djembe from the Tao. I would listen to how the women wanted to play. If they wanted to play slower, than that’s what I would try. I didn’t have a problem with women drummers. I saw that our drummer’s path in this cultural mix was different than the African style of drumming. We were much simpler and had a deeper trauma about our sense of rhythm. There was shame there, guilt and fear. It had less to do with ‘talent’ and more to do with  psychology. So I took what I could from the master Baba and went my own way. God bless Baba Olatunji.

exerpt “History of the Groove, Drummer’s story”

Russell Buddy Helm© 2013 all rights reserved

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