John Densmore gently critiqued my right hand cymbal technique


Francis Echinard, the French blues guitarist/Savate champion, referred me to his sifu, Guro Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee’s partner, who wanted a drum teacher. This resulted in a great Martial Arts drumming CD, “No 2nd Chance”. Francis invited me to a jam in a West LA rehearsal studio. John Densmore, the drummer with the Doors, set up his drumset next to mine on the stage. Playing with two drum set drummers is one of those ultimate trips. The Allman Brothers made it an institution but the tradition goes back to Otis Redding, James Brown, and pretty much all the great rhythm and blues acts. Two drumsets going at it, in time, perfect synch with both drummers who are matched in style and drive, makes the song so much more powerful. We all had a great blues jam. Afterwards John mentioned that my right hand was hitting the ride cymbal hard compared to his immaculate light jazz technique. I had adopted that technique playing big arenas with Tim Buckley, filling the space with excitement. Earlier in my career, Bethlehem Asylum opened for the original Allman brothers quite a lot and I had to sound as strong as two drummers, so I had to be a whole percussion section in one. Playing in Miami I needed to cover the Afro Cuban rhythms on a conventional drumset so I played the bell of my ride cymbal, the round nippled center, with the butt end of my drumstick, making it sound like a large cowbell in a salsa orchestra. But John’s subtle jazz technique was something to behold. I didn’t mention Miami to John. The last time he played there with the Doors, the police shut them down, arresting Jim for supposedly pulling out his thingie on stage- which he did not do. The conservative Miami city fathers had their excuse to shut down the freaks and their ungodly music, which made it somewhat difficult for my psychedelic, revolutionary, folk, rock, jazz quintet, Bethlehem Asylum, to perform. We were allowed to only sit on the stage and not perform with the poet Allen Ginsberg. That show got shut down too. But this evolutionary force of nature, The Groove, will not be denied. John started talking about his passion; djembes. This was very early on, about 1989, and no one really was on to djembes yet. “I want a really good djembe to include with my kit. Can you get me one?” He had seen our store of handmade exotic gifts and suspected that we could source djembes to Santa Monica. “What is a really good djembe?” This casual remark set me off on a search to find out what a really GOOD djembe was. But the Universal Groove Energy was not working in a casual way when this remark was uttered by one of the greatest drummers of the sixties. I paid attention. This evolutionary rhythmic force insists on flowing where there has been no rhythmic flow. It is water replenishing the human soul when it least expects help or hope. The next gift show, I accompanied Cathy downtown LA to the huge sprawling convention center and marveled at the incredible diversity of resources for all sorts of arts, crafts, jewelry, hand made carvings and exotic musical instruments, directly from their sources. I met Jumoke, Cathy’s friend from Ghana. Her booth, Out of Africa, held a mixture of tribal gift items that seemed more authentic and precious than the other vendors. There was a metal xylofone painted funky red. I used the mallets that were made out of old truck tires on sticks. It sounded great. I started to understand the Yoruba scale. Suddenly a young male African vendor showed up as I was getting a groove going. He had on a very stylish hat and nice African suit. He grabbed the mallets out of my hands and huffed. “I show you how to play that thing!” He then proceeded to bang on the xylofone even though it was obvious he did not know how to play a musical instrument of any kind. But he preened to all the other African vendors who seemed a bit embarrassed at his insult to a possible customer. Jumoke leaned over regally, her hair tied high in an orange Kintay cloth head wrap and matching orange floor length gown that perfectly fit her tall, slim figure. She smoothly pulled the mallets up out of the vendor’s offending hands and said quietly but with a great deal of authority. “No.” She handed the truck tire mallets back to me and said, “Much nicer…” I proceeded to go back to playing the xylofone and ignored the event. This was what I was looking for; a source for real high quality African instruments. “Do you have any really good djembes?” She nodded with queenly consent. “Yes. We do.” She turned her torso as if it were on a floating pedestal, fluid, rhythmic, graceful. I fell in love. She pointed at a djembe sitting at the back of her booth. “Can I play it?” I asked respectfully. These articles in her booth had a special aura to them. She seemed above the fray of commercial business. She nodded graciously. “Yes. You may.” She spoke with a slight crisp British school accent. I sat on a folding chair in her booth, in this colossal convention center as hordes of retail business owners prowled back and forth looking for items to sell in their gift stores all across the US. This was the World Series of gift store conventions. There was a roaring rumble of sound; deals being made, vendors pitching items, discussing pros and cons of exotic creations from across the globe, celebrating closing of the deals. I hit the djembe in the exact center of the goatskin head and the room went silent – at least in my head. I found the core tone of this drum. It’s voice. I played what I knew; rhythm patterns based on the tradition I grew up in; Rhythm and Blues. I settled into an easy shuffle with a nice back beat the way we did it Down South to get the girls to dance. It always worked. I learned how to play a blues shuffle from the greats. But that had been on the drumset, and it was difficult to get it right. It could turn cold if you didn’t stay back in the pocket. But on the djembe it was totally easy. This is where it originated. All those classic rock gold records are based on the blues shuffle. Playing a blues shuffle on the djembe was like coming home for me, even though I didn’t know what being home really felt like. I looked up and saw all kinds of people standing, listening, smiling and moving to the groove. This gift, the positive effect drumming has on people had not happened with me for many years. This was a return to my well of inspiration that could feed my soul. Suddenly a big African drummer approached urgently. I could tell he was a good drummer by the easy, powerful way he carried himself. Stopping abruptly when seeing where the sound was coming from, he stood at a close but respectful distance eyeing me with intense curiosity. He nodded with respect to Jumoke who was making sure there were no more critics around to interrupt. “Do you play traditional African?” He said to me in a deep sincere voice that spoke of authority on the African drum. “I can. But I don’t remember all the names.” I smiled. “I’m classically trained and my head is already too full of names.” He nodded understandingly. “But you play with such heart, man.” He said with a trace of amazement and even respect, placing his calloused hand over his heart in acknowledgement. I felt a mix of emotions. I had found my place. My gifts were recognized. “Heart?” I responded. “Heart I got…We can agree on that.”

excerpt: “History of the Groove” Russell Buddy Helm ©2015 all rights reserved

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  • Syndria Mecham You have the best stories !!! I have your martial arts drumming cd…one of my favorites. Thanks for your live streaming ….love it here in RI.
    7 hrs · Unlike · 1
  • Danny Finley Ah… .The Bethlehem Asylum shuffle. Six eight overlying four four. Om pah dippi Dah oom pah Dah… Served us well….
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  •  Water replenishing the Human Soul – flowing from me a rhythmic force where there had been no rhythmic flow. This is what I found in the little shop on Montana SEASONS with the Sacred Djembes from Ghana and the Sacred Master BUDDY. I owe it all to you. Remembering that first day with gratitude and serendipity.


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