Interview: Hamid Drake - the resonance of a feeling

Interview: Hamid Drake - the resonance of a feeling

August 12, 2015

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Dragoș Rusu

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Nickelsdorf connection

Hamid Drake is an American jazz drummer and percussionist, living in Chicago, but spending a great deal of time touring worldwide. Hamid was widely regarded as one of the best percussionists in jazz and avant improvised music, incorporating Afro-Cuban, Indian, and African percussion instruments and influence.

We had the great chance to meet Hamid Drake in the basement of Jazzgalerie in Nickelsdorf, during this year's edition of Konfrontationen festival.

Here's an in depth interview with one of the most versatile drummers in the world, but of all things, a deeply inspirational human being.


As an introduction, please tell us a few words about your connection with Nickelsdorf and with Hans.

Hamid Drake: I met Hans long time ago. The first time I met him when I played in Nickelsdorf in 1979. It was in this room [the basement of Jazzgalerie], with saxophone player Fred Anderson, trumpet player Billy Brimfield and bass player Steve Palmore. So our connection goes back many, many years. A few years later, I played at the festival itself. I would say Hans and I are pretty good friends. And also with the people, over the years a strong relationship has developed with anybody.

Coming to Nickelsdorf is really like a strong family gather; for me it felt that way since the very beginning. For Austria itself and for the music in general, Hans has been a real keystone. He has brought a lot of different types of music, a lot of diverse music to this festival. The festival itself is really multidimensional; I think Hans really needs to be complimented for that.

What do you think kept this festival for so many years, not only alive, but also in a continuously development?

HD: I would say that probably the first thing is the love of the music, you know? This is probably the prime thing, but then also, Hans had a lot of good people that worked with him and also I think he’s been fortunate that he’s been able to get some type of government assistance and stuff like that. In the United States is very different. This particular type of music doesn’t always get that type of financial assistance. Hans’ love for the music, and also the people around him and their love for the music; also the musicians have kept pushing him, probably, and the people who have been coming to the festival all these years. I think it’s a combination of all those things, all those elements who have contributed to keep this festival going.

Musicians are affected by the audience just as much as audiences are affected by the musicians. The only problem is that often times musicians won’t allow themselves to admit to that fact.
Hamid Drake
Hamid Drake

A circle of energies

What are you working on right now?

HD: Right now I am working on my first solo project. I’ve been waiting…I felt I needed to have something to say. A lot of people do solo projects and I think that’s good, but I’ve always felt that it wasn’t the right time for me; also I’ve been so busy with a lot of other projects too. I’ve been asked quite a few times to do solo recordings, but I always said ‘no, I’ll wait’. But now I feel it’s ok.

I’ve done a lot of solo concerts, but never put out a solo recording. I did a solo concert in Italy on June 12, it was a festival called Terraforma, to brink more consciousness on our Mother Earth. I did a solo concert two years ago in Sardinia, one in Chicago, before coming, so I did a lot of solo concerts. I do that, but as far as putting out my own solo recording, and when I do that it will be not just drum set, but a lot of different percussive things too and probably some over dubbing also, with multiple things going on.

Do you try to begin a solo with an empty mind?

HD: Hahaha, to have an empty mind, that’s the hardest state to attempt to.

Did it ever happen?

HD: Yes, it happened.

Do you need to work yourself into that state?

HD: Well, I think it has to be spontaneous, because once, if you say you have an empty mind and you don’t have an empty mind, you only know later that you have an empty mind. Because if you say you have empty mind, you don’t have empty mind, because you’re already thinking about it.

There’s always a little bit of control there, and the idea is to get rid of that.

HD: Exactly. And it’s a spontaneous occurrence, you know? You can’t conceptualize your way to that place because conception itself means mental activity. A conception is a thought. So if you’re in that state, when you say you have empty mind, is gone. You only realize after that there was a moment where the mind was still. Because you can go back and realize that the mind was still. But you can’t say your mind is still and…and… being in a still mind… (laughs). Because there are two things happening. I think anybody, at some point, experiences that empty state. It’s not something that is extraordinary or uncommon. But when you’re in it, you don’t know you’re in it. And it has to occur spontaneously; you can’t force it.

You can do things to help still the mind. I do a daily meditating practice, but before I play though, normally what happens to me is that I always get this feeling of - like - butterflies in the stomach. In the beginning it used to worry me, because I felt that other musicians never experienced that, and I was the only musician that was experiencing this feeling. Only because musicians usually never talk about it. But then, I found this book by a psychologist named Rollo May, the book was called ’The Courage to Create’; because it does take a certain type of courage to create. And he talked about this thing…he said that it’s the body itself, in a biochemical way, preparing itself for the process of creativity. And anyone who does any creative endeavor normally experiences that. So now, when I don’t have that feeling before I play, that’s when I worry. I think it’s good never to feel too overly confident, because if you do, you don’t allow yourself to experience the possibility of happening something different or new. It’s good to keep a certain amount of humility and openness. For me it’s keeping a certain type of what I call a ‘’wonder-man in the universe’’. If I can maintain that, then my heart will have a possibility to remain open. The way I see it, this creative inspiration and potential really comes from the heart and if my heart is experiencing that, then I know there’s a possibility for me to be a vehicle or a vessel for others to experience that; from the heart.

For me, music right now is many things. One of the main things is a deep resonance of feeling. Of course, it goes along with intellectualism, conceptuality and all of that, but I think the main thing for me is the resonance of a feeling that comes from the heart.

Yes, we can feel that coming from you; hopefully, you can feel that too, coming from the public.

HD: Yes, I do. Because it’s a circle of energies. Essentially, this thing we call stage is an illusion.

Shall we get rid of the stage?

HD: Haha, well, at least of the concept of it. Often times we think that ‘ok, the musicians are doing something and they are affecting people out here.’ But I can see it from another perspective. I think there’s this energy, all this pervasive energy that’s happening. People - in what we call the audience - are experiencing it and those that we call musicians on the stage - they’re experiencing it. And we are creating it together, because it’s all pervasive, so they can’t be just musicians doing it. Musicians are affected by the audience just as much as audiences are affected by the musicians. The only problem is that often times musicians won’t allow themselves to admit to that fact.

Peter Brötzmann said pretty much the same thing. I think it was something regarding solos, because he also isn’t that type of musician that did solos, he’s always playing with other musicians.

HD: Yes, he talks a lot about that. That’s the reality, it is a circle of energies that’s happening and we assist and help each other.

Hamid Drake
Hamid Drake


Is it hard to keep going on with music today, with making music in order to be happy and all around that?

HD: Hmm, when you say music today… to me, it’s really not that different than other times, you know? I think it always had its challenges. And yes, it can be hard sometimes when you’re trying to make your living playing music and it also can be hard emotionally, because artists in general, often times want to make a change in the world.

‘’We thought we could change the world’’...

HD: Yeah, that’s right. Brötzmann …I think people that have empathy feel that in general. And then we see all those different things happening and sometimes they can cause us to loose our inspiration. When something goes up, it has to come down; I think this is the same with our emotional being too - if it goes down, eventually is going to come back up.

It’s hard; I won’t say that it’s not. But at the same time, there is this joy that you experience even from the difficulties sometimes too, because they make you stronger. I mean I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else right now. I feel very grateful and fortunate that I can do this music and be with other artists who feel the same and who are working very hard to continue this creative process and to bring it to wherever we have a good fortune to bring it.

I’m listening interviews with William Parker, I’m reading interviews with Peter Brötzmann and then I’m hearing you now, so… it’s no surprise that you have the trio together.

HD: It’s interesting, because in fact it was Peter who brought William and I together, with the group Die Like A Dog. William and I, we’d know of each other, but we have never played together. William met Peter, and Peter brought this group together, so it was through Peter that William and I met. It’s a family. Peter and I, we’ve been playing together since 1997. That was our first concert in Chicago.

*photo credits: Uli Templin

Hamid Drake
Hamid Drake

The Wisdom of Insecurity

You’ve been around for so much time and you’ve played with so many musicians, also in Europe. Do you feel that playing a lot also with European musicians, it kind of changed something in the way you are playing music today?

HD: That’s interesting, because someone else asked me that question. It’s yes and no. There would be just like playing with Japanese musicians or Chinese musicians or Croat musicians, or musicians from Jakarta or something like that. When I play with American musicians, let’s say, we have a similar background in history. And there are some American musicians that have a deeper history with, than other American musicians. There are a lot of things that play into that. When I started doing improvise music in Europe, in the beginning I thought the way that Europeans were interpreting the reconstruction of deconstruction of this thing that we call jazz - of course it’s different than what Americans do, because Europeans have a different history, a different sensibility and so forth - the nature of the creative process itself it’s the same; but what comes from that creative process is different, because you have a different history, you have a different society, different language. Even in a sincere way, your language forces you to hear things differently, so when you hear differently, maybe you’ll interpret it differently on your instrument. That was in the beginning.

But now, after growing a little bit, for me it’s not so much anymore European musicians or American musicians, or anything like that. It’s just being able to be with people that are involved in the creative process. Later on, you begin to respect the differences; for instance, Pasquale Mirra - whom I will play later with - definitely came up playing music in - let’s say - the jazz tradition, but him being from Italy, of course his interpretation is different. I didn’t grow up in the jazz tradition. I grew up in the funk, rock and roll, blues and r&b tradition, and I came to this thing we call jazz later. And I came to improvise music from the standpoint of jazz; I was improvising, but within these other genres of music. At first, when I came into what we call improvise music from the jazz tradition, I wasn’t really sure how to approach it. And I am quite sure that there are many European musicians who have gone through the same thing, you know?

When I started working with Fred Anderson, who I happen to have known all my life, he gave me some pointers; when he first asked me to join his group, I wasn’t really sure about how to approach, but he gave me some pointers which really helped me out a lot. The place that I found where European musicians and American musicians come together is that odd middle world which is called uncertainty.

That’s the beauty and the challenge.

HD: Yeah, that’s the challenge. Because if you’re truly playing improvised music, I don’t care who you are or where you come from, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel essentially we really don’t know anything anyway, most of the times we’re just guessing.

It’s good to not have certainties. Don’t believe anything.

HD: Unless you’re experiencing it. Let it happen. Most of the times, we’re afraid to let it happen, with good reason, because unless you’re accustomed to uncertainty, you feel unbalanced; most of the times you don’t want to be in that place. But that’s the womb of creative potential. That’s the place where stuff happens and germinates.

So do you think that, in a way, safety destroys the creativity? Safety, as in knowing what’s next.

HD: We’re conditioned and taught to think and feel that if you know what’s coming next, that’s safety. You’re in a good place. But the only thing is that life itself doesn’t move like that. We improvise everyday, it’s a natural thing, but we’ve put it on this pedestal and we’ve made it like a hard thing to get at, but it’s not. It’s natural to people, I feel, in general.

Alan W. Watts wrote a book called ‘’The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message For An Age of Anxiety’’ (and Pema Chödrön - a Buddhist teacher from Canada - wrote something similar too - 'The Wisdom of No Escape'). That’s something to think about. What is wisdom of insecurity? What makes insecurity wise?

How many times do you feel insecure on stage?

HD: Since now I don’t fear insecurity, I would say I feel that most of the times, because now insecurity for me is not a negative. But insecurity though doesn’t prevent me from motion; it doesn’t prevent me from doing stuff. It allows me to be open. It’s one of those words we kind of turned it in negative. What it really means it’s just being open to the moment. And when you’re open to the moment you don’t know what’s going to happen.

So what are you doing to get in the moment?

HD: First of all, we have to acknowledge that there is a moment, you know? And things happen moment by moment. Like when I play with people, one of the first rules is to listen. Just by the near fact that you listen and you’re open to listening, or you’re listening and you’re open to what this other person is doing. Also you going to be open to hat you’re doing and you’re not going to have it like ‘planned out’. So I think sometimes you have to wait. And it might not be something that is going to happen right in that moment. It might happen as you’re playing. It’s probably different to each person; I don’t know there’s a recipe for it.

Hamid Drake
Hamid Drake


Can you tell us some important lessons that you’ve learned from working and playing with other musicians?

HD: One of my greatest lessons was with Don Cherry. I worked with him for quite some time. It was a concert in Paris - one of the first concerts I did with Don - with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, myself, another percussionist called Adam Rudolph, another percussionist called Trilok Gurtu and this French saxophone player called Doudou Gouirand. It was right after living with Don in Sweden for five months. So we were playing this song, a composition, I was doing the rhythm and Don told us that the way we’re going to end it was that he was going to repeat – this thing that they have in Indian music called 'tihai' - it’s a phrase that you repeat three times and then you have the one that you stop. And the phrase was ‘’ta ti ta, ta ti ta, da digidi tun, da digidi tun, da digidi tun, ta ti ta, ta ti ta, da digidi tun, da digidi tun, da digidi tun, ta ti ta, ta ti ta, da digidi tun, da digidi tun, da digidi tun! And that was it; it stops. And I was playing the rhythm, really into it, and so Don starts playing, he sings the rhythm (‘ta ti da, …) and after that, the whole band stops except me. I was still playing. And then I realize that I was the only one still playing. So Don brings the group back in and we do it again and then we stop. And so, after that, at the end of concert, Don walks up to me and says ‘Yeah, Hamid, that’s beautiful man, I see you like to go in a trance sometimes. But it’s also good to listen’. That was all he said. When that happened, I became terrified, because I realized ‘wow, the whole group stopped and I was the only person that didn’t stop'; and you could tell it was a mistake on my part, you know? It wasn’t like ‘ok, I was doing this creative thing’. That was a big lesson for me.

I learned a lot of things from Fred Anderson also, like how to approach drumming in a very melodic way, he turned me into that. The first group I was in with Fred it was Fred Anderson, myself, George Lewis, another saxophone played called Douglas Ewart, electric bass player Felix Blackman. And Fred was playing these compositions and I didn’t really know at the time how to really approach it. What he did was, he had me listen to Ed Blackwell, who became my favorite drummer and also one of my friends. So Fred said ‘listen to Ed Blackwell, because when he’s playing with Ornette Coleman, he would play the melody that the group was playing it, on the drums’. He always approached playing the front portion of the composition as though the drums were also like a melodic instrument. And that opened a whole door of possibilities for me. So that was a big lesson that Fred gave me.

I feel that I’m continually learning all the time. Many lessons. One of the biggest was that situation with Don Cherry, because that really taught me the importance of listening, of being conscious of what’s happening around you. You can go as deeply into what you do as you want, but also be conscious of what’s all around you. So that allowed me to know a little bit more about the science of improvising and playing with other musicians; that there is something skillful behind it. And it takes time to grow into that, you have to let go of a lot of things, you have to let go of certain aspects of what you might think is your identity; you always come into a thing like you know it all, sometimes.

When I played earlier with Sylvia Bruckner, her first tones just stroked deep chords in me. In the beginning, maybe for 30 seconds, I was waiting to hear where she was going to go. But she kind of stayed. She manifests the feminine energy in a very strong way.

Do you think that she feels that she must do it, or that it’s natural?

HD: It’s natural.

Masculine and feminine

I often - still - get this feeling that women need to struggle ten times more than a man.

HD: You do have to struggle ten times more. It’s set up that way. You have to do the most stupid and unnatural thing there is and you have to be like men. Why? You are not a man, so why be like a man? Although you can, you do have masculine traits, but it’s not about being a man, you know? There’s masculinity and there’s femininity. And femininity doesn’t always relate to being a woman and masculinity doesn’t always relate to being a man; it’s a quality of being-ness. Women have to portray the quality of masculinity; society wants it to be like a man; not necessarily male, but like a man. If that makes sense…In nature itself, there’s yin and yang, there’s masculine and feminine.

We should give a shout out to Elizabeth Warren, because she’s one of the few politicians who doesn’t look and doesn’t act like a man, with that kind of brutality; like Merkel.

HD: Yeah, I agree. I think when we start to understand what masculinity and femininity is, then men won’t fear so much the feminine side coming out. And the masculine side for women coming out won’t be such a burden, in a way. Just be ourselves. We have those complementary aspects of ourselves. In some of the iconography from India there is a statue of Shiva and Shakti; it’s like one body, but one half is male, the other half is female, and they’re working like a whole. I feel that humanity matures more and we start to know who we are in the real sense, and it will develop more and more.

The concept of androgyny.

HD: You’re right. We are there. To me, now it’s kind of a done deal. I am happy that in the States they legalize the gay marriage.

What do you think of it?

HD: I think it took too long. It’s a done deal, why fight it? It’s not like a new concept or something. It’s a done deal, so now let’s work of some other things that we really need to work on. Let’s think about global warming and feeding, people in the world that are starving, let’s put an end to these wars and conflicts and stuff like that. Why waste our time with something like this? It’s just going to keep happening anyway, so just face up to the facts that ‘ok, this is what’s happening’. And if there is a problem with it, the only problem is how I see it, you know? It’s not like it’s something wrong with the thing itself. I think people have to look up at their own concepts about it. And the idea of the whole androgynous has been around as long as these other concepts too, it’s not new.

Changing the world

I’m thinking about Coltrane’s tours from the ‘60s, when he was very political. When I’m watching news I’m so terrified, I feel hopeless. I’m thinking how can we come together and help each other? Is music enough or how could we use the music (should we use the music?)

HD: I don’t think music itself is enough, no. Everything has to contribute to it: all the arts and human being. But at the same time it’s like we’ve gone though other times like these too and they say it’s always right before the sunrise, when the sun comes out, you know - there is that period of time when it’s the darkest part of the night - and I think that’s what humanity is experiencing now. The world is going to change, whether we like it or not. We can participate in that change or we can be the victims of that change. In a way. Either we go in our stupidity ignorance, and arrogance, bring more destruction in a way, or we’re forced to change.

Like history showed us. We waited until the last moment when it was already too late, mostly. And then we switched over.

HD: Now, with the arts and all those things, human being having more empathy for other human being, we can contribute to the benefit of the humanity. Personally I don’t feel any of it is hopeless, but I do feel that all these different things that are happening in the world today should serve the purpose of making us more aware and making us really want to do something beneficial for the world. On one level is good that we see those things, because really, we have no room now for apathy, to be apathetic. We can’t, because that would make us not do anything. So how do we keep the sense of hope alive? Sometimes it’s just little tiny things. Little instances of compassion. Even walking down the street and smiling at someone. These little things, which can become big. But we all have to play our part and everybody has to play their part in the best way that they possibly can. Some people are going to appear really huge and big in what they do, and other people might appear smaller, but it’s all equally important. The planet belongs to all being; all beings are responsible. We all have to do whatever we can do no matter how small it is; nothing is too small.

There has to be another type of solution even to our economic problems. One of the reasons I think we have huge economic problems is because we have a huge problem of greed. Maybe we’ll have to start thinking about a spiritual solution to our economic greed and part of that spiritual solution would be….in today’s world, all these countries have to take care of each other. And that’s one of the ways in which music can be an example. Showing the diversity.

Why is it so difficult? Why are we in such economic adversity, when all the resources are there, for the whole planet? We have enough resources; also we don’t have to destroy the planet. But that’s going to take time, we have to make small steps.

(Hans enters the room, carrying a double bass)

Hans: Hamid, the sun is rising in the east!

Hamid: It is rising in the east, brother! People can learn from Hans, he’s a world traveller. I’m trying to convince him to write two books: one about the history of this festival and his collaborations with all these great artists.

Hans: I’m too tired for this..

Hamid: All he needs is a ghost writer, all he has to do is talk: 1, 2, 3, talk! And also the book about his personal stories with musicians.

Hans: No no no

Hamid: That might make a lot of people upset, but that would be a million seller! It will upset some folks…(laughing) But he wants to be the invisible man.

Too late for that, Hans.

Hamid: I feel the same way, I want to be like the empty cloud, you know, a passing cloud. You want to be the invisible man, I want to be that too. You can be the invisible man, that’s why you need a ghost writer. But I think it’s too late for you to be invisible, brother (laughing). You missed this opportunity long time ago.


*special thanks to Riccarda Kato // Kato Bookbird
**photo credits - Bogdan Edi Dumitriu

About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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