The following are excerpts from an interview I gave to ZAMAN newspaper shortly after I relocated to Istanbul in 2011. From 2010 - 2015 I was based in Istanbul and in addition to performing with fantastic Turkish musicians I was a professor of percussion at the State Conservatory of Music (İTÜ Devlet Konseratuarı)
When and how did you start getting involved in music? "I received a Mickey Mouse snare drum on my 2nd birthday from my parents. I played drums almost all of my life and was always interested in different cultures from around the world which has led me to develop myself musically as a percussionist as well as a drum set player. When I was young I grew up playing rock music, gradually moving into jazz and classical music. When I was eighteenI moved to Boston with a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music."
How did you realise you had talent in percussion? What does rhythm mean to you? "I never considered myself talented necessarily, music and drums was just something I always did and was a part of my life. When I was young I received many awards in state and regional drum competitions, which also gave me support for pursuing music as a career. Rhythm is not just something related to drumming and music. It exists everywhere in the universe, whether it be birds singing, rain drops falling, the beating of the heart, or the rising and setting of the sun everyday. My concepts of rhythm are to draw from my surroundings and express them musically with percussion or a rhythmic solfege (Solkattu). My book and DVD One by One explain more about my rhythmic training concepts. "
How did you decide to travel the world in search of music? "I have been always interested in history and culture, and I still love disappearing for weeks into a village somewhere to study traditional drumming. If I had not pursued a career in music I most likely would have become an Anthropologist/Archaeologist. The mixture of performing music and cultural research led me to the field of ethnomusicology and studying at the sources for the music I was interested in. One can learn a lot from a good teacher, however, even more can be learned from experiencing life in a different culture."
Which countries have you been to and lived in to date? "I was born in Iowa in the middle of the United States. Since then I have lived in Boston, New York City, & Los Angeles (USA), Toronto (Canada), Paris (France), Istanbul (Turkey), Barcelona (Spain), Frankfurt (Germany), Vienna & Innsbruck (Austria), Arnhem (Holland), Corfu (Greece). I’ve also spent time doing research in countries such as Morocco, Ghana, Mali, and Syria. "
How does your musical research in the countries you visit mirror in your music? "When I play I often reflect back to times when I was in such countries and draw upon the musical memory and feeling I had at the time. My teaching methods are as well derived from different disciplines such as South Indian Carnatic Music, Spanish Flamenco, and polyrhythmic concepts from north and west Africa. There are times when I play, that in one moment I am thinking like a jazz drummer and the next like I am back in Ghana playing a Sogo drum in a small village. Often I have to play cymbals with sticks with the finesse of playing the zils of a def (riqq), while my feet are playing with the feeling of the rhythmical swing from north Africa. The project Bacchanal with The Next Step Percussion Group represents my compositions that combine many different disciplines from my travels."
Which famous acts did you get to collaborate with to date? "I have performed with quite few well known jazz, world music, and contemporary music artists and ensembles such as Rabih Abou-Khalil, Joachim Kühn, Fahir Atakoğlu, Steve Reich, Ricardo Ribeiro, Michel Godard, Dusko Goykovich, Gabriele Mirabassi, Gevorg Dabagyan, Dave Bargeron, Antonio Hart, Howard Levy. As well I have performed as soloist with the BBC Orchestra, the Ensemble Modern, and the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra. However, I should say that I have really had great musical experiences with less famous musicians in their homes and villages. For example, some of my great memories are playing with musicians here in Istanbul in their living rooms with their families around, or playing for a wedding ceremony in Ghana with local musicians."
How did you decide to settle in Turkey? "I was always attracted to the music in Turkey. I lived here previously in 2001 for approximately 9 months. I was intent to settle here then, however my performance schedule in Europe and the United States was quite heavy and the travel situation became difficult for me. Now I intend to stay here permanently. Istanbul has always been a fantastic city for me to be living in. I always feel challenged and inspired when I am here."
In addition to Sezen Aksu, which musicians in Turkey did you collaborate with? "Mehmet Emin Bitmez, Bekir Ünlüataer, Kudsi Erguner, Derya Türkan, Erkan Oğur, Bilal Karaman, Faihr Atakoğlu, Murat Aydamir, Göksun Çavdar, Özer Arkun, Fatih Ahıskalı. "
What do you think about Turkish music? "I have always been interested in Turkish classical music (Osmani Müzik) and I really enjoy playing with instruments such as the Üd, Tambour, and Kanun. Turkish music feels quite natural for me to play and I have always had good relations with Turkish musicians. There are many elements, culturally and musicals, that can be traced farther east to India and as well to the west to Spain. For me, the music here is a fantastic mixture of different cultures with a strong folkloric and classical background. What I find also very important is that the people of Turkey love music in general, which is something important for me to be a part of."
Which musicians do you love listening to the most? "It really depends on what mood I’m in! I can listen some days to piano sonatas from Beethoven, and the next to classic rock bands from the United States or England. Generally speaking, I enjoy the most to hear traditional music recorded out in villages, not as a product for sale on the market. I have many field recordings I made in Ghana, Mali, and Morocco that I still listen to frequently for inspiration. Some of my favourite artists/bands are Oumoo Sangaree and Afel Bocoum (Mali), Ooleya Mint Amartichitt (Mauritania), Pat Metheny (US), Rush (Canada), Munir Bashir (Iraq), Necdet Yaşar (TR), Paco de Lucia (Spain), etc… Some of my favorite drum set players include Jack DeJohnette, Bill Stewart, Jamey Haddad, Mark Nauseef, and Neil Peart."
What do you think about Turkey and its people? "Turkey of course has its challenges, but that also be said for every country in the world. I am frequently asked, “What is your favourite country?”, and this is a question without a single answer for me. Every country and society has it good and bad points, if not there would be no diversity. What I find the most attractive about the people of Turkey is their musical heritage and their collective love for music as a society. I also find the landscape of the country beautiful and diverse, which is something also important to me."
Could you tell us about your own percussion and drum set technique? "The technique I use on the drum set and frame drums is really a mélange of different traditional/classical techniques that I have studied over the years. The basis for a lot of what I play theoretically is based on my rhythmic training from south India. I also work with a company in Austria called Eckermann Drums who design all of my drums for me personally. What I feel to be the most important is having a personal sound and unique way of playing. Since I am both a drummer and a percussionist, often times I am creating special sets with cymbals and mounted bendirs, or with drums from Africa mixed with Indian drums. Everything depends on the musical situation I am in. The set that I play for Sezen Aksu and Rabih Abou-Khalil for example, is a mixture between jazz drums, Brazilian drums, and Eckermann Drums. There are times when I will play a bendir in one hand, cymbals with the other, Brazilian caxixi with my left foot, and a bass drum with my right. The most important thing is creating the right mood and feeling for the other musicians and for the public. I’ve never considered myself as a soloist. Playing solos can be very lonely sometimes!"