Ginger Baker as Shaman Drummer

The recent documentary, “Beware Mr. Baker” on Ginger Baker was illuminating for anyone curious about what it takes to be a rock star drummer. He was the first. He was also arguably the first drummer to depart from the mainstream of rock and delve into the more shamanistic music of Africa. He played drums with Fela Kuti in Nigeria before anyone knew who Fela was. That footage alone is worth the price of admission. But Ginger, possibly the most famous of all the rock drummer legends, had a discerning sensibility about what he was willing to do with his life. Obstreperous, outspoken to a fault and a consummate banger, he willed into being the most innovative trio; Cream. Sadly, drummers do not get royalties for good ideas, unless they are either a lyric, or a melody.The pull of the drum on drummers is inexorable and unfettered by morality. The drum drives the drummer. Ginger was awesomely dangerous to witness live. We would bet on when he would drop dead. He looked like a skull with wild red hair and played like a banshee on psychedelics. He redefined what a drummer should play, particularly in the song, “Sunshine of your Love”; instead of hitting a backbeat which is the tradition in rock and roll, meaning that you hit the snare drum on the ‘two’ beat and the ‘four beat’, he smacked the drums on the downbeats; on ‘one’ and ‘three’ which turned that song into a neanderthal opus of carnal ferociticity. This seemingly minor change in drumming styles rendered previous rock n roll drumming obsolete in the span of the song’s running time. On the car radio we became aware of the environmental rhythms that matched that unrelenting beat; pile drivers pounding concrete pillars for freeways matched Ginger’s beat. But he was true to his first love which was African drumming. When no one would play with him anymore he went to Nigeria and played with Fela Kuti’s big band. This is not an instance where the African drummers were tolerating a white man hitting the drums. They were playing together and it was great. He lost favor with that group too, but in the process he opened up the avenue for drummers to expand out of their conventional roll as timekeeper behind crooners into the shamanic realm where drumming has always been a large part of consciousness work. Ginger Baker is not an easy morsel to swallow but the fire in his gut still burns. He was the first and may well be the last of that era to forge new rhythmic roads into the expanding realms of rhythmic enlightenment.

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