Rhythm is as essential to music as the heartbeat is essential to life. That powerful sentiment was one of the deeper themes explored at the recent Learning Live clinic presented by the Council for Living Music at Local 802.
“The Rhythm Business: How Success is a Process and Accessible to All” tackled a variety of subjects from drumming and percussion performance to the business of music to the cultural influences of rhythm. Bashiri Johnson, the world-renowned percussionist, recording artist, producer and educator, led the clinic, which was focused on how to achieve success in the music business while still staying true to your art.
One of the most visible and recorded percussionists on the planet, Johnson has performed and recorded with some of the most high-profile artists in the business, including Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Sting, Beyonce, Madonna, Aretha Franklin and many more. Bashiri is also a committed educator who teaches privately, and in the classroom, where he educates the next generation of drummers.
Johnson presented an informed and enlightening clinic about the principles of rhythm and its subtle complexities, punctuated with personal anecdotes of his many experiences with the top jazz and pop artists of the last few decades. Joined by a group of internationally acclaimed artists, the clinic delved into the cultural and clinical significance of the drum and percussion world as well as how to incorporate tried-and-true strategies and work habits to be successful.
Also on hand was Katreese Barnes, the two-time Emmy winning, Grammy-nominated pianist, producer and composer. Barnes has played saxophone for Sting, composed for Roberta Flack and Chaka Khan and served as music director on Saturday Night Live.
Another panelist was Cameroonian bassist Francis Mbappe, who has worked with Herbie Hancock, Man Dibango, Fela Kuti, Ashanti Tokoto and Ernesto Djedje. Mbappe is a successful producer, arranger and composer who brings together musicians of different origins, educations and backgrounds in an attempt to unify people through acts of artistic expression.
Rounding out the group of musicians was Anjali, a talented professional singer and harmonium player who uses her music for humanitarian work. Although she was born and raised in Brooklyn, Anjali comes from a long line of musicians from Guyana. Her sound merges vibes from India, Latin America, the Caribbean and American soul.
Finally, David Weiss, an internationally published journalist, served as MC for the event. Weiss, an authority on technology and culture, is co-founder of the leading media company Sonicscoop. He is also founder of DLB Media, a strategy and PR firm that works with clients on branding and marketing.
The diverse audience of students, professionals and the general public was treated to a variety of sounds and rhythms spanning pop, African music, world trance and pure rhythmic soundscapes. First on the set list was a performance of “Wandawe,” an Afro-pop piece that featured the vocal stylings of Anjali and also included bass and percussion solos.
Getting directly to the heart of the matter, Weiss posed the question, “How do you define rhythm?” Johnson’s answer was multi-layered: “It’s all about the flow, and how we embrace that flow – even in adversity. I’ve learned not to fight what comes at me. Even in a recording session, I try to embrace any anxiety or edginess that might occur and work with that rather than against it. It’s about groove, the key element that makes you get up and dance.”
Johnson addressed the basics of what it means to be a professional. He told the audience, “First and foremost, remember your rig is your temple” – meaning that your instruments and setup are paramount – and “this is where you’re going to shine.” Next, he spoke about being professional and how important it is to be friendly and open. Johnson put it plainly, “Be real! By projecting a positive attitude, others will want to work with you.”
Questions were posed to the other musicians on stage about what they look for in a great drummer. Barnes chooses drummers who don’t rush and who understand the feel. Anjali looks for someone who can instinctively connect with the music on a deep level, maintain a steady tempo and give of themselves with no distractions.
Bassist Mbappe prefers working with drummers and percussionists who “play in the middle of the time.” Johnson’s eyes lit up when he heard this. “The middle of the beat is a great description,” Johnson affirmed. “The middle is not the top of the beat or behind the beat. It’s a very specific place to be.”
A discussion ensued about the many different cultural influences of rhythm, mostly associated with dance rhythms. Expounding on that premise, Johnson explained how rhythms convey the essence of a culture, including the people and their society, and how rhythms demonstrate how influenced and interconnected we all are.
In conclusion, Johnson summed up his philosophy: “The role of the drummer and percussionist is to keep everything moving, flowing in the same way we must keep breathing and our heart must continue to beat in order to live. Rhythm is in our pores. It’s in us and all around us. It’s in our life and death cycles. If music heals, then we are all healers in our own ways. That healing power of rhythm is built into our everyday lives. It is part of everything we are.”
The Learning Live clinic was presented with funding from the New York City Council. For more information, see www.local802afm.org/council-for-living-music.