The Queen of Elfland’s Drummer

by Daniel A. Rabuzzi

“Movement forms the basis of all values…Mankind is ruled by a longing [Sehnsucht] to free ourselves from earthly bonds, to lift ourselves buoyantly by swimming and flying, free ourselves with propulsive motion [Schwung]. …which triumphs over gravity. Let me wield [schwingen] especially widely the powers that overcome Earth’s hold upon us….”

—Paul Klee, Kunst-Lehre (c. 1920) [trans. Daniel A. Rabuzzi]

“It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing).”

—Duke Ellington & Irving Mills (1931).

Music is a compass and pass-key to Faerie. We keep an ear cocked hoping to catch the notes of “a far distant post-horn across the silent, starlit land” as von Eichendorff put it…sometimes we are fortunate, most times we are not. Still, we persevere, seeking ever the chords to both express and guide our Sehnsucht. The kind of music is irrelevant–any and all kinds can take one beyond the fields we know (music of whatever sort poorly played is, of course, another matter altogether). Many conveyances, the same destination…

For instance, I am transported–as many others are–by Loreena McKennitt, Kate Bush, Enya, Stevie Nicks, Maddy Prior, Annie Haslam, Bjork, P.J. Harvey, Toni Childs, Tori Amos. Elegiac, ethereal, haunting…Titania’s choir summoning the Queen of Elfland out of the hill, calling Hecate down from the moon. With the same effect, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Ellen Kushner sing and Sonya Taaffe as well. Along similar lines: have you seen the S.J. Tucker/Cat Valente video promoting the latter’s novel Palimpsest?

But stronger for me is the spell set by drums, drums and the pulse of the bass. Give me not a Piper but a Drummer at the Gates of Dawn–that‘s truly deep magic. Tolkien’s elves sang but Smith of Wootton Major danced with the Queen of Faerie: “…and for a while he knew what it was to have the swiftness and the power and the joy to accompany her. For a while.”

I imagine they danced to rhythms like those in the videos I have selected below: fierce, moody, exuberant, contemplative, restless, insistent. In-breath, out-breath, diastolic, systolic. The stroke of the drumstick, the stroke of the bassist’s hand, is the stroke of the wing as we seek to free ourselves from the grip of Old Earth… “bright the hawk’s flight/on the empty sky” as they chant in Earthsea. Like the flight also of Bede’s sparrow in the mead-hall of the king, a quick but joyous burst of rhythm between two walls of night.

‘¢ “We are a part of the rhythm nation.”

‘¢ “Funky Kingston!”

‘¢ “Come on, vogue/ Let your body move to the music.”

‘¢ “You know you’re my saving grace/ I can feel your halo, halo, halo…”

‘¢ “I’m singin’ in the rain/ Just singin’ in the rain.”

And so on and so forth, leading us over the weathered stile, down the hidden path, a boreen that opens onto the greensward, upon which drums the drummer smiling… “Come,” she says… and your feet obey…

In no particular order, some personal favorites that lead me (and I hope you) to that place:

Stanley Clarke’s Night School, “The Big Jam.” Two bassists: Clarke plus Flea. Three drummers: Sheila E, Stewart Copeland, Rayford Griffin. A Muscle Shoals-style horn section. Karen Briggs on the violin.

“Certain notes or chords don’t inspire me so much as to what someone does with those notes. That is the core of what we are trying to do as musicians. The notes and the chords are secondary. The spirit and the feeling have to be there in order to make it really pleasurable for someone else.” Stanley Clarke interviewed by Ernest Barteldes, at BMI/MusicWorld (2009).

Herbie Hancock & The Headhunters, “Hang Up Your Hang-Ups.”

“One night on a certain tour in mid-1972 we played a club in Seattle, Washington. It was a Friday night and the club was packed. We were all exhausted…. But we could feel the energy in the air’”these people were really into this far out kind of music. They were ready for it. I asked the band to play “Toys,” a song that I’d never called to play, which starts with a bass solo’”acoustic bass, which is the softest instrument in the band by its very nature. Un-amplified bass.

So the bassist Buster Williams starts playing this introduction. And what came out of him was something I’d never heard before. And not only had I not heard it from him, I’d never heard it from anybody. It was just pure beauty and ideas and’”it was magical. Magical. And people were freaking out, it was so incredible what he was playing.

I let him play for a long time, maybe 10, 15 minutes. He just came up with idea after idea, so full of inspiration. And then I could feel myself waking up just before we really came in with the melody for the song. And I could tell that the whole band woke up, and there was some energy that was generating from Buster. We played the set and it was like magic. When we finished, many people ran up to the front of the stage and reached up their hands to shake ours. Some of them were crying they were so moved by the music. The music was very spiritual, too.” Herbie Hancock, interviewed by Valerie Reiss on (2007).

Cindy Blackman (leader of her own quartet, also drummer for Lenny Kravitz).

“I want to take the drums in music to upper heights; I want to push somewhere else where a new voice is coming. I want to change things around. I want to create.” Cindy Blackman interviewed by Rumeysa Ozel in Today’s Zaman (2007).

Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussein, Giovanni Hidalgo, Sikiru Adepoj, & Jonah Sharp (together, The Global Drum Project).

“…changing spirit into form…” (Hart). “…you feel completely new…that’s magical…” (Hidalgo).

Afro Celt Sound System, featuring Sinead O’Connor, “Release.”

Weather Report, “Nubian Sundance.”
Founded by Josef Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, with Alphonso Johnson on bass, Ishmael Wilburn and Skip Hadden on drums.

“In every culture, there are a handful of really outstanding storytellers. That’s what it is all about’”music is nothing else. Music not a bunch of notes and chords. Music is storytelling.” Joe Zawinul interviewed by Anil Prasad, at Innerviews: Music without Borders (1997).

Jan Garbarek & Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, “Raga I.”

“The rhythm is really that’s where it all comes from in the end. So any melody should be shaped by the rhythm. I feel if I have a good rhythm, which I find interesting and comfortable and that flows nicely, a melody will come very easily, you know. …. That’s what triggers my creativity, is to have a good rhythm.” Jan Garbarek, interviewed by ECM Records personnel, posted on (no date, but c. 2005–?).

Angelique Kidjo, Talvin Singh & Nile Rodgers, an impromptu jam on French television.
[I heard Kidjo at Lincoln Center in NYC, and Singh at Summerstage in Central Park, NYC.]

“[‘˜Lemanja’] is a song that I wrote with Carlinos Brown and dedicate to Lemanja, the goddess of the sea, asking her to join us for the party, bring us her wisdom and her loving. We need that. We never can have enough of that, right? So if she’s our mother, mother of party, mother of love, and mother of peace, it’s time for her to show up because we need that definitely now. Come quick.” Angelique Kidjo, interviewed by Sean Barlow in (2002).

“When I’m playing the tabla I’m playing the poetry of the drums, which is the language – the Sanskrit – but I’m hearing everything and applying notes that fit in. […] … it’s a language and an attitude and a disciplined way of thinking.” Talvin Singh, interviewed by Will Hodgkinson, in The Guardian (2001).

Manu Katche, “Number One.”

Oregon, “1,000 Kilometers.”
[I heard them perform this at Iridium Jazz Club in NYC.]

“…when I was 13. I had a really amazing experience. I was playing some Bach suites, which were originally for violin. They’re complete onto themselves. I had a version of them for clarinet. So, I was just sitting in this beautiful echo-y room, playing these Bach suites, and I kind of had this strange experience that I wasn’t really playing. It just was going, and I was more or less a participant. I was not just sitting there moving my fingers up and down — something sort of came through me, in a way, and I found myself losing self-consciousness and kind of moving into […]. It was a magical experience that I looked forward to repeating when I could.” Paul McCandless of Oregon, interviewed on Digital Interviews (2003).

Anoushkar Shankar & Karsh Kale, “Abyss.”

“…I think that ‘letting go’ is the key phrase for being able to trust that when you put your hands on the instrument, something’s going to happen. It could work for a second, and you’ll hit a wrong note the 2nd second, but you just have to trust that you know it and that it’s going to be there without you thinking about it. […] … the second I start to think about it and plan it, maybe I’m back on the earth again. But as long as you’re letting go, you can trust that it’s going to be there.” Shankar interviewed by dimm summer at (2005).

Midival Punditz, featuring Karsh Kale, “Naina Laagey.”

Joshua Redman, Brian Blade, Brad Mehldau, & Christian McBride, “Echoes.”
[I saw Blade and McBridge with Nicholas Payton at Luther College.]

“I start working on a song by myself on guitar, but it doesn’t really gel until I hear the band play it. That’s when I get wrapped up in it emotionally. Writing feeds every other element of my music–my drumming gets better. Also it helps me to play other people’s music. Writing is an abstract concept to me. I can’t say ahead of time I’m going to do it. I have to be ready to feel the inspiration–say an experience is manifesting itself.” Brian Blade, interviewed by Craig Jolley for All About Jazz (2000).

Billy Cobham, “drum solo.”
[I saw Cobham at the Cutting Room in NYC.]

“…if you play softly and intensely, its more likely you will play longer than if you played loudly and intensely. Most importantly it has to have meaning. When you play intensely you play with emotions, when you speak you speak with emotions. So if you play the way you speak, you’re expressing emotion and that translates to the music.” Billy Cobham, interviewed by Jerome Marcus on (n.d., c. 2003?)

Missy Elliot – Annie Lennox, mash-up of “Music Makes You Lose Control” with “Sweet Emotion.”

As Lennox says: “sisters are doing it for themselves.” Aretha, Tina, Chaka, Queen Latifah, Madonna, Pink, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, Janet, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera, Brittany, and Lady Gaga…another Court for Titania…Diana’s huntresses…

Christian Scott, featuring Thomas Pridgen, “Rewind That.”

Paul Motian Quintet, “How Deep is the Ocean?.”

“Sounds turn me on. […] … the sound of the drums, my drums especially… The sound will turn me on to something, which will turn me on to something else, and it’ll grow into something worthwhile. I hope.” Motian interviewed by Paul Olsen in All About Jazz (2006).

Tiit Kikas, “String Theory.”

Will Calhoun, “Amara.”

Vijay Iyer Trio, “Galang.” [Their version of the M.I.A. song.]

“I listen…for a certain narrativity in the music, a sense that it came to us from somewhere, along some interesting and arduous path’”audible traces of an authentic life on earth.” Iyer, “Uncertainty Principles,” in All About Jazz NY (2007).

Branford Marsalis Quartet, “Yes and No.”

Yellowjackets, “Man Facing North.”

“Most of the tunes came out of just improvising. Nothing was written or worked out. Either the drums started or else there was an idea for a riff. We jammed for a while, played back the tapes and then went back and wrote music around the best improvisations. Sometimes when you turn on the tape the most creative things come up.” Saxphonist Marc Russo of the Yellowjackets, interviewed by Kent Zimmerman in The Gavin Report (1988).

McCoy Tyner, “Fly with the Wind.”

“For me, all music is a journey of the soul into new, uncharted territory.” McCoy Tyner, on Journey of the Soul: The McCoy Tyner Discography (n.d.).

Eberhard Weber, “Silent Feet.”
[I saw Weber at Jonathan’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts]

“We [jammed] for half an hour, very beautiful and spontaneous music. Everybody enjoyed it like crazy. After one half hour, it was over, and I thanked the guys and left the stage. They couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t close their mouths, because it was so beautiful, and they wanted to continue, but I said no. I said, ‘˜I stopped now, because it was so nice. If we continue, we will start to repeat ourselves.’ We had used all of our spontaneous ideas. That describes me the best. I cannot consider myself to be a typical jazz musician, and I am not classical, I am whatever. I am just a musician, whatever that is.” Eberhard Weber, interviewed by Joe Montague on Jazz Review (n.d., c. 2007).

Avishai Cohen Trio, “Remembering.”

Momo Djender & Rhani Krija, with Klaus Doldinger, “live, untitled.”

Oran Etkin, Lionel Loueke, Makane Kouyate, & Joe Sanders, “live, untitled.”

[I saw Loueke live at the Jazz Standard, NYC].

Duduka de Fonseca Quintet, “Duduka da Fonseca Quintet @ Umbria Jazz Winter.”
[I saw de Fonseca at the Blue Note in NYC].

Steve Lehman Octet, “various.”

Dave Holland Quintet, “Lucky Seven (drum solo).”

David Bryne & Brian Eno, “The Jezebel Spirit.”
[A recently released bootleg version, with different underlying vocals from the version on the 1981 original album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.]

“The idea of making music from an imaginary culture was to give ourselves a set of restrictions and parameters within which to work. Otherwise, we might have just gone on all kinds of creative detours, some of which might have been interesting. But better we confine ourselves to something. Which kind of worked. At least it kept us within bounds for a while…” David Byrne, about the reissue of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in an interview by Chris Dahlen in Pitchfork (2006).

“…the past is a source of melancholy but I like melancholy and have never found it to be the same thing as moroseness or sadness. I’ve always enjoyed being melancholy, perhaps because that mood is very much a feature of the environment where I grew up. It’s a very bleak place and most visitors find it quite miserable. I don’t think it’s miserable but it’s definitely a sort of lost place in a lost time…” Brian Eno, “Voyages in Time & Perception” interview by Kristine McKenna in Musician magazine (1982).

The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter.”
[I saw the Stones in Oslo, Norway.]

A final personal note: the first 50 seconds of “Gimme Shelter” thread the path through the perilous realm, through the snares and veils on the marches of Faerie; the harmonica is the echo of shadows from over the hills; and Merry Clayton’s solo is some of the purest banshee wailing ever heard.

Please let us know what music transports you!