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Rhythm of the Journey

 
  Photos by Jimmy Katz

Will Calhoun has topped the charts with Living Colour and also played with jazz icons as well as African village masters in his lifelong exploration of the ancient art of drumming.

When I met with Will Calhoun '86 at MSR Studios on 48th Street in New York to interview him for this story, little did I know what memories the place held for the celebrated drummer. He spoke of taking countless trips from his home in the Bronx to Midtown Manhattan as a youth for jazz drum lessons with Horacee Arnold and to peruse the gear in the music stores that line both sides of 48th Street as he dreamt of a music career.

Known as Right Track during the 1980s, MSR studio was where Mick Jagger produced demos of "Glamour Boys" and "Which Way to America" for the up-and-coming hard-rock group Living Colour for whom Calhoun started drumming in 1986. On the strength of the Jagger-produced tracks, Epic Records signed the band and the demos ended up on the band's debut album, Vivid. The disc also contained the blockbuster hit "Cult of Personality." In 1988 the song and its accompanying video dominated radio and MTV, catapulting the disc to platinum status and netting the first of two GRAMMY Awards for the band. "Cult" has since entered the canon of all-time-great rock songs.

It's momentous when the paths of a seemingly foreordained group of musicians converge, the vibe is right, the chemistry strong, and the resultant music takes the world by storm. That happened after guitarist Vernon Reid assembled the lineup in 1986 that included Calhoun, vocalist Corey Glover, and bassist Muzz Skillings (who in 1992 was replaced by Doug Wimbish). The band began making a buzz in New York's underground rock scene at clubs such as CBGB's where Jagger heard them. Calhoun and company soon embarked on a crash course in the music business as the opening act for the Rolling Stones' 1989 Steel Wheels tour.

Calhoun recalls, "I didn't watch the [Stones'] shows or think about music for the first two weeks of the tour. I was just blown away watching the business cats. I couldn't believe how amazingly well that machine ran."

By the early 1990s, Living Colour had attained worldwide success. In addition to live and compilation CDs; the group had released four studio albums; in 1990 the group also won a second GRAMMY in the Best Hard Rock Performance category; and, before disbanding in 1995, it headlined its own world tours. Following the band's breakup, Calhoun took the opportunity to explore different musical avenues, including jazz, electronic percussion, and world music. He has recorded and performed with a wide range of artists, including rappers Mos Def, Run DMC, and Public Enemy; jazz legends Jack Dejohnette, Wayne Shorter, and Pharaoh Sanders; Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, songwriter and vocalist Lauryn Hill, and blues master B.B. King, to name just a few. He has released four solo albums to date, ranging from a disc of drum solos to a live jazz outing recorded at the Blue Note to the 2005 CD/DVD set entitled Native Lands. The latter features Calhoun on drum set, electronic percussion, loops, Nigerian Udu drum, ethnic flutes, and other instruments in a setting that embraces jazz, urban, trance, and world-music styles. Among the disc's spotlighted musicians are Pharaoh Sanders, Mos Def, Buster Williams, Stanley Jordan, Kevin Eubanks, Marcus Miller, Wallace Roney, and Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos.

Recently, Living Colour reunited. In 2009, the group made the new recording The Chair in the Doorway. The band is newly energized and touring once again. When we spoke, Calhoun was preparing to finish his new album recorded with traditional musicians in Mali. While they represent different realms, both projects continue Calhoun's amazing musical and spiritual journey that has found him playing in some of the world's great modern concert venues as well as in remote African, South American, and Australian villages studying the meaning and craft of the ancient art of drumming.

 

You grew up in New York. How significant was your environment in your development as a musician?

I'm a Bronx guy. Growing up there was interesting and a beautiful experience for me. There were a lot of great musicians in the Bronx. A lot of Latin cats would come out with their congas and timbales and play salsa music on Sundays at Orchard Beach. Steve Jordan - one of my favorite drummers - lived around the corner from me. He was playing on Saturday Night Live when he was still a teenager.

There was another drummer named Errol Bedward-whom we knew as "Pumpkin" who, in my opinion, single-handedly created the concept for hip-hop and rap. In the mid-seventies, he started playing with just a kick, snare, hi-hat, and cowbell to make loops. He was selling beats to record labels before that was in fashion. He was a visionary who died young. I remember him telling me when I was about 14 that hip-hop was going to change the world, and it did. He had a gift and when he played a beat, people just started dancing. Steve Gadd and Ralph MacDonald would stop by to visit him. So Steve Jordan and Pumpkin were two pillars for me as a drummer. Being able to stop by a garage and hear them practice or play records for me inspired me to want to study music and go further.

You're best known for playing rock, but you also have deep jazz roots. Where did that influence come in?

My father had a lot of bebop records. My favorite drummer is Elvin Jones. When I was young, I looked at jazz guys as magicians. I could never figure them out. They were cool, dressed cool, and did magical things with their instruments. I admired the jazz cats because of their artistic adventure and fearlessness in music. New York City was great for me to learn to be open-minded about music. I went to the [Village] Vanguard, CBGB's, the Bottom Line, and the Blue Note to hear jazz, punk, and rock. But I was always attracted to jazz the most. I still think that if you are a trained jazz musician, you have the jump on everyone else in terms of getting to another style of music faster.

From your years at Berklee, what stands out in your mind?

The environment was great for me in a lot of ways. It motivated me to find my own voice and decide who I wanted to be as a drummer rather than just become a clone of Steve Gadd or Terry Bozzio. It also gave me an introduction to people from other countries. My roommate was Japanese, and a guy down the hall was from Ireland. I'd tell them Steve Jordan was from my neighborhood, and they'd play me cassettes of musicians from theirs. It was a very interesting scenario that I don't think happens that much at other schools.

Berklee was about more than learning notes on the page. As students we learned from each other how to hustle, play clubs, and learn a beat from Haiti or a pentatonic scale from India. For me, that was priceless.

I switched my major from performance to MP&E because I felt I'd be OK with the drums and needed to learn something else. The rap thing was blowing up in New York, and I felt I should get some engineering chops. It was great for me to learn about recording and also be a drummer leading my own band. I started learning how to hear music, to play it, and to record it. Everything tied in before I ever worked with Living Colour or got signed to Columbia.

How did you come to join Living Colour?

I used to go out to hear a band in New York called Bush Rock with Kenwood Dennard [drums], Delmar Brown [keyboards], and Rael Wesley Grant [bass]. Everyone used to go out to hear them. I ran into Jaco Pastorius, who I had played with once, at a Bush Rock gig. He introduced me to Vernon Reid that night, saying we should get to know each other. Vernon later came up to me at an African street festival I was playing with Harry Belafonte in Brooklyn. We talked, and he gave me some music he was working on. Shortly after, I joined the band.

Because you were jazz oriented, was joining the band a stretch for you?

I told Vernon that if he wanted a rock drummer, he should probably call somebody else. I play rock music but don't consider myself a rock drummer. I play jazz but don't consider myself a jazz drummer. I told him I would play the music to the best of my ability, but I'd been influenced by Max [Roach] and Elvin [Jones], drum and bass, and hip-hop, and that would come out in the music. In the end, everyone in the band brought their influences in, from harmolodics to Caribbean, electronic, and underground music. That made the band very unique.

The journey from playing at CBGB's to "Cult of Personality" becoming a hit to receiving two GRAMMY Awards must have been quite a ride.

Yes, it was. As a drummer in New York playing with different groups, I didn't know what was going to take off. "Cult of Personality" was a song that came out of a conversation we had while setting up our gear one day. We were asking, "What makes people love Hitler and Martin Luther King? Is it the same energy even though the message is very different? Is the cult feeling the same if it includes both Gandhi and Stalin? Is it the message or the energy of what they feel for the person?" One thing led to another from the conversation to the guitar riff.

So, yes, it was a ride and kind of a shock. We were on the road working really hard in Europe trying to break that market. I was sleeping on my drum cases in the back of a van traveling between countries, while over here the song was selling 30,000 units a week. We were not there to receive the first GRAMMY. Mick Jagger accepted it for us while we were playing in Italian discos.

I thought it would take several records before people got Living Colour. I felt good that we had been honest about the music. When we cut the records, we didn't let anything go by. All the messages and samples needed to mean something to us. We wanted every beat and line to be a mantra. I think we handled ourselves really well - I certainly tried to keep myself grounded. I was young and wanted to keep my sense of organic music. I didn't want to just take the money and run. I tried to play jazz as much as possible and went out to jazz clubs a lot while we were touring.

  "The most important thing in life is to listen."

The band members share writing credits on many Living Colour songs. Has that helped the band members to feel more invested?

I think that's an important part of having a band - unless you've decided to have other people write songs for you. Berklee was helpful for me in learning about the business. That gave me another angle on things. In MP&E, we had exercises in writing contracts, booking sessions, and setting up budgets. That helped me to realize that the money isn't in the playing; it's in the writing of the songs. I got a greater appreciation for artists like Dolly Parton and Ashford & Simpson, who have a few hundred songs in their catalogs that are being performed and recorded.

You got the sole writing credit for the song "Pride."

Yeah, I wrote "Pride," "Nothingness," and a few more. Overall, the publishing thing has been great-especially now. "Cult of Personality" made it onto Guitar Hero III. I'm thrilled about the continued success of that song and the band.

The MP&E program gave me a look at the other side of the business aside from striving to become a great drummer. It was like having cold water thrown on me. Being a player is great, but when it's time to make the doughnuts for real, you've got to bake them over here. The doughnuts over there will get you hustling, get you into the gym and running around outside, but the ones over here are the "retirement doughnuts." Learn how to bake retirement doughnuts.

In 1995, when the band took a hiatus, it seems that you went back to your interests in jazz.

Right. I had fought a bit with the success of the band. I wanted to do more jazz playing, but when you're in a band and you have a record that's hot, you have to work. In 1995, Vernon was going through some things and wanted to pull the plug.

I got some really good calls, one for a Rod Stewart tour. I also heard that Phil Collins was auditioning. My gut was telling me to get a fat-paying gig for a year or two and then chill. I called friends who do those gigs all the time. They told me they highly recommended that work, but that it was also like a drug.

They said that once you get on it, you'll go from tour to tour, you can't get off. You might make a few million dollars and figure you'll build a studio, put in a pool and a sauna. But by the time you get to put your foot in that water, it will be time to go back out and earn more so you can maintain all that. You'll be away for 16 months, 25 months, or more. That's cool when you are 21 or 25; when you're 40, it's not so cool. Artistically and spiritually, those tours can eat up a lot of your life. I appreciated my friends telling me to be careful. I opted instead to start working on my own career.

Has your touring schedule made it a challenge to have a family life?

It's hard; touring is a life. Make no mistake, I really love being on the road. Even the stuff that can drive you crazy: like no heat in the hotel room or the bus getting a flat tire in the desert. But I love all aspects of it. For me, touring offers the most education and spiritual energy I've ever felt.

I love my family too. In starting a family, we had to find a way to make the two things work together. Now I can take some gigs and say no to others. Now with Skype, when I'm away and my eight-year-old son tells me he wants to see the drum set or how the stage looks, I can just turn the computer around and show him. He has maps, a globe, and my itinerary in his room, so he knows where I am.

Your solo projects reveal your fascination with African culture. Did you start exploring your African heritage as a kid?

Yeah, my dad was a naval officer. We had things around the house that he brought back from China, Singapore, and different parts of Africa. My favorite magazine as a child was National Geographic. I was completely attracted to stories about indigenous people who were sleeping on the ground, putting plates in their lips and bones in their ears. I felt connected to that and wanted to learn more. I wondered how there could be so many languages or different drum styles in a small area.

Right after Berklee, I worked with Harry Belafonte. A singer named Letta Mbulu was opening for him. I played with Letta, and it was the first time I'd played with African musicians. I talked with them about what was really going on in Africa, and it gave me a different perspective. These days when I give clinics, I talk about how James Brown's music changed around 1968 or '69 after he went to Nigeria. He came back and did a different thing. Some of the rhythms in his songs are Nigerian festive rhythms that are used for celebrating marriages, good hunting, or healthy babies - a lot of positive things. When you put on a James Brown record, everyone feels good and wants to dance. That's because those vibrations go back 1,000 years and were used for the same reasons: to make people feel good.

I love researching that energy of the Motherland and want to understand the inflections in what I am playing and the relationship between music and life. Once I made that connection, I wanted to research sounds that inspired me. I make field recordings and take photos to learn more to incorporate in the music I play with Living Colour, Pharaoh Sanders, or Wayne Shorter. It's from the same tapestry in a way.

"Learn how to bake retirement doughnuts."  

What prompted your decision to make your latest recording in Mali?

It started with Oumou Sangaré. She is a wonderful woman and a frighteningly good Malian singer. I have a lot of her records. I went to Mali and someone took me to her hotel, and there she was behind the bar serving drinks. After we were introduced, she asked me if I had a CD. I gave her a copy of my Native Lands CD, and she put it into the CD player. She heard the clay drum and freaked out. She asked if I had it with me, I told her I did, and she invited me to go to the studio with her the next day. That's how I got on her record. I later toured with her and got to work with some Malian musicians. That was an education in rhythm and time.

Later, I decided I wanted to go back and make a recording. I called Salif Keita, who is probably the biggest music star in Mali. He invited me to use his studio, and Oumou let me stay at her hotel. Cheikh Tdiane Seck, who is like a young Quincy Jones, is producing. He plays all of the Malian instruments and knows all the scales and beats. I hired him to get the musicians and oversee the project. It was the most amazing recording experience. I am very excited about what I have. I got some bonuses from musicians who just popped in and wanted to play or sing on a track.

It's not a jazz or rock album; it's Malian music that has my Bronx influences in it. I used some electronics, but it's a world-music record. I'm looking to complete it and get it mixed. This is something I've always wanted to do properly, and I'm very excited about it.

It must have been different to work in the studio over there rather than in New York.

I had to forget the New York hustle and get used to African time. Things happen there when they happen. I would book time, and the cats would show up three or four hours late. But they'd come in with their wife who'd made a big pile of food and their cousin who is a wicked tabla player. Then they would stay 12 hours if I wanted them to. One time the minister stopped by to invite me to a dinner somewhere, and it would have been considered rude to say I was too busy. A TV crew came by, and I had to shut the session down and go play on Malian TV. It's a different kind of love over there. I had to understand that something good would come from these things. Every time I was getting impatient because someone didn't show up, I'd just shut my mouth. When I waited, I got tenfold over what I originally wanted - every time. It was a beautiful experience.

Living Colour has a new CD out. It seems that the band gained such a toehold that your audience has stayed loyal through the years.

I hope that's so. We started writing again for Chair in the Doorway. I really love the record. The best songs for this time in our lives are on it. Our live shows have been killing as well, so all cylinders are firing again. The band's future is up to us. We can't just live off of "Cult of Personality." We have to continue to make great records. Whether they sell as much as Vivid is not the point. We have to continue to push ourselves.

Have you found that things have changed since the band first hit?

Yes, it's a challenge to get to the young people. When you want to communicate with an audience, you have to speak their language. We have to listen to younger rock bands, the tempos of their songs, how their guitars are tuned down. You have to be in the mix. In rap the audience is not really loyal. You can make a record, and everyone loves you. If the next one is not right, they hate you. In jazz the audience is loyal. You can make a great record like Kind of Blue or Giant Steps and tour for years after that.

We've seen young people at the shows and also our regular audience who are 35 to 55 years old. We're trying to merge that history. Some of the bridges have been blown up, and younger musicians now don't know about Chuck Berry or Hugh Masekela. Digital media creates a divide. Downloading singles and going to YouTube to watch things represents a different kind of connection than going to buy records or buy books. I don't want to sound like an old guy, but everything is fast now. Overall, the culture goes more for a quick grilled cheese rather than the steak dinner. But I believe in the youth; they are hungry for something, and we should deliver it. They are getting stuff from their community, but we have something to offer them. But we need to speak their language; we don't have to beat them over the head with history, age, and what you know.

Do you have a parting shot for our readers?

I would tell young people to keep an open mind about music, and don't be afraid to be yourself. When I was a kid and I heard Ornette Coleman, it was like listening to Earth Wind & Fire [EW&F]. They were two different types of music, but the freedom I found in listening to Ornette I also found in EW&F. My ears, soul, and spirit were open to both. The most important thing a musician can do is listen. Actually, the most important thing in life is to listen.